Should Cyclists & Triathletes Do Strength First or Ride First?
Strength Training for cyclists & triathletes has become accepted as a necessity if we want to get stronger or faster, but in what order should we do it?
This question has long been one that is asked by cyclists, triathletes, and their coaches.
As you’ll see in todays post, there is FAR more to consider beyond “freshness for riding” and in-sport workouts. We’ll talk a bit today about the other reasons why when you do your strength training is so key to advancing ones performance, and especially for keeping you healthy and doing what you love now, and for many years to come.
Strength Before Cycling?
This post from Christian Woodford is a great one. He and I see things pretty similarly, as far as how to develop our athletes.
But when it comes to Cyclists & Triathletes, we have a bit of a problem:
What do you do when the individuals conditioning IS their sport?
And more importantly, what do you do when the sport in question puts the athlete into a forward flexed spine position for long periods of time, which raises their risk for injury?
Today we take a look at why there is a specific order you should follow, as not doing it in this way can have a huge negative penalty on your health and well being in the long run.
What is Strength
An important backbone of our conversation is the need to understand what exactly strength is.
When we think of strength, many of us first conjure up an image of Arnold, or some other muscle-bound body builder. Unfortunately, this is a result of the mass media teaching us that this is what “strong” is, and is only one very narrow definition of strength (Large muscles).
However, when you being to take a look at the different TYPES of strength, you’ll see a vast array of body types, as well as big differences in HOW strength is expressed.
We won’t get into this too much, as it could be a book in and of itself, but just know that there are a number of different kinds of strength including:
- Explosive Strength
- Maximum Strength
If you want to learn a little more about the different kinds of strength, I do spend time talking about them in my first book “The Vortex Method”.
For today’s article, it’s important to understand that strength, for cyclists & triathletes, is a reference to ones abilities to push down on the pedals for long periods of time, to hold running or swimming pace, while being able to keep your rib cage and hips locked together, allowing you to use your (metabolic) conditioning, to be able to cross the finish line first.
This strength, and all other kinds of strength, require that we build up the bodies ability to produce stiffness at the hips, spine and rib cage, allowing them to move together in an advantageous way, so as to allow you to perform the given movements in your sport well.
To develop these abilities, we need to challenge the nervous system to learn how to recruit and fire the various muscles of the body in order to allow you to produce the given movement using less energy/effort, and in a more refined fashion.
This happens through practice of the sport skill of riding, as well as through general physical preparation, and resistance training.
However, riding our bikes causes us to have a forward flexed posture, which changes the equation and considerations for us.
Effects of Riding Posture on the Spine
For many, riding a bike is fun, in part due to not having much pounding on the body and its joints. But while we may not feel it, the riding position can actually take a big toll on a number of incredibly important joints and tissues in the body- namely the spine.
As we move into a forward flexed position, we change the forces that are being placed on the spine. The spine itself is an incredible feature of the human body, as it is built to allow us to take on a number of tasks throughout our lives.
But one task in our sport takes a slow toll on the spine, and requires us to think differently about the ordering of strength training vs. in-sport conditioning than any other sport:
Long periods of time in the forward-flexed position.
I won’t go into details here, but in summary the spine is built to take compressive forces really well:
There are a number of muscles around the spine that act as guy wires to help bolster it’s ability to resist forces, as well as ligaments which help it to resists forces as well.
However, when we go into a flexed position for long periods of time, such as that of riding your bike- especially if you don’t have a good bike fit which is dialed in to you and your body’s specific needs- the spine experiences stretching of these ligaments, and a change in the dynamics of how the discs in your back are working.
The long, slow loss of tissue tolerance
Often times, when we think of a back injury, we think of a single event, like attempting to throw a log over a creek to the other side, or picking up a 20# bag of peat-moss for the garden.
Both of these are real-life examples of how two athletes I’ve recently spoken with think they hurt their backs.
While these are certainly events where the injury came to a head, through thorough investigation it came to light that these were not the major factors putting them into the high risk category!
Rather, for one it was the increase in the aggressiveness of their TT position a few months (3.5) ago, and their doubling the time they spent on the TT bike in this position from 2 hours a week, to 4.
For the other it was heading to the weight room after 6 months of being completely away from strength training, and ramping up the weight they were squatting and deadlifting very quickly over the previous 6 weeks, and simultaneously increasing their ride time from 8 hours a week, to 12 hours.
What neither of these athletes knew before, and what many in the general public fail to realize, is that spending time in these forward flexed positions, keeps a long, steady stress on the tissues of the spine, in particular the ligaments and the discs, which leads to those tissues losing their ability to maintain their designed stiffness.
Think about it like leaving a bar of taffy out on in the sun in mid-July, and then slowly stretching it out, and then trying to get it to come back to it’s original form. It’s not going to happen.
For the tissues in our back, it’s much of the same thing, however, given some time, the tissues can return back to their original state, from a single exposure.
But it takes time.
Upwards of several hours!
In their research published in 1992, McGill and Brown found that after an exposure of full flexion of the lumbar spine for half an hour, the ligaments took more than 2 minutes to regain just 50% of their original status. And even at 30 minutes after this position the tissues still hadn’t returned to 100%!
Strength First, ESPECIALLY If You're Lifting Moderate to Heavy!
With the considerations of your long-term health and well being, especially for your spine, strength training should be done first, before any type of riding.
For triathletes, you have a bit more wiggle room around your running and swimming, as these two sports tend not to create such a high risk environment for your back and spine as riding does. However these two sports DO impose a neuromuscular and metabolic fatigue penalty, which need to be carefully assessed, in order to determine is strength training should be done in a fresher state, so as to decrease your risk of injury.
I know for many cyclists this will pose a challenge, as I have coached cyclists since 2007 (road, time trial, mountain bike, gravel), and that many of us much rather wake in the morning and get our ride in, be it on the trainer or outside.
After all, we are cyclists!
However, while this may be our love or passion, if we want to be able bodied, healthy, and able to kick some serious butt now and for the coming 20+ years. We need to take a step back and understand the risks we are taking by doing so.
If you have grown to love your morning routine of riding first thing in the morning, and cannot or will not change for any reason, then I would encourage you to look at doing your strength training either in the early afternoon during a break from work, or immediately after work.
For both of these cases it’s important to go through an appropriate dynamic warmup which helps prepare the body and spine for the demands you’re about to place on it.