Monday, August 8, 2016

Off Season Weight Lifting for Cyclists

While there is still plenty of summer left, I always find myself thinking of next year's training program as the competitive road cycling season comes to a close. Usually, because I have wound up injured somehow and I go back to the drawing board to see if I can somehow get my body to do something it clearly keeps telling me, is a terrible idea.

This was my 7th year of racing since I re-discovered my love of cycling in 2009. I was 33 years old, out of shape and unsure of what I wanted to do with my new reality of being a father.

I decided to do a charity bike ride and joined a local masters cycling club for motivation. The club held a short race, which was my first ever and I was hooked. While I had competed in a time trial once as a kid, it was not my favorite event. To this day I'm a terrible time trial rider, mostly because I hate it.

Road racing, on the other hand, captivated my imagination. The tactics and the fact I nearly won out of our little group... I was in love. I began criterium racing that summer and for the next 7 years proceeded to passionately overtrain.

If there is a tendonitis one can get from cycling I have likely had it. This comes as a (personally embarrassing) surprise to many considering I'm also a physiotherapist. The explanation, however, is simple I'm a weakling.

Enter the subject of off-season weight training. As a physiotherapist, I could explain to you the benefits in detail. In my own case though, I had limited time to train and wanted performance enhancement only. You see, the evidence that lifting weights actually makes you go faster is stubbornly absent. There is actually evidence that, in road cycling in particular, it's NOT going to help you win races.

The most important factor in competitive cycling performance, for the most part, is your FTP - Functional Threshold Power. Sometimes called your Lactate Threshold it simply reflects how hard you can ride before your body produces more lactic acid than it can clear away. Going over this level will result in the burning sensation most of us listen to before telling ourselves its time to back off a bit.

Road racing requires you to ignore the urge to stop for as long as you can without vomiting. You are also required to acknowledge that you enjoy this sensation, even though it feels like 'razor blades coming out of your eyeballs'. This quote is from one of Canada's most decorated cyclists Clara Hughes, who was my immediate idol once I heard she had said it.

One would think that if lifting weights makes you stronger and pushing pedals is hard work, stronger legs would go faster. Not so fast, literally.

The problem with stronger legs is that they get bigger. Bigger muscle cells cause an increase in the distance oxygen must travel inside the cells and can actually lower your precious FTP. While lifting weights might make you a better sprinter (which isn't necessarily true either), you are unlikely to ever see the finish line because the riders with higher FTPs simply ride away from you on the first hill.

The problem with not weight training is, that if all you do is endurance training (intervals and the like), you are a sitting duck for tendonitis, bursitis and any other '-itis' you can think of.

The reason is that endurance sports create a chronic low oxygen environment in your muscles and tendons. A small strain that is repeated thousands of times, with little to no rest, causes the fluid in these tissues to be gently squeezed out. Less fluid in the tendon means less oxygen delivery and eventually the tendon becomes unhealthy. A little too much strain one day and you have a tendonitis.

Tendon injuries are the devil. They come on slowly and if you don't recognize them quickly they can take over a year to go away. Tendons have a terrible blood supply, yet they are living tissue that needs oxygen. At rest, little to no oxygen reaches the inside of them. While pain may settle down by resting they actually need careful strengthening exercises to heal completely.

Think of them as really hard sponges with a bit of water around the outside.  To get that water down inside the sponge you need to squeeze it. Tendons get squeezed when you lift heavy things. Not really squeezed, as much as pulled from either end, but the result is the same, increased fluid flow to the center of the tendon. That is unless you do what cyclists do, which is to squeeze the sponge and never un-squeeze it, for hours at a time.

So what is an overly keen cyclist to do? LIFT WEIGHTS, but not like weight lifters do.

You should pursue a basic weight training program in the off-season to prevent tendonitis. It works, I promise. I finally listened to my own advice this season and raced the most I had ever done with no tendonitis. None.

Choose a program that contains leg press, squats, and deadlifts. You should lift heavy but not overly so. Something that makes you good and tired after 3 sets of 10 repetitions, but not so shattered that you couldn't do another set or two.

Now, 3 sets of 10 is not a fancy way of saying 30. The rest between sets is important, as fresh blood has an opportunity to rush to the area that you just exercised and that's important. Do this 2-3 times a week for the duration of the offseason. Try to avoid training your legs on consecutive days and for goodness sakes avoid the really fun stuff like boot-camp, cross-fit and plyometrics.

Why? Well, are you more likely to tear a sponge by pulling it from both ends fast or slow? Now, what if you were asked to pull on the sponge as fast as you could as many times as you could and had someone beside you who was much better at pulling on sponges than you.

During the season you are also much less likely to develop tendonitis if you keep up the weights once or twice a week. Once a week is enough if you are competing.

It can be complicated mixing weights into a competitive training program. The best bet is to put it in the evening after a long easy ride or easy interval day. NEVER do weights the day before intervals as your quality will likely suffer.

If you are prone to tendonitis have a physiotherapist check you out. You likely have a muscle imbalance or technique error. You may have a previous tendonitis and it isn't ready for what you are up to and need a better exercise program.

Working out with a trainer is nice, but they can sometimes make matters complicated because they want you to get better at weight lifting, which is not a good idea. You must resist the urge to ever get very good at it. Seriously, leave the heavy weight lifting to weight lifters. You are just there to prevent injury. Check your ego and lift weights like an endurance athlete, which is to say, embarrass yourself.

In the end, all this time in the gym beats time in rehab not riding your bike, I promise.