We all want to be better cyclists, and sometimes (just sometimes), the way to do that is to get off the bike. Here’s how regular cross training can give you more power, speed and stability on the road or trail.
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Cycling may well be your favourite thing to do – your significant other in the world of sport. But a little flirtation never hurt anyone, and stepping outside of the loving embrace of your bike for regular cross training could do you the world of good when back on the wheels.
Why cross train?
British Cycling’s website states that the "best training for any sport is to do more of that sport". While that certainly holds true for cycling, there are plenty of other things you can do to improve your fitness, performance and enjoyment on the bike.
Mixing up your training keeps you motivated, builds strength and can be great for recovery and injury prevention. And it’s not just about your legs. Conditioning your core and upper body is also pretty important for increased stability, endurance and power.
So with that in mind, here are four cross-training ideas to make you a better cyclist.
Strength training for cyclists
Strength equals power, and hitting the weights can have a huge impact on your riding, boosting mobility and power on the bike, as well as increasing your lower body capacity and resistance to fatigue.
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- Quick exercises to build your strength for cycling
That's all good news for the beasty climbs and heart-clutching sprints.
“Strength training is vital,” says Pete Dudley, aka PTPETE, a personal trainer and avid endurance cyclist. “Strong legs will not only help you get up those hills more efficiently, but with less fatigue once you’ve reached the top so you’re not whacked out and can carry on riding.”
He recommends squats (preferably weighted with a barbell on your back or holding onto dumbbells), walking lunges (again, weighted), leg press and hamstring curls in the gym for increased leg strength.
You can also incorporate plyometric training (exercises in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time) into your schedule and, again, hit the squats to increase overall leg power.
For good squat technique, stand with your feet hip width apart, keep your weight in your heels and sit back in an imaginary chair, keeping your abs tight and your chest up. Push back up and give those glutes a good squeeze at the top before repeating.
If – like me – when you start you have terrible mobility in your calves, you can stand with your heels on a mat or weight to get better depth. When I first started training I also put a step behind me to make sure I went low enough.
Walking lunges and leg press are other great exercises to work the glutes, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors – all vital hill-climbing muscles.
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles that are tasked with knee and hip flexion – a pretty important job in cycling. Keep them strong to increase power and speed, and make sure they share the load with those mighty quads of yours.
Take care though with the hamstring curls. They may sound nice and cute, but if your hams are weak you’ll certainly know about it after a few reps.
For best results, Dudley recommends using heavy weights and low reps, (six to eight), for sets of three, as below. If you’re a member of a gym get advice on how to perform these exercises safely with a suitable weight.
If on the other hand you’re training at home, YouTube is your friend – but pay attention to correct form.
Perform this workout two or three times a week alongside cycling to build strength and endurance:
- 6-8 barbell squats, heavy weight (work almost to failure) (x3)
- 6-8 walking lunge with dumbbells (x3)
- 12 hamstring curls (x3)
- 12 single leg press each leg (heavy ish weight) (x3)
Core strength for cyclists
Being strong on the bike is down to more than just the legs and lungs. If you’re going long, you won’t want to forget your core and upper body too for better stability and comfort.
Personal trainer and two-time Iron(wo)man Amy Jordan from Love Life Fitness recommends adding strength training for neck, shoulders and upper back to combat back pain.
“On long, flat rides when you’re stuck in the same position for hours, weak muscles in the neck and shoulders can cause discomfort so strengthening these areas can really help your riding.
“Core work is so important in cycling, but is often overlooked. Hours in the saddle puts strain on your spine so a strong core will keep you stable, allowing maximum exertion through your legs and a more efficient pedal stroke,” she adds.
Dudley agrees. “Having a strong core is also invaluable while on the bike," he says. "All the moving and continual adjustments you make while riding up or down hill will involve your core. The stronger you are in this area the more stable you'll be.
“The humble plank, side plank and V-sits are fantastic exercises which I do week in week out.”
While the prospect of endless crunches or sit-ups fills many people with dread, core work doesn’t have to be boring. Using a TRX suspension trainer (see below) to do pike press-ups will keep you more than entertained, not to mention sweating from your eyes.
Hook your feet in facing down, do a press up and when you come back up lift your hips and make your body into a ‘V’ shape. Then back into a press-up, and back up, repeat, without touching the floor for the full set.
They’re like upside down V-sits. And 100% more evil.
Incorporate these killer core moves into your weekly workout for increased stability on the bike:
- 1-2min plank + side plank each side 30 secs (x3)
- 30 V-sits (x3)
- 10 TRX press-ups into pike (x3)
Yoga for cyclists
It’s no secret that yoga holds a host of benefits for runners, and it’s the same for cyclists too. It relieves tight, aching muscles after long or hard rides. It also not only helps mobilise joints, but strengthens the muscles around them too.
Cycling coach and Breeze Champion Alison Lewis recognises how the power of yoga translates onto the bike. “Strength in your core is important in any cycling discipline, so pilates and yoga are perfect, especially exercises such as plank and bridge," she says.
"Yoga’s also really helpful for stretching and getting more flexibility; important if you're needing to be in an aero position for long periods of time for things such as time trials or long sportives.”
Yoga can help improve flexibility, strength and reduce risk of injury, adds Jordan. “It allows you to tap into your muscle’s maximum exertion by enabling a full range of motion," she says..
“It’s especially important to stretch the pecs/chest to make sure you don’t end up with awful, stooped posture, and you need both strength and stability in your hips.”
I can personally vouch for the Godsend that is pigeon pose if you’ve got tight hips. And for tight hamstrings, you’ll love a forward bend, legs up the wall or stretching them out with a belt or resistance band in class.
Like with any sport, consistency in yoga is rewarded. Practice as little as once or twice a week and you’ll soon feel the benefits. After a while, the enhanced flexibility on the bike, better posture and stronger body will transfer into improved cycling performance and efficiency.
If you can’t get to a class, there are various YouTube videos dedicated to yoga for cyclists.
Running and swimming
Swimming speaks for itself as a fantastic cross training exercise for many sports. A low impact, all-body workout that does wonders for your cardiovascular fitness and core as you twist and turn in the water.
Often cycling is seen as great low impact cross training for running but it also works the other way around.
The impact of running on your body will help to increase bone density for stronger bones. That's something that cycling can’t give you due to its low impact nature, and something I appreciate the importance of even more after throwing myself off my mountain bike last year and breaking my collarbone and wrist.
Stronger bones mean less chance of osteoporosis, and hopefully, any nasty breaks if you do come off your bike, so not a bad reason to swap the cleats for trainers.
How to fit it all in?
Sometimes it might seem like you need an extra day in the week to fit everything in but really, it’s just about being smart with your time.
“You don’t have to spend hours and hours in the gym. A half hour circuit will be sufficient,” says Jordan. “Compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups in one go give you the best returns. Squats, walking lunges, leg press, press ups, rows, shoulder press and plank are all good places to start.”
Fitting your training into your lunch break or commute is also a great way to hit all of your sessions, such as running or cycling to work, or parking a couple of miles further away from the office and running in or back to your car.
It’s about fitting your training in around your life, on and off the bike.