Cycling is a simple sport. Those who push down harder go faster. Figuring out how you can push down harder, for long enough to finish your goal event, is not as simple. While pedaling is mainly accomplished by your large leg muscles, the quads, glutes and hamstrings, the ability to generate force while seated and standing on the bike requires total body strength and coordination.
These 4 approaches to building your on-bike power will help you isolate and strengthen your weakest link, and add variety to your training routine.
1. Include strength training twice a week.
Strength training is now part of most athletes’ regimens. Getting stronger will help you push down harder. While there is a limit to how much strength you need to push down, a stronger cyclist will be able to resist fatigue in his legs and postural muscles for longer.
Most cyclists are well served to spend time learning basic movements and improving mobility before adding any extra weight. As a bonus, practicing common movements, such as lifting, will also help you avoid injury in daily life to ensure that you are able to train daily or as often as you’d like. Start with body-weight moves, particularly if you’re new to strength work, before progressing to weight-bearing exercises.
Important body-weight—no added load—motions to include are:
Complete 2–3 sets of 10–15 reps as a rough guideline, increasing difficulty once you can do 15 reps with proper form. Do these sessions twice a week, with 2–3 days of recovery between them. Slotting these in a few hours after a hard bike workout can help reduce any interference or fatigue in your key bike workouts.
If you are enjoying strength training, moving well and have progressed well, you may choose to try weighted movements. While squats and deadlifts will improve your cycling, it is also worth performing single-leg variants, such as Romanian deadlifts and split squats, to help mimic the unilateral nature of cycling and eliminate any side-to-side differences. A common session would be 3–6 sets of 4–6 repetitions, with the goal of lifting at the same speed throughout each rep. I like clients to finish with good form, knowing a few more repetitions could have been done. Gradual progression is the key!
2. Make sure you’re positioned properly on your bike.
Posture and position can help boost power and efficiency. Riders generally have an optimal window when they can pedal efficiently, but in order to achieve this, the bar, saddle and cleats must be positioned properly. If you are outside this range, the muscles must do extra work. A great example: When your saddle height is too low, your leg muscles must work harder to pedal because your hip and knee angles are too small (you know this is happening when your knees approach your chest).
Once you have your bike set up within a tolerable window, it is worth spending time daily to maintain, or improve, your range of motion so that you can tolerate a variety of positions. You can reduce the severity of a crash by being able to move your joints outside of the typical cycling position.
Mobility is built and maintained by using it! Practicing strength training is a good first step to increasing your movement variety, while yoga/active stretching can offer other avenues of additional joint mobility. Your daily routine in the office and at home can have huge impacts. Try sitting on the floor, walking, standing frequently and mixing up any seated time with positions like a lunge or squat when you can.
3. Practice riding fast so you feel confident on race day.
A practical way to increase speed is to practice going fast. Too often, cyclists will avoid race pace outside of their key events. Pushing yourself to do 1–2 hard rides each week can make a huge difference in your fitness and will teach you how to maintain control while riding hard. Using steep uphills can provide a good stimulus; by climbing faster and/or more each week, you can track progress easily.
Make sure you take 1–2 days off each week, and keep your endurance rides at a lower effort to ensure your high-intensity days are hard enough to build fitness and experience race speed.
4. Learn to ride comfortably in seated and standing positions.
A final way to increase the power you put down is to utilize both standing and seated pedaling. If you cannot stand, your climbing, sprinting and accelerations will be very limited. I like to describe standing as using a second set of muscles that helps to get us up hills and over finish lines easier and faster. If you aren’t standing, then you are using half of your muscles!
I often find that cyclists who struggle to succeed in their races are unable to stand with coordination and power. Frequently, cyclists who spend a lot of time indoors and/or at spin class will have a tough time standing outdoors because their indoor bike doesn’t move side to side. Almost every cycling discipline requires some standing—even time trials require some standing to accelerate out of the start and out of occasional corners.
To get better at standing, the first step is to start standing during every ride, even if it feels awkward. Usually, riders do not move the bike side to side and do not find contact with the bottom of each pedal stroke. If you ride along and pause at the bottom of each pedal stroke while riding in a straight line, you will start to get a feel for the balance required for coordinated and powerful standing.
Use this 4-component guide to help you find the weak link in your fitness so you can decide how to spend your training time. Whether you spend more time building strength in the gym, improving your mobility and position, doing race-intensity intervals or standing on the bike, you should start seeing improvements quickly.