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Ask the Experts: Off Bike Exercises for Cyclists

Words by Taylor Thomas at Thomas Endurance Coaching

Many cyclists realize the importance of off-bike exercises both for their continued longevity in the sport, but also as a way to mix up their training and strengthen their cycling specific skills. “Cross training” is a critical part of a well managed and effective training approach for cyclists of all abilities and ages. Depending on the time of year, and goals of the individual athlete, the supplemental work performed outside of discipline-specific sessions can be of equal importance to time spent on the bike. There are dozens of options for cyclists to choose from when it comes to potential exercises that may be beneficial, we’ll focus on the three primary areas that most athletes look towards when considering disciplines outside of cycling.

Strength Training

Strength training is probably the most discussed form of cross-training by cyclists. The two different camps that exist are those that feel it’s beneficial, and those that feel it’s a waste of time. We’ll look at the ways that it can be helpful as it relates to the specific demands of cycling. One of the primary focuses of cycling is to build power. Power equals Force x velocity. With this basic equation in mind, one of the best ways to increase force is to build muscular strength. A periodized strength training regiment consisting of weight training that integrates movements that closely resemble the dynamics of a pedal stroke is a great place to start. Typically these more traditional strength workouts occur in the winter where a focus is placed on increasing the maximum weight for key movements. Things like the deadlift, squat, step ups, lunge, and leg press are examples of classic go-to exercises for cyclists looking for traditional gym work, and can dramatically increase strength and power on the bike when race specificity is integrated.

Made popular in the last several years with things such as Crossfit and group classes, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) strength sessions are another approach that many cyclists are drawn to. HIIT workouts can be a good alternative to more traditional gym sessions. Often the focus is on blended workouts that are as much a cardiovascular challenge as they are muscular. These dynamic and explosive workouts can greatly benefit cyclists if they’re integrated properly into a training plan. The upside to these types of workouts is also that they can be done as bodyweight exercises when equipment, space, and time are limited. HIIT workouts can be performed at home for cyclists that don’t have the time or ability to get to a gym for more traditional strength workouts.

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A lot of cyclists have an “only run if being chased” mindset when it comes to running. The physicality(impact) of running can make it tough to transition to the sport for longtime cyclists. Although, it’s for this reason that running can make for a great compliment for athletes whose primary focus is cycling. One of the benefits of running is that it can help to increase bone density and resiliency in cyclists. Many turn to cycling because of its low impact nature, although “loading” the muscles and joints with a sport like running can have positive impacts if done correctly. Running also requires very minimal gear as compared to an equipment heavy sport like cycling. This can be great for athletes who travel frequently and want access to a quality aerobic workout, but don’t have reliable access to a bike. Running can be a very efficient way to maintain aerobic capacity if cycling isn’t an option. A pedal stroke on a bike is fairly restrictive in regards to the range of motion it provides. The mechanical components associated with a pedal stroke don’t allow for full extension, and running can provide a complementary action to help combat this restrictive motion. An athlete’s running stride and subsequent footfall help to open up the hips, provide joint extension, and strengthen muscles due to the impact, that cycling alone can’t target.

Yoga and Pilates

Both of these options are popular outlets for many cyclists looking for both strength and flexibility. Some times these two disciplines are intertwined, however, they each have their own distinct qualities that may make either one a better option depending on the needs of the athlete. Pilates places an emphasis on alignment, breathing, developing a strong core, and improving coordination and balance. The “powerhouse” as it’s known in Pilates consists of the core, low back, and hips and are thought to be the key to an individual’s stability. This focus on stability through the hips and core can be extremely beneficial to cyclists, and with consistent practice can translate to increased power production and comfort on the bike.

Yoga has its roots in ancient Indian culture and is a component of religious practice at its core. In Western culture yoga often denotes a modern form of Hatha Yoga, consisting primarily of postures called asanas. This style of yoga focuses heavily on breathing through challenging movements and bringing awareness to different parts of the body. This awareness can enable an athlete to become more in tune with how their body moves, and any limitations it may have. There can also be a spiritual and/or meditative component of yoga that may help some athletes with the mental and emotional stress that can accompany focused training.

Taking time away from bike specific training can be challenging for many athletes. Most athletes have limited time to train, and it’s hard to carve out time for other disciplines. That being said, supplemental work can not only make cyclists stronger on the bike but can also help to build an athlete who’s strong both on and off the bike. Strength training in whatever capacity makes sense for each individual will nearly always translate to increased performance in cycling. Running, yoga and Pilates can be great ways to build strength, as well as carve out some time for mental clarity and emotional health. Work done off of the bike can be highly beneficial to nearly all cyclists if it’s performed and integrated correctly into a cycling specific training program.

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