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.
4 thoughts on “Cyclists & Triathletes: Strength Training or Riding First?”
Thank you, that post was a value-add – I usually prefer to do strength and coach my athletes to do the same but your argument and evidence was persuasive and provides an excellent rationale for what feels right.
My routine of endurance training “before” strength was based on 1. My understanding of adaptation pathway from each. (AMPK versus MTOR) 2 My understanding that endurance training blunts strength adaptations more than strength training blunts endurance adaptation.
I think of this in the light of strength training being supplementary to my endurance sport (cycling.)
My understanding is that AMPK (endurance adaptation pathway) turns on during endurance training and pretty much shuts off right after. MTOR (strength adaptation pathway) turns on during strength training and will stay on for hours afterward, however, endurance training can turn this off.
Now we might be talking about very different things as I am separating my training by many hours (6-10) whereas I think your recommendations are more concerned with strength training immediately preceding endurance training (or vice versa.)
Anyways my approach has always been to lift “last,” generally in the evening, and if I did an endurance session that same day, strength was 6-10 hours after endurance. My rationale was to maximize the adaptation from the strength training by leaving MTOR activated for as long as possible and though the nights sleep!
I hope 6-10 hours following a cycling session is adequate time to permit structural realignments from the forward bending on the bike?
Great question and points Jim!
Yes, that’s our current understanding of how the body works. As you’re currently doing, we ideally want to separate strength from endurance by at least 6 hours for those reasons (and a few others, including allowing the body to return to a hormonal balance, and even using strength to help drive improved endurance recovery, although I’ve yet to see anyone look into this as a research study- but hope they will soon).
Neuromuscularly and passive tissue wise a whole other consideration that we haven;t really seen any studies on, and I’m quite keen on as well, as I do think that for many cyclists getting improved tissues qualities and neuromuscular patterns (aka engrams) would be massively productive….. the question is how much time between, and then having enough studies done to allow us to look into the various loading schema and tempos to figure it out.
Last little bit- make sure you’re hitting your protein Req’s each day, minimum 1.6g/kg, this is a glossed over but very important aspect, as there’s quite a bit of hormonal changes, and if I remember correctly cell-signaling that is aided/boosted with this nutrition point.
The last few years I was reading/thinking a lot about and trying to tweak my habits and routines to maximize MTOR and mitochondrial health. My current area of fascination is fascia.
I read Tom Myers “Anatomy Trains” in recently read the recent current version and watch a 16 hour Zoom Anatomy Dissection. I highly recommend one of these dissection courses if you haven’t already done one.
Tom talks about how it takes an hour to stimulate fascial decision to restructure (tighten or loosen.) Hopefully small blocks of stretching (active or passive) can also simulate this over time.
I am very simple in my views – Is stiffness “normal” since most 80 year olds are super inflexible and most 5 year olds have the flexibility of Gumby (sorry to date myself.) Put simply when I watch the flexibility of a 5 year old it is way more than my 28yo son who is way more flexible than I who am way more flexible than my 90yo step mother.
I have put increasing/maintaining flexability way up on my priority list in the past year.
As for protein I take in 1.5-2 g/kg daily. For a couple years I was interested in time restricted eating, but for the past year I generally do a Casein Protein/Milk drink before bed to increase protein and supply protein during my sleep/recovery hours.