This is a great time of year to start some off-bike strength and conditioning training.
Words: Jenni King Photos: Damian Breach & iStock
Winter is all around us and much of Australia is battling through the cold, wet and dark. It is to be expected that your enthusiasm for getting out on the bike in such conditions will dwindle a little in favour of rigging up the indoor trainer or perhaps just staying in bed!
It is my belief that many riders would actually gain more benefit from spending some quality time each week working on functional strength off the bike, rather than just slogging out extra kilometres on two wheels.
I have recently completed a Level One qualification in Strength and Conditioning (S&C). The main reason for doing the course was because I have witnessed so many riders benefit from using specific off-bike strength training and I wanted to improve my knowledge of how to best integrate such training into training plans. So long as the S&C sessions are individualised to the specific needs of each rider and structured into the training program at appropriate times, such training will result in greater pedal efficiency, higher power and help prevent and/or treat a number of over-use injuries.
It is important that you work with a trainer who fully understands mountain biking and also your desired outcomes before setting you up with a strength program. Manipulation of training variables such as sets, reps, resistance, rest periods and choice of exercise will result in very different adaptations and, just as you should progress through different phases of training on the bike, the same goes for off-bike strength and conditioning.
INCREASED PEDAL EFFICIENCY, POWER AND STRENGTH
Perhaps the biggest, and perhaps most obvious, advantage to regular strength training is in increased power and strength. This is largely due to neural adaptations and improved pedal efficiency. Resistance training develops motor neuron pathways, thereby improving the ability of the brain to communicate with the muscle fibres in order to contract and produce particular movements. Practicing a particular movement numerous times will improve these neural pathways, so that the movement becomes ingrained and more automatic. If your pedal technique is less than optimal, then by continuing to ride endless kilometres you are continuing to ingrain less than optimal movement patterns. A properly designed strength program off the bike can definitely improve movement patterns, teaching muscles to contract in the right sequence and with optimal force. This is also why off-bike strength training is far better being done before you jump on the bike, rather than after.
INCREASED INJURY PREVENTION AND REHABILITATION
As cyclists, we spend a lot of time with ‘poor posture’. Throughout each pedal stroke, the hip remains in a relatively flexed position, the lumbar and thoracic spine have to tolerate prolonged flexion and the cervical spine prolonged extension. Spending hours bent over the handlebars can certainly lead to strength and mobility imbalances in muscles and joints and a host of over-use symptoms can develop.
Most commonly, cyclists will overuse their quadriceps (thigh) muscles and not use their glute (bum) muscles enough. The glute muscles are much stronger and have greater endurance than the quadriceps. Therefore, if you are predominantly using your glutes, pedalling will be much more efficient. Better glute activation will not only increase power production but will also reduce the likelihood of many overuse injuries.
As an example, anterior knee pain (pain on and around the patella) is one of the most common over-use injuries seen in cycling and is quite often caused by over-working quadriceps. The large quadricep muscles attach to the shin bone via the patella, so it makes sense that over-use of these muscles can cause inflammation and pain around the knee. By training the neuro-muscular system to “activate” the glute muscles better, and therefore reduce use of the quadriceps, inflammation and pain around the knee joint should be alleviated. Exercises such as glute bridges, deadlifts, lunges and step ups are fantastic for increasing glute activation and strength - so long as they are performed with correct technique.
Another common injury seen in cyclists is lower back pain. Quite often such pain can be attributed to dysfunction within the Posterior Oblique Sling. The body is made up of a complex system of muscle chains. The Posterior Oblique Sling is one such chain. It is made up of the gluteus maximus and opposing latissimus dorsi muscle. If either of these muscles are not activating sufficiently, this will likely result in pain in the lower back region. When riding a bike, your hips, lumbar and thoracic spin are constantly flexed - therefore making it more difficult to activate glutes and lats. Exercising these muscles off the bike will help with good posture and help eliminate lower back pain.
Not only is it important that joint mobility, stability and muscle strength be at their optimum, it is also very important that there are no asymmetries between the right and left half of the body. If you suffer from niggly pain or injury on one side of the body and not the other, there is a good chance that you have developed imbalances. An experienced strength and conditioning coach should be able to pick up on such asymmetries and devise an appropriate exercise plan to address the cause of the injury/pain.
A good quality strength training program should not only take into account the sport you are competing in, but also lifestyle factors, muscle strength, joint mobility and stability imbalances. I can highly recommend sourcing out a credible strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer who understands the sport of mountain biking, to assess your movement and set you up with a personalised strength program. A well-structured S&C program will likely result in improved pedal efficiency and power as well as help to prevent unwanted over-use injuries.