Weight training for endurance mountain biking
Strength training during the base training and pre-season phases can be an excellent way to develop cycling strength, power and endurance. It is particularly appropriate for experienced riders or regular riders who have competed for a couple of years as there is a lot of research that suggests it can really give you the edge when it comes to racing. It is less appropriate for those new to MTB and we wouldn’t recommend that you incorporate weight training to your programme at the moment unless it is something that you already do regularly.
Strength training is particularly good during the winter months and can be continued until the early season. Hard weight sessions beyond this time, however will leave you feeling too tired for your longer cycle rides and so can be reduced at this stage, allowing you to concentrate on cycling workouts instead. Remember that training is specific, so hours in the gym pumping weights are no substitute for regular rides in the hills when you are training for an endurance event such as the Chain Reaction Cycles MTB Marathon.
Studies have found positive gains in cycling endurance performance resulting from strength increases. Weight training can cause a delay in the onset of fatigue and also an ability to ride for longer at a higher intensity. Aerobic endurance does not improve with strength training – this is why you still need to get the miles in on your bike!
So what exercises should you do to improve your cycling ability? There are as many strength programmes as there are fitness instructors, personal trainers and cycling books. Knowing what exercises are best can be a bit of a minefield. An additional challenge is time – most people do not have huge amounts of spare time for the gym. So the idea is quality not quantity. Cyclists will not work out in the gym in the same way as a body builder does, as we are more concerned with function than shaping physique. The aim of strength training for mountain bikers is to improve the synchronisation of the cycling muscles so that you can apply a greater force through the pedals.
Basic rules of strength training for cyclists
• focus on the major cycling muscles – i.e. the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves. mountain biking is a whole body exercise, include some upper-body work, for when you have to lift/carry your bike.
• use exercises that move several joints at once (e.g. squats, leg press) as opposed to just single joint exercises (knee extensions.) This simulates the muscle activity of cycling more closely and works several muscles at once and so is time efficient.
• mimic the positions of cycling when possible – e.g. when doing the leg press, place your feet apart and parallel.
• always include exercises for your “core” – i.e. the abdominal muscles. When cycling, the force that you put through the pedals is transmitted through your core. If the muscles here are weak, a lot of the force you generate in your legs will be dissipated and lost. Weak abdominal muscles will lead to poor climbing ability.
• keep the number of exercises low: The idea is to spend as little time in the gym as possible whilst still improving performance.
We are not going to give you a prescription for weight training in this article – just an introduction to the sort of exercises and progressions that are appropriate. The exact number of exercises, number of repetitions and weights that you lift will depend on your strength training experience and the time available. If you are new to the gym, always seek the advice of a qualified trainer so that you receive personal instruction on correct technique and machine use.
As with the cycling training suggested in the MTB planner, your strength training should be progressive. There should be a start week, a build week and a push week, followed by a rest week that ties in with the rest your training. During the first 3 weeks, a progressive increase in the number of repetitions could take place (for example week 1 – 3x10, week 2 3x12, week 3 – 3x15). During the rest week, either avoid the gym entirely or just do one easy session).
When you go on to the 2nd block of 4 weeks, increase the weights lifted and then repeat again – 3x10, 3x12 etc. This way, the body has a chance to recover but there is also a gradual process of adaptation as your muscles get stronger and stronger. Determining the load that you lift is a crucial part of the programme design. Always start out with less than you think is possible and add more later.
Those more experienced in gym work will be able to do more maximum strength work but should still start cautiously. The number of gym sessions that you manage in a week will depend on your other commitments, but 2-3 sessions per week is plenty.
Warming up is an essential part of weight training as it helps prevent injury. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing a light aerobic cycle before you start lifting weights and finish the workout with a 5-minute easy spin to help your muscles to recover.
Suitable strength training exercises for cyclists
• squats (on machine or with free weights)
• leg press
• step ups (with bar / dumbbells)
• seated row
• pench press
• push ups
• lat pull down
• heel lifts (with bar / dumbbells)
• knee extension (quadriceps)
• leg curls (hamstrings)
• abdominals (crunches / gym ball)
There is a huge range of equipment and weights machines at commercial gyms these days. Always ask qualified gym staff to instruct you appropriately in their use and start with manageable weights whilst you are first learning the new technique.