Ask the Experts: Off Bike Exercises for Cyclists

Surely logging hundreds of miles per week on the bike must be enough for a training plan, right?! Potentially not…in order to be a complete athlete, it is important to build (all of the systems) not just your cardiovascular endurance! Cross-training can help to enhance your cycling through increased power and decreasing risk of injury.

There are a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to cross-training. The next time you think of adding an extra hour or two on the bike to get faster, consider adding an alternative training modality to improve your performance, such as leg strengthening exercises, core workouts, or strength training.

Strength Training

Strong bodies can handle load, and increasing your strength increases the range for mitigating injury. Strength training is not only good for picking things up and putting them down! Loading and strengthening your tendons and ligaments allows your body to absorb the forces that training demands from it. Strength training helps to develop essential muscular properties that can translate to cycling success. When you strength train you are laying down proper neural patterns for muscle activation and increasing your ability to produce power. Power in cycling is essential and is more than simply pressing firmly into your pedals. Without muscular strength, your ability to produce efforts beyond cardiovascular capacity is diminished. Increasing your strength does not have to result in large muscular development. Endurance athletes can build strength without inducing extreme muscular hypertrophy.

When you go into a gym, think of working on lifts that place your body into similar positions that mimic your position on the bike. Exercises like a hex bar deadlift, or Bulgarian split squat can help to mimic positions and load muscles that we use within the pedal stroke itself! The specificity of strength training is important when choosing exercises. You want to choose exercises that will help to increase strength and stability of the muscle groups used in cycling: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core.

Strength training does not have to involve a gym membership or owning a home system. If you have space and time you can create a strength routine with body weight that can be just as effective. Bodyweight training is extremely convenient, efficient, and effective. This type of training includes activities such as squats, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and even yoga. Bodyweight training also works by increasing your coordination and body awareness. Moves such as bear crawls help to develop control and athleticism at a foundational level. When performing moves such as push-ups we are able to train our joint mobility by focusing on finite movements and also mitigating joint injury.

Strength training is a great workout to incorporate into your weekly schedule and it does not need to leave you with hours spent in the gym. Within 30-45 minutes, you can have completed a quality strength session that will help translate to increased cycling performance!

Yoga & Pilates

Whether you are looking for a way to unwind or to become more limber, yoga may be a great tool for you before or after a long day on the bike. Yoga can also be viewed as strength training since many poses within yoga involve strengthening of shoulder, legs, back, and core muscle groups. Yoga would be a great addition if you are looking to increase mobility, flexibility, and stability on the bike. Certain yoga classes, such as yin yoga, focus on stretching and holding poses for minutes at a time. Bonus: yoga incorporates a heavy focus on breathwork which helps emotional, mental, and physical states! Breathwork is a trademark piece of relaxation techniques that sport psychologists suggest for athletes during high-stress situations such as a race or hard training session. 

Pilates, on the other hand, uses specifically targeted movements to improve your strength, flexibility, and posture with a key focus: your core. The core is commonly thought of as just the trunk of an individual, where one acquires those “six-pack abs.” However, the anatomical core is the axial skeleton and all the soft tissues with proximal attachments that originate from the axial skeleton. Proper core activation is necessary for proper technique. Core muscles help with correct posture and pelvic alignment, which in turn produces the correct muscle activation throughout the body. If you are not holding the correct pelvic posture, you could be at risk for underutilizing your glutes (your largest muscle) and over utilizing smaller muscles and stabilizers.

The muscles that are associated with the core allow for the transfer of torque and angular momentum during performance. Think about this the next time you do a standing max sprint on your bike, if you do not activate your entire core, all power being pushed through your legs becomes wasted energy when it comes up through the chain. Your posture will be thrown off, the movement of the bars will be sloppy, and the desired outcome of forward movement will be hampered. Increasing your core stability will result in a better foundation for force production in the upper and lower extremities.

Alternative Endurance Activities

If you are looking to add additional exercises that can help maintain or increase your cardiovascular engines, then we suggest looking towards running, hiking, or if possible; cross country skiing. All of these activities will supplement your cycling aerobic engine and can aid in bone health. Cycling is a low-impact sport and the addition of hiking or running will increase your bone loading stimulus thus increasing your bone density! It is important to note that if you are an experienced cyclist with a big engine, but a relatively inexperienced runner, then it is best to build slowly into running. Your cardiovascular engine will far exceed your muscular and skeletal development and could lead to injury if you push too much! 

If you have the equipment and environment available to implement cross country skiing, then go for it! Cross Country skiing produces ranges of motion that are similar to cycling since you have continuous ground contact time. This is also a great option if you are looking to get outside and build endurance during the winter months.

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