If you want to get better at cycling, you’ve just got to cycle more – right? Well, yes… and no. When it comes to improving athletic performance, you’re relying on your body to respond to a stimulus and adapt to become stronger, more powerful and more efficient (or all three). When you do an activity that your body finds challenging, it says to itself: “Crikey on a bike, that was difficult. Better make some improvements up in here so next time we’re asked to ride up that hill or sprint that interval it doesn’t feel quite so horrendous!”. Over time, your body gets ‘used to’ the training that you’re doing, so it doesn’t find it quite so pressing to keep adapting… and that’s when a plateau happens. Now it goes without saying that you can vary your bike workouts and add more intensity to keep making progress. But there’s only so much you can achieve with riding on its own, and eventually you’ll hit a ceiling – or worse, get an overuse injury!
This is where switching up your training and introducing a bit of cross training into your routine comes into play. From boosting your aerobic capacity and enhancing your top end speed, to aiding recovery and ensuring that you’re resilient against injuries. Mixing it up with activities such as swimming, running, strength training and yoga can be the not-so-secret sauce that will help to take your performance to the next level.
Ready for some gains? Read on to find out more about what activities are beneficial and how to incorporate them into your training schedule.
Best cross training activities for cyclists
Perhaps only second to strength training, swimming is arguably one of the best cross training activities you can incorporate into your routine as a cyclist. Spending some time in the water is a fantastic, low-impact way to improve your aerobic fitness – which will translate to enhanced endurance and the ability to ride faster for longer when you’re back on the bike. Because your bodyweight is supported by the water you’ve got the benefit of being able to get your heart and lungs working, without putting too much stress through your muscles. It’ll get your core working (essential for cycling efficiency and injury prevention) and the resistance of moving through the water also acts as a brilliant upper body workout.
If the worst happens and you do end up with a niggle or an injury, the pool is also a great place to perform rehab exercises which can gently stretch and strengthen the affected muscles while your bodyweight is supported by the water. Furthermore, the sensation of the cool water running over your muscles can have a therapeutic effect so it’s a good way to wind down and recover after a rough day in the saddle.
Don’t just take our word for it, former pro cyclist Richie Porte was well-known for incorporating swimming into his training regime!
If you’re ready to give swimming a go but you’re not sure how to get started check out our swim tips article from triathlete, Tom Epton.
Sold on the swimming aspect but can’t stand the thought of being stuck indoors at your local pool? We’ve got you covered! Time to get out into nature and dip your toe into the world of open water swimming: read our lake swimming blog for everything you need to know about swimming in the wild.
Running: that’s something we cyclists only do when someone’s nicked our bike, right!? But seriously, spending a bit of time on two hooves could actually be just the ticket to improving your performance on the bike. We’ve gone into way more detail in our recent post: Six reasons cyclists should take up running… but in short, running is one of the best ways to:
- Turbo charge your cardiovascular fitness.
- Improve your core strength and develop stronger proprioceptive muscles which will help to make you more efficient on the bike.
- Help to maintain (or improve) bone density – cycling is a very low impact activity so while it has huge physical benefits, looking after your bone health isn’t one of them.
- Gives you the ability to get active, wherever you are – ideal for work travel or when you’re on holiday and you’ve had to leave your trusty steed at home.
- Offers a fresh perspective and a new way to explore – which helps to keep you motivated and enjoying your training.
If we’ve just about convinced you to lace up those trainers and swap the bib shorts for running shorts, head over to our Beginners’ Guide to Getting into Running for some handy hints to help you ease in, avoid any injuries and importantly – actually enjoy spending a bit of time on two hooves instead of two wheels.
If you love getting out on your bike, chances are the thought of picking things up and putting them down again in the gym doesn’t feel particularly inspiring… but strength training is vital not only for improving your ability to push power on the pedals, but also for injury prevention, addressing any weaknesses or imbalances and helping to maintain bone density.
Your gym routine doesn’t need to be overly complicated or time-consuming. Just two sessions a week focusing on a few key exercises can have a significant impact on your performance. The ‘Triathlon Mockery’ podcast recently published a really great episode with Dr Kate Baldwin (who has a PhD in strength-training for triathletes) which gives a no nonsense, easy to implement guide to incorporating strength training into your routine if you’re an endurance athlete.
The key thing here is to incorporate movements and exercises which will help you to perform on the bike. That means compound exercises which work the key muscle groups such as the quads, hamstrings, glutes and lats while also engaging your core. Back squats, deadlifts, split squats and lat pull downs are all fairly simple exercises to perform (be sure to ask for help from a gym instructor if you’re new to strength work) that will give you bang for your buck results. A common myth is that if you’re into endurance sports such as cycling, you should be using lightweights and performing high reps. However, recent research has shown that for the most impact on your performance and to gain the most benefits you’re better off using heavier weights which you can only perform around 5 reps with. The key thing here is to work on your form first and build up to heavier weights. Start by performing the exercises with very light weights (or just using your own bodyweight) to get used to the movements and build up to the heavier loads.
Let’s face it, yoga is something that all of us could probably benefit from doing more often – cyclist or not! Yoga is a great way to improve your mind-body connection, to tune in to your breathing and to get some much-needed headspace from the busy hustle-bustle that can be our everyday lives.
Specifically for improving your cycling performance, yoga will help you to work on your balance, core and controlling your breath: all of which will make you more efficient on the bike. Furthermore, yoga is a great way to counteract the tightness and postural issues we can experience from spending a lot of time hunched over riding down on the drops. Strength paired with flexibility is the key to performing at your best and avoiding injuries, so while time on the yoga mat might not feel as productive as smashing out a turbo session – long term it’s going to help you to continue improving in the sport.
Most of us are already pretty time-starved, so if you haven’t got time to head to a class there are plenty of useful yoga tutorials on YouTube which you can do at home. Some of them are only 10-20 minutes long, so it’s easy to tag them onto the end of a bike session without eating too much into the rest of your day. We particularly like this quick and easy ‘yoga for cyclists’ routine from Yoga with Adrienne.
How to incorporate cross training into your routine
We hear you: “Ok guys, that all sounds great but how am I supposed to find the time for all this additional training on top of what I’m already trying to do on the bike!?”
That short answer is: you’re not. Simply trying to add a bunch of extra activity into your schedule is just going to lead you on the road to burn out. Instead – depending on the volume of bike training you’re doing – consider swapping one or two of your weekly bike sessions for a cross-training session instead. For example, an easy recovery ride could be swapped for a swim. A turbo trainer workout where you’re doing big over-gearing efforts to build leg strength could be substituted with a strength training session in the gym. Balance is key, and it might take a bit of a mindset shift to let go of that extra riding time… but trust the process and you’ll find that the time you are spending in the saddle will be much higher quality.
Watch out, Strava crown holders – the Stolen Goat Herd will be coming for your segment KOMs/QOMs before you know it!