Hitting the weights and getting in box jumps has been shown to improve your cycling power & speed...But you need to keep these important parts in health to see the full benefits!
If you talk to nearly any cyclist these days, they’ll most likely talk about how they hit the weight room during the winter to improve their riding power and strength:
- Heavy squats and deadlifts
- Box Jumps
- Lots of other plyometrics and lower body exercises
Yet as strength training has gained popularity, it has come along with a growing number of cyclists, especially those over the age of 40, suffering from tendon pain and injuries.
Here’s how to know if you’re suffering from a possible tendon injury, and how to avoid them with a few simple changes to your strength training programming.
Tendon Injury Types
Tendons attach the muscles to the bones, and are considered to be a part of the muscle, whereas ligaments connect bone to bone, and are completely different than tendons.
When a ligament suffers an injury it is called a “sprain” or a “tear”.
However for Tendons there are 2 different types of injuries that can occur, as well as a tear:
- Tendonitis- Usually happens when there are micro-tears (small tears) in the tendon. This causes irritation or inflamation.
- Tendinosis- The chronic non-inflammtory breakdown of a tendon. Often caused by repeated strains of a tendon without proper time to heal.
There is another term often used when talking about a tendon injury:
Tendinopathy- a broad term used to describe an injury to a tendon.
Both Tendonitis and Tendinosis can both occur due to highly repetitive tasks or sports, those who have poor muscular strength, and those who are over the age of 40, or who have certain medical conditions. Some medications may also cause these kinds of injuries, as a side effect.
Why Tendon Injures Seem to Happen At Higher Rates In Cyclists
Cyclists, as a broad population, tend to have 3 of these risk factors going against them:
- Highly repetitive sports
- Poor muscular strength
- Many Cyclists are over 40, as cycling is often seen as low-impact, and thus friendlier for longer-term health
Add on top of these risk factors than many riders neglect strength training throughout their main riding season (i.e. the warmer months of May-September in the Northern Hemisphere), and it all adds up to a recipe for high likelihood of injury, before we even head to the weight room.
Since around the year 2010 there has been a incredibly quick shift in the acceptance of strength training for cyclists. Researchers finally began to look at the possible benefits of strength training beyond high reps and low weight for cyclists, to find that there are a multitude of benefits for riders of all ages and abilities:
- Improved bone density
- Faster Riding Speed
- Increased Power Output
All these rewards, it seems, come from lifting heavier weights.
The led to the headlong rush into lifting heavy, and basing all strength training movements off of 1, 3, or 5 repetition maximums.
However, due to cyclists (and triathletes) spending many hours in highly repetitive sports combined with their skimping, or more commonly skipping their strength training in any meaningful form, for months at a time.
These lifestyle and training decisions lead to tendons not being properly prepared to “lift heavy stuff”, which can lead to excess soreness, loss of training quality for cycling, as well as loss of training time due to pain.
How To Train Smarter
It’s actually incredibly easy to train smarter, and more effectively to build tendon strength and on-bike performances with your strength training… It just takes a little bit of knowledge on how to program your strength training sessions better.
Here are 3 easy to follow & simple to start (and keep up) practices:
1. Work on Tissue Quality
While the first thing that comes to mind for many endurance athletes is foam rolling, trigger pointing, and massage, there is actually a lot more to building good tissue quality.
Using a dynamic warmup and breathing exercises before each strength training session, allows you to work on your trouble spots, mobilize different tissues and joints, as well as to gently and consistently improve tissues abilities to move in ways that compliment, not copy, your primary sports(s) movements.
Things like thoracic rotation (rotating your upper body), Thoracic Extension (i.e. anti-time trial position), and learning how to wiggle your toes, all play instrumental roles in keeping your tissues working and moving well.
Here is an example of a great exercise you can easily add to your dynamic warmup that has helped thousands of cyclists improve their breathing, increase comfort on the bike, add mobility to their hips and mid-back, as well as helped them feel great on and off the bike:
2. Learn to DECELERATE before you Accelerate
Taking the time to learn how to slow the body down and to keep good positions and postures that are advantageous to you may not be sexy, and it may even look a little silly, but when done with intent, it can offer you huge returns in your performances, as well as muscle and tendon health!
The key with these tendon-building exercises is to focus on the technique for the exercise.
In the case of the step-off absorb (also known as a depth jump) the focus is on landing QUIETLY, and learning to absorb the landing with your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and core (yes, really!).
The “Stick” (aka FREEZE!) at the bottom of the exercise is what helps to build tendon strength and resiliency quickly.
These exercises may not FEEL like much, and in fact we do not want to “feel” them!
These exercises should be limited to 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with at least 3-5 minutes of rest between sets!
If you’re just getting started with these kinds of exercises, using an 8-12 inch step or box is more than enough. Higher is not better, and skipping up to a higher box before the tissues are ready can lead you to injury.
Progress up in box/step height either after 2 weeks in which every repetition of every set was done with a very quiet landing and great posture and position at the bottom.
For some, this may mean using the 8-12 inch box for 6-8 weeks, or longer. That’s ok!
Let technique and your abilities be your guide… not the calendar.
3. "Lifting Heavy" Does NOT Mean Big Weights
As noted above, one of the biggest reasons why so many cyclists and triathletes are suffering tendon and ligament injuries, is they are rushing into the gym to “lift heavy stuff!”.
A large part of this comes from the desire to “follow the research” being published that shows heavy lifting offers endurance athletes big returns… But these studies don’t tell you the dirty little secret:
Heavy depends on what your tissues and body can handle.
The human body is an incredible creation, in that we are able to push ourselves to our absolute limits, given the right circumstances.
When it comes to strength training it is far too easy to push those limits… which leads to extreme soreness, AKA DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), and then a decrease in the quality of our day to day lives, not to mention training of any sort.
Instead of just looking at the total weight you’re moving, it’s important to understand that there are better and far smarter ways to gauge the “heaviness” for an exercise:
- Perceived Exertion (with great technique)
- The speed at which you need to perform the movement
These are deeper topics, which you can read more about in this PEZCycling News Toolbox article.
While it is true that you do need to “lift heavy” following the RPE guideline of “heavy” being determined by the heaviest resistance you can use while keeping great technique, at an RPE of 7 or 8, gives you all the benefits, and drastically reduces your risk of injury.
Tendon injuries can be very frustrating as they can become more painful with activity, leaving you off from training completely and losing the cycling or triathlon fitness you have worked so hard to build.
By following the 3 guidelines we’ve discussed:
1.Work on improving tissue quality first
2. Learn to slow the body down and control your limbs before going big/high/explosive
3. Following your technique and RPE on that day to determine “Heavy”
Will help you stay healthy, continue to build fitness, and to build a stronger, more resilient body so you can enjoy many more years of being active while looking and feeling great!