Even though most of us didn’t have our traditional “season” this year, I think we’d all still agree that this is the time of year that we’d consider the “off-season.” And the off-season is the perfect time to add strength training and other forms of cross-training to your program. I know Coach Spencer already posted on the importance of strength training as we age, so you’re already convinced that you should add it to your routines, which has paved the way for me to tell you a little bit about what to expect as you take on this new training stimulus, especially if you’ve never done any strength training before.
The biggest qualm I hear that most athletes have with strength training is the resulting soreness and how it affects their subsequent sport-specific workouts. Well, that’s really the best reason to start strength training during the off-season, when your cycling workouts should take a step back and become priority #2, or maybe even #3 of your training program. So what causes that soreness and exactly what is happening within the body during that first 1-2 months of strength training?
There are two forms of muscular contractions; concentric and eccentric. A concentric contraction is when the muscle shortens, generally when you’re “doing the work” or “lifting the weight.” An example would be a bicep curl when you raise your hand toward your shoulder, or the standing UP motion of a squat. An eccentric contraction is when a muscle lengthens, resisting the weight or gravity. In the bicep curl, this would be lowering your hand from the end position of the curl back down to a straight arm. In the squat, it is the lowering/sitting action.
In strength training, you will experience both forms of muscle contractions. In cycling, you only experience concentric muscle contractions, so if you’re a pure cyclist and have never performed strength training, you’re likely to experience more soreness than a triathlete would because they experience eccentric contractions and ground reaction forces from running.
You may think the action of lowering or lengthening the muscles as the “easy” part of the exercise, but in reality, that eccentric (lengthening) of the muscles is actually what causes the most muscle damage and resulting soreness you feel after strength training. This damage is really just micro-tearing of your muscle fibers as you resist/control the load/gravity that is trying to force the muscle to rapidly lengthen. As you know from cycling training, becoming stronger or faster requires over-loading your body, or stressing it more than you’ve done previously in order to stimulate a new adaptation. Strength training is the same- as you challenge your muscles to overcome more resistance or more repetitions of the same resistance, you cause muscle fiber damage that your muscles will ultimately recover from and become stronger as a result of.
In addition to muscle fiber damage, there are other adaptations happening within the muscles that cause fatigue and soreness. The number and size of mitochondria within the muscles actually increases. Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of our cells or the place where ATP (energy) is created. This allows for an increased capacity to store more fuel within the muscles, as well as an increased ability to metabolize this fuel for energy, which is beneficial during both strength and endurance training. In addition, the burning of intra-muscular energy stores to perform strength training exercise creates fatigue, and the expended energy must be restored through time, rest, and nutrition.
Another very important adaptation that happens very early in the strength training program is within the nervous system, or between the brain and the muscles. Every muscle movement begins with a signal from the brain. That signal travels along a nerve to the muscle, which causes those fibers to contract (or relax). The speed and efficiency of this process are improved with frequent training and are responsible for improvements in strength very early in a training program. This is similar to improving your ability to ride at a very high cadence. It’s the nervous system coordinating with the muscular system that creates the skills of high cadence riding, better stability, coordination, and rate of muscular contraction and relaxation.
In addition to improving muscular strength, our often forgotten about but very important connective tissues (fascia surrounding our muscles, tendons, and ligaments) also get a boost from strength training. The job of these tissues is to transfer and help absorb forces between muscles and bones to maintain stability and joint integrity during motion. Stressing these tissues results in greater strength, just like muscle tissue, which in turn allows our bodies to better absorb and transfer the forces that training demands from it, but may cause soreness in and around the joints.
If you’ve followed one of The Sufferfest’s training plans that are optimized for strength, you’ve probably noticed that the intensity and frequency of intense cycling and running workouts are reduced. This has been done to account for the additional stress on the body as a result of the strength training and to provide additional recovery time from that training since it will affect your ability to perform in your other disciplines. We know that some of you have trouble stepping back in fear of losing fitness, but we encourage you to follow the plan and focus on recovery when taking on a new strength program. Any loss of fitness that you perceive will be regained and likely surpassed when intensity increases again. Everyone is different, but most people begin to adapt and experience less soreness within 2-3 weeks. As the program progresses, however, you’re likely to notice it comes back because the workouts become harder. When that happens, give yourself some grace in your sport-specific workouts, knowing that these are temporary but important changes that will benefit you in the long term. We know that stepping out of your comfort zone can be uncomfortable, but can you really call yourself a Sufferlandrian if you’re afraid of a little muscle soreness? Isn’t that what we live for?
Please let us know what new strength training goals you’re setting for this off-season and how you progress along the journey!