From the Coaches: Adaptations to Strength Training

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!

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Thanks for the great article, @Coach.Suzie.S.

I’ve posted this in another thread, but I wonder if I’m on the right path…

'From January 2019 I worked myself up thrue the SUF Strength training all the way to Strength Intermediate Level 6.

In January 2020 I made myself a new Strength trainingplan. Week 1, 2 and 4 Intermediate Level 5. Week 5, 7, 8 and 10 Intermediate Level 6. On week 11 I dail things down with Intermediate Level 1 before test week. This feels sort of “spot-on”…’

What are your thoughts on this? And can I replace Intermediate Level 1 with Intermediate Level 4 the week before test week?

You mention running. How should we incorporate that into our training plans? Skip rides or add it on? Perhaps do an easier ride than the one in the plan? Do them on a recovery day?
I’ve just started doing short runs, and I’ve been wondering how to add them in when I’m already doing strength, yoga and bike, without wearing myself down. This question would apply to any extra sport or activity, I suppose.

@Coach.Suzie.S Thank you for this post, it is very informative.

One question, is it in any way detrimental to perform a bike workout (or any workout, for that matter) while being sore? I have powered through some pretty annoying soreness and found that as soon as I warmed up I barely remembered being sore at all, but after cool down the soreness came back. However, I’ve always asked myself if this could lead to injury.

Thanks!

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@Zhadox,
I see you’ve gotten creative with the strength training. That’s a great way to keep it interesting. I would play it safe though, and drop your strength down to level 2 or 3 the week before testing. Better to be conservative than to over-do it and not be rested enough to have your best test effort!

@BikeGirl,

Great question about adding running into your program. I believe there are some other posts/questions in the forum on this topic as well. If you’re not used to running, I would not add them into your plan on recovery days. Running is too strenuous, even if you think you’re going “easy.” I would actually double up on a day that you have a hard cycling workout, but do the run after riding. I would also not be shy about doing run/walk sessions until you’re used to the stress of running.
As far as adding in other sports, if it’s something strenuous, the same principles apply; do it after a hard cycling session so it doesn’t interfere with your cycling workout, and it keeps your hard days hard and your easy days easy!

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@Juanale81,

No, I’ve not encountered anyone who has injured themselves from riding through muscular soreness. I’ve experienced the same thing, and most times even feel a little less sore after riding. If you ever warm up and start a hard session and DON’T feel that soreness dissipate and really struggle with the workout, then I would call it quits and start cooling down early. But as long as you feel good, I would keep on doing what you’re doing!

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Thank you so much for your reply. It’s almost the opposite of what I had assumed. Good to know how to approach running. Today, I did a walk/run before a recovery cycling session and found I couldn’t get my pulse rate down once I was on the bike, so I’ll see if I can do what you’ve suggested. It’ll likely work better. I am mainly adding in the running for my bone health, but it does feel good to be moving outside (without the dogs, who want to constantly stop and sniff everything).

I am new to the Sufferfest community and I just purchased a smart trainer on Black Friday to begin my indoor offseason. I want to include strength training as part of my Sufferlandria program, however the one thing I already know (since beginning cycling during the COVID pandemic) that I need to increase my overall power. From my understanding, the strength program here does not include any weights. So is the program really conducive to building strength or is it more focus on cardio development. I have always to been told, that you gotta lift weights if you really want to get stronger.

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I would characterize the strength modules - especially 1 to 3 - focusing more on proper form, balance, core strength, preparing connective tissue for lifting and general warm-up. There are a few exercises - goblet squats and Cossack lunges - where the weight of a filled water bottle or two is added to the exercises. There are also several rides on the bike that are similar to squats - Power Station is one of them - where power targets are high but cadence is low.

Hi Manny.
Welcome to Sufferlandria. :slightly_smiling_face:
We are pretty well all here to increase power, and as you may have seen, this can mean different things with 4DP. Do you mean short burst power, long threshold power and so on… Which power you mean can affect what exercises are best.
The strength workouts predominantly uses body weight, along with filled water bottles to add a bit more. This is usuallyy plenty - try doing slow moving one legged squats! As I have moved up through the levels I have incorporated a few weights I already had at home for some exercises. This works well.
Chris

@ChrisMTB thanks for your response. My main challenge is hills and in particular long hills. I have been working out with weights most of my adult life, but I do realize cycling is different type strength.

@BikeGirl,
Yes, running is great for bone health and is a good way to get outdoors during trainer season, but it is hard on the body. It also becomes tough to make the time for everything we want to do as we add more activities to our lives. The strength program is also great for bone density, so if you’re doing that, you shouldn’t need to stress about adding in too much running. A couple short runs each week should be sufficient.

@Manny,
Just like power has a different meaning depending on the duration of time we’re talking about, strength is the same way. The Sufferfest strength training program is meant to improve functional strength; the kind of strength that makes you more durable and stronger, both in cycling and your daily life. If you want to get stronger in terms of max strength, then yes, you must lift weights. There are many ways to program strength, and you could lift weights to become a stronger cyclist, but you might also miss a lot of the smaller muscles that a lot of lifters fail to recognize that are important to cycling (and every day life), like core, stability, balance, etc. There is a bit of a cardiovascular component to our program as well, mostly because you’re not loading with any significant weight, so in order to increase difficulty, we have to extend the time you’re performing the exercise. The benefit of this, however, is that it will improve your strength as a cyclist on hills, especially long ones!

@Coach.Suzie.S there’s a post that relates to STR (linked below) … could you maybe add the official thoughts on order of STR inside other workouts in the same day there? Save us all guessing :slight_smile:

I recommend anyone starting strength to do warm up first. I Just do 5 to 8 minutes or medium intensity on the trainer first.

I’m wondering how we can breakdown a STR workout if it comes down to pacing (cardiovascular system) and depth (muscle load). While cycling we’re boxed in thanks to HM or FF fitness test. The fitness test creates a so called “limiter” for heart rate and power. During a STR workout we don’t have a handy-dandy limiter that protects us from blowing the fuse or having to much left in the tank. The only metric we have for strength is RPE.

A few months ago I decided to change focus from high pace to medium pace and go much lower, because I need to increase power.
For pacing I changed from 8.5 to 6.5 and for muscle load from 6.5 to 8.5. Now I do things much slower and go as deep until I almost collapse during specific exercises. At the end of the workout it feels like an 8/8.5 for RPE for the entire strength training. I begin with the same level of pacing as the end of the workout.

Is this the way to go for strength? Can you give us some guidance for RPE, how to pace ourselves and how to handle muscle load?

PS sorry for the long post…

@Coach.Suzie.S thank you for this posting. I’m a promoter to including strength, mental and yoga into the training plans. Recently, I’ve become aware through reading, social media postings, etc. about integration of mobility exercises such as jumping, etc to promote explosion. What is your thought on that and would we see “explosion” exercises into the strength routines in the near future? Thank you! Jorge

Hi, Im ”New” to structured plans and indoor training. Pre COVID, I went to gym “pump” classes and spinning. Last gym visit feb… 800 km bikeing this summer. When weather allows weekly MTB training 3hour. Now got a “smart bike” and joined the 200 mile mile gravel grinder 12 weeks, as I will participate in a race on Iceland in July. As there has been no gym visits, and I haven’t done any strength training, the strength videos are good. But is the program right? Or is there base training blocks that I can follow to start? I see focus on strength and perhaps a lot of low intensity? To repeat The 12weeks twice is likely not optimal. Some personal info if it helps advise what program to chose: Home office and many hours in training budget. Sunday’s are high effort. I am bad at Zone 2-3 training and do as most unstructured cyclist more high intensity Z4 for fun. No Structured intervals. (52 Y, 79kg (should be 76),214 ftp based on garmin algorithms and half Monty test. 100 KM rd @ 30-32kmh In a group or 3hours technical MTB Is what I do weekly in summer.