Strength Training for Ultra-Endurance

Strength training for ultra-endurance events is underestimated. When it comes to putting in the final lap, or squeezing out the last 20km of a long ride, there is no way that you’ll be slowing down purely due to being out of breath. Yet it is entirely possible that you’ll be riding less efficiently due to being hunched over the bars, or struggling to get back on the bike. This article focuses on the how to augment your endurance training with some strength work.

To recap, the article here goes into more depth on the benefits of strength training, but to summarise:

  • Strength training will make you cut fat and build lean muscle – NOT bulk.
  • Stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments are less prone to injury, allowing you train harder for longer, safely.
  • Strength training can increase movement economy.

 

When to train

While you should continue weight training throughout a lot of your programme, the emphasis should be at the start. Ideally before taking on an intensive training programme you should spend 4-5 weeks focusing on strength and power. This will reduce the threat of injury and get your body ready for the trials to come. There are a number of ‘beginners strength’ programmes like the Stronglifts 5×5 or one we have developed with more tips on flexibility here.

During the initial stages of your training, you should be able to keep a relatively intensive strength programme without it impacting on your cycling too much. Continue to follow the training plan you have been, but be mindful that you may need to stop linearly increasing the weight and you may need more rest.

As you continue through your programme, you will be spending more time on the bike. As a result of this you’ll have to reduce the frequency and intensity of your weight sessions to ensure adequate resting and recovery. During this phase reduce the weight you’re using and cut it down to twice per week.

This natural phasing out of strength while increasing endurance should happen naturally. Rather than prescribing when to do it, I recommend simply listening to your body and doing what feels natural.

I recommend stopping strength training around 2-3 weeks before an event and allow your body to recover. You shouldn’t decline in strength or power over this time, but cutting your training volume will allow your body to recover fully between rides.

How to structure strength sessions

Just like with training for endurance, you don’t take on a sprint session at the same pace as you would the longer 4-5 hour rides, they are designed differently as they do different jobs. The same applies to training for strength endurance. It differs however, in that you may do a speed, hills and endurance ride in the same week, the structure is different for strength training. The key is periodisation.

Following the same programme but changing the weights used and reps, you can vary between strength, endurance and power training. Every 3-4 weeks shift between the three to ensure even development and removal of any plateaus.

Endurance– Lighter weight, higher reps. Use a weight that is light enough to perform 15-20 perfect form reps. The aim during the endurance phase is to focus on your form and ease of movement. This is crucial for safely lifting heavier weights to come.

Strength – High weight, low rep. The aim of the strength phase is to lift the heaviest weights possible, with perfect form, for 5-8 reps. Performing the strength phase immediately after endurance, your form should help you lift higher loads.

Power – Med-high weight, low rep, explosive movement. The power phase helps develop the explosive strength required to tackle a technical climb. Perform the lift as explosively as possible, and lower the weight a lot slower. This helps develop power while maintaining a elongated ‘time under tension’ to help reduce the impact against endurance.

Exercises

Focus on exercises that help develop muscles used in cycling. There is no point in over developing your biceps or chest if you don’t use them. Obviously you need strong legs, a solid core and good lower back, but don’t ignore your shoulders triceps and forearms. This will pay off when tackling harder descents, especially off-road.

Lower body – Squats, Lunges, Clean, Deadlift.

Upper body – Rows, Push-press, shoulder press, Bench Press, Sit ups, push-ups, tricep dips

 

For an example strength programme, click here.