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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Cross Training

by Ben Hallam

I’ve just got back from doing some cross training blasting round Richmond Park with some of the LSST skaters ( So thought I’d write a blog about why cyclist should consider doing some off the bike stuff.

Traditionally, cyclists do not do much training off the bike. While there is certainly a time and a place for the “get miles in the saddle” approach, this is now a bit out dated. Cross training went through a big boom in the 90’s as people saw how well triathletes were improving in their better discipline while spending less time specifically training for it. But why should cyclists consider doing anything other than riding a bike?

First of all there are the all-important performance advantages. There are studies showing that doing other sports can increase performance as well as studies that show that weight training can increase cycling strength and efficiency. Doing the same activity day in day out can also lead to imbalances in the body as the working muscles become big and strong while the underworked muscles weaken and atrophy. These muscle imbalances have been shown to increase the likelihood of injury in both the lower and upper limb.

So it’s important to get these under worked muscles moving, but sometimes it’s hard to simply contract a muscle if you haven’t been used to using it. During cycling rehabilitation sessions at Bespoke Performance Lab (, I find it easier to teach people to activate inhibited muscles (like the glutes) when they’re not doing a familiar motor pattern like cycling. If you can learn to active your muscles in a range of different activities and positions, then you can integrate these muscles into your day to day movements and see better gains in strength and coordination.

So what areas should we be focusing on when cross training? Firstly there are our muscles that produce power while cycling; the quadriceps and glutes (butt muscles). With these, we are looking to use the muscles in a new way and/or through a different range of motion. Next are our core and hip control muscles which are important for balance, control and directing the forces during the pedal stroke. Because we spend long periods bent forward on the bike, cyclists often develop an imbalance between the anterior chain (stomach muscles, hip flexors etc) which can become strong and tight and the posterior chain (back muscles, hamstrings etc) which become long and weak. Finally there are the under worked muscles in the upper body which, while we don’t want to be overly big and bulky, we do need them to be balanced and strong enough to counteract the forces being produced by the legs.

Swimming is a good cross training activity for cyclists as it forces us to use our upper bodies at relatively low loads. It’s important however to mix up your strokes as just doing front crawl will put more emphasis on the anterior chain. Back stroke will encourage the posterior chain to fire up while breast stroke will use the muscles in the hips in a new range and if you know how to do butterfly, can you please teach me!!!!

Rowing is a great cardiovascular exercise for cyclists. It puts huge emphasis on quad strength and glute activation from a very tight hip angle (the same as coming over the top of the pedal stroke). It also requires strength through your back to transmit the forces generated by the legs through to the handle in exactly the same way cyclists need to while climbing.

Personally, I do something a little more unusual for cross training; I have taken up inline speed skating. There have been many examples of skaters crossing over to cycling and being very successful. Eric Heiden won multiple Olympic gold skating medals and then went onto win the US pro road champs. More recently Clara Hughes successfully transferred from the bike to skates and won medals at both summer and winter games. Sheila Young on the other hand was able to compete and win Olympic and World golds both skating and track cycling simultaneously. So there is method to my madness. In essence it’s cycling without a pair of handlebars to hold you up. It uses very similar muscles to produce the power (glutes and quads) but requires much more core stability and back strength to maintain the position and control your force and direction. I’ve found it has really helped my climbing technique as I can get more of my body weight onto the pedal earlier in the pedal stroke. I skate for the LondonSkaters Speed Team ( and race in a number of events such as marathons (I recently did the London Inline Marathon in 1 hour 28 minutes) and also a 24 hour relay race at Le Mans. 

There is also a hidden danger in only riding a bike. Cycling is a non-weight bearing sport; meaning there isn’t much impact between your body weight and the floor. The skeletal system adapts to regular shocks and compressions caused by impact by increasing bone density. On the other hand, if this demand is not placed on the body, bone density can drop. There have been a lot of studies showing lower bone density in competitive cyclist (8), adolescent cyclists  and master cyclists. Low bone density can lead to conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis where the bones become weak and brittle. Most famously, this is one of the reasons why Chris Boardman had to stop racing. Alarmingly, a study in 2008 suggests that cyclists can be as much as 7 times more likely to develop osteopenia than runners (12). Therefore, it would be highly recommended for cyclists to incorporate weight bearing exercise like running or plyometrics etc into their training regimes.

I am a big believer that all cyclists should do weight training (and I’m not just talking about track sprinters here). I know that a cyclist’s big fear is that they will gain too much body weight by weight training but this is not the case. By altering reps, sets, rest periods and weight, you can get big gains in strength and control that you just won’t get by simply riding a bike. A study in 2010 saw significant gains in cycling efficiency and aerobic time to exhaustion with maximal strength training. Weight training is also a very quick and efficient way to target weak muscles and address muscle imbalances.

During a cycling strength and technique session at Bespoke Performance Lab ( we break down the pedal stroke into its key fundamental movements, train them separately using specific exercises and then reintegrate them into a fluid cycling pattern. This way you can focus on the specific weakness in the pedal stroke and learn to control the movements in a controlled environment. We progress exercises from simple body weight movements, through maximal strength training to increase nerve activation and then increase the speed to convert that into power.

Five simple exercises that cyclists should incorporate are:
Lunge: Simulates the top of the pedal stroke.
Overhead Squat: Simulates the mid-point of the pedal stroke and requires more thoracic strength than a normal squat.
Single Leg Dead Lift: Requires good core control and simulates transferring energy through the back and into the bars.
Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls: Simulates the first part of the recovering stroke.
Bent Over Rows: Works the upper body in the same way as pulling on the bars.
It’s also important to stretch regularly and specifically the muscles that you are tight in.

Other things that cyclists might consider are yoga and pilates. I like yoga as it teaches lengthening and strengthening through whole chains of muscles. For example, a bridge creates length down the entire anterior chain (stomach, hip flexors etc) and simultaneously strength through the posterior chain (back, glutes, hamstrings etc). Pilates is good for teaching core activation and control. It is important however to do your research when finding yoga and pilates instructors and make sure you find a good one.

Cross training shouldn’t be something that you just do in the off season as the benefits will be felt throughout the year.  It might be that the number or duration of sessions is reduced during the season as specific training is more effective in developing performance but it’s important to continue to stress the body in different ways so that the benefits are not lost. I would aim to do 1 to 2 sessions of 45 mins to an hour during the season while this can be increased in the early off season to 3 to 4. Target doing cardiovascular efforts that can be sustained and remember that you will probably tire quicker doing unfamiliar tasks because you will be using different muscles.

Most importantly, cross training is a great way to break up the monotony of training. Doing something that is new can be a lot of fun and a good challenge.

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