The Importance of Weight Training & Cross Training in the Off-Season
By: Lee Unwin, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist
The off-season is a perfect time to prevent injuries through weight training and cross training. Here are a few reasons why now's the time to take stock in how your body is feeling and do more than just ride inside before the season starts.
First and foremost this is the time I advise my clients to make time for their body before their body makes time for them. Address any injury or slightest of annoyances you may be feeling. Typically, if those things haven't resolved themselves within 2-4 weeks they will only get worse as you begin to ramp up your training come spring. Remember, should you need an extended period off the bike you will still have plenty of time to regain your fitness before the season begins. Again, address little issues NOW before they become season ending issues later.
The number one reason we see athletes in our clinic is because of overuse injuries. No matter what your sport, you need to do something different in-conjunction with your sport. I'm not suggesting you put your bike away for the winter, but this is the time to try a few different things like running, cross country skiing, or swimming - and ideally do all of them! I think the belief is that when the season is over that is the time to pound out the training miles. I promise it's not.
Cycling is not a weight bearing exercise and because of this many cyclists actually have weaker, thinner bones than they might imagine. It might be advantageous for top tour riders to have light bones, but it may also explain why so many of them easily break when they have a simple mishap. Weight training exercises such as squats, box step-ups or lunges are great for not only increasing bone density, but also strengthens tendons and ligaments, a common source of injury for cyclists.
Cross training activities such as running and cross country skiing, or anything that is weight bearing in nature, is another great way to increase bone density. Because the movements are different from cycling these activities are also another way to strengthen tendons and ligaments, thus preventing overuse injuries.
We forget that cycling is an unnatural posture, and is also a posture that many of us continue to maintain throughout the day at the office. Cross training and weight training help counteract this by allowing us to move in a more natural or open position. Simply changing the muscles you use for your activity, as well as the way you move, will increase your strength, balance, flexibility, and overall athletic ability.
Weight and cross training can also easily and quickly unlock areas of untapped potential. To enhance muscular strength, power, and cardio-vascular function we must put greater and greater stress on these systems. The bicycle and the act of training on it, has certain limitations. Weight and cross training can easily and quickly go beyond these limitations.
Weight training allows for a very controlled environment in which we can incrementally increase our strength and power. As the body adapts to the stress that we put on it, we can, in very small increments, put greater demands on it. With cycling we simply run out of gears and steep enough hills.
The same can be said for the cyclists' cardiovascular system. Top runners, swimmers, rowers, and cross country skiers all share similar, or even better, max VO2 abilities than that of cyclists. Those activities also require a large amount of upper body and core strength. Another benefit for adding these particular sports into your off-season is that they require a higher level of breath control. Obviously swimming requires the most control, but because of the compressive nature of all of the above mentioned activities one must concentrate on rate and depth of breathing more so than cycling. My experience shows that all of these activities help cyclists take deeper more diaphragmatic breaths, creating lower perceived exertion rates when they return to cycling.
Lastly, the benefit of weight and cross training is that it can unlock free strength, power and ultimately speed. Watch all the great pro cyclists as they climb or sprint to the finish, they are not sitting the entire time. Each of them is out of the saddle, bent slightly forward, abs and back fully engaged. They are using their arms to rock, or even violently thrash, the bike side-to-side over the top of the climb or as they sprint to the finish line.
For Mental Health
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the reason to begin weight and cross training is for your mental well-being. It is exceeding important to give yourself a mental break from cycling. You are not losing focus. You're simply redirecting it in order to make yourself a better athlete. You want to come out of the off-season with an intense desire to ride or race, and that is almost impossible to achieve when you don't incorporate other activities into your off-season.
Your off-season is here so put your bike away for a couple days and go get those skis and weights out of the closet. I promise you will become a better cyclist and overall athlete.
Lee Unwin received BA Exercise Science at St. Ambrose University. He is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist as well as a Board Certified Massage Therapist.
Alongside his wife, Lee owns and operates Unwin Chiropractic & Wellness Center and the Verona Fitness Studio, in Verona, Wisconsin. He has over 20 years of experience working athletes. Lee also competes in marathon mountain biking and cyclocross, both locally and nationally.