Gearing Down: Using Early Season Force to Build Cycling Endurance
How to focus early season training has been a hot topic for endurance athletes and coaches for decades. Gaining endurance is the goal, but what’s the best combination of methods to use? On the bike, slow and long distance spinning days paired with moderate to fast tempo training days are a staple of most early season programs. However, forceful efforts and intensity also play an important role. Combining force work along with steady endurance training in the early season will help lead to better form on the bike and overall endurance.
Recent studies show many benefits from combining cycling-specific strength training off the bike (such as the half squat/parallel squat) with on-the-bike endurance training1,2. The results of these studies indicate that gains from strength training lead to gains in cycling efficiency and endurance. (The more efficient you are on the bike, the less energy it will take to pedal at a specific power output). Studies also show no negative change in VO2max after an eight-week period of combined strength and endurance training.2
Off Season Strength Training for Cycling
Strength training off the bike is important and provides a way to work greater amounts of force than what you can experience on a bike, leading to stronger bones, tendons and ligaments. Strength training also allows you to work a different range of motion, creating balance within the muscle to help prevent injury, and making the muscle stronger overall.
So during the off-season, while the majority of the focus will be on spinning aerobically on the bike, incorporate a variety of cycling specific strength exercises such as squats and lunges to gain strength to your core and prepare your muscles for more strength work on the bike in the early season. One example is the half parallel squat exercise (pictured to the right).
Then, once you start to log longer hours in the early season, focus on less strength work to your legs in the gym, and incorporate more force work on the bike to make sports specific gains to cycling strength.
Incorporating Force Workouts for Cycling
Force efforts on the bike are similar in motion to that of a half squat except that on the bike, your knee is slightly more flexed at the top of the pedal stroke than compared to the flexion of the knee at the lowest position of the half squat. Also, the motion occurs one leg at a time compared to both feet on the floor when performing a squat. On the bike, you are placing increased force on a small pedal beneath your metatarsals, targeting a specific motion and group of muscles in the legs and core. This makes the cycling motion very unique to any other form of strength exercise. Incorporate more force work on the bike in the early season to make gains in strength and endurance that are as sports specific to cycling as you can get.
In the early season, combine ride days focused on short and long forceful efforts along with days focused on steady endurance spinning in zones 1-3 to help target many different systems. (See this piece on heart rate zones by Joe Friel).
The following is an example of an early season force workout.
Early Season Force Workout
One or two days a week, perform the following for the duration of short or long workouts:
- Shift into a gear ratio that allows you to work more force while maintaining a cadence in the 65-75rpm range, and target heart rate intensity in zones 3-4
- Maintain these efforts for 5-10 minute periods of time
- Recover with easy spinning in zones 1-2 for 5-10 minute periods before your next effort.
These efforts are best done on steady road or trail grades of 6-8%. If the terrain is steeper, use a slightly easier gear to achieve proper intensity and cadence. Efforts can be done seated, standing or with a mix of both. Maintain a deep breath and moderate perceived exertion when working these efforts to ensure you are working aerobically, an important focus in the early season.
Another way to add force work into your early season workouts is by using a single speed. Choosing the proper gear ratio and terrain is important to allow you to target the proper amount of force, intensity and leg speed.
Higher intensity efforts into the zone 4-5a plus ranges can be added to the early season training mix at times, but the majority of training in the early season should be focused on gaining aerobic endurance.
Progressing Through the Season
As you work into your race season towards your peak races for the year, incorporating shorter, more intense forceful efforts into the zone 4-5a plus ranges, along with the addition of speed work will lead to additional gains in upper end strength. The more endurance you build early on with longer forceful efforts, the more intense forceful efforts you will be able to handle during race season.
Listen to your limits when working with greater force. Force work provides additional fatigue to your quads and strain on your knees. Beware of overtraining the legs with too much force work or intensity. See my article on how to use heart rate to judge whether you are headed towards fatigue or overtraining.
In conclusion, force work plays an important role while training on the bike, especially early in the season. Working force with proper intensity at the right times will allow you to increase your strength, which will lead to increased efficiency and endurance. Working with more force is also fun and allows variety in the program, which will keep training interesting throughout the year and keep you on the path to success.
If you want more ideas for early season cycling workouts, check out our cycling training plans, which include dedicated base period cycling plans as well as training plans that will help you complete a time trial, century ride, or mountain bike race.