Off-the-bike training

Michael Guilford Coaching, library

Its November, the weather is cold and changeable, with a good few months until the start of the road race season wet slippery rides don’t seem very appealing. So apart from slogging away on your turbo trainer what else can you do?

In this article, I’ve categorised some off the bike training activities and provided some examples of how you can set helpful goals within them, but in no way am I an expert in any of these activities.

Why do off the bike training?

Is there a benefit to doing activities that aren’t specific to your discipline?  There is no straightforward answer to this, but here are two simple arguments:

  • Elite athletes do it
  • Enjoyable variable activities are motivating

Off-the-bike training can’t replace cycling completely, particular before or during the race season. If you have limited time to train, then off the bike training could draw focus from key training sessions. These activities can be good to do during the early preparation phases or recovery phases mid-season. Roger Bannister spent two weeks away from running (walking/hiking) before completing his record-breaking 4-minute mile.

Gym/weight training – This is probably the most prolific way to train off-the-bike. It’s a good idea to get some instruction from an S&C coach with knowledge of your discipline, and who will make an assesment of your current capabilities. There are two elements to consider in the design of your gym/weights plan, stability and load

Stability and Specificity. Changing the stability of an exercise can have an affect of increasing the load. The multiple world title XC Mountain biker, Nino Shurter demonstrates this in his routine: I can’t even stand on a swiss ball, let alone do squats on one! Bear in mind that these exercises have been design to be specific to mountain biking

Overload – In counterbalance to stability is overload. Overload is placing completing cycling specific movements under greater resistance than that achieved when cycling. Track sprinters such as Chris Hoy can leg press loads in excess of 7 times their body weight: in this exercise the legs have a limited range of motion, which makes it possible to put the hips and  knees under such a high load without injury.

Pilates and yoga – many of the exercises fit in with the fundamentals of movement model promoted by Sport England, they are a good way to condition your body for more specific strength and stability work.

Climbing – The movements are natural and vary widely. It relies on all-body strength, but particularly legs and over a wide range of movement. Assuming you use a climbing wall then it’s good for beginners. If you do it quickly with an auto-belay it can also be a very high-intensity aerobic workout. The movements are relatively slow, so its transfers well to hill climbing, MTB XC and cyclocross.

Goal specific – What can strength & coordination training do for you?

  1. Improve on endurance fitness marked by max aerobic power and functional threshold power.
  2. Increase muscle mass, although significant weight gains are unlikely for endurance athletes
  3. Avoid injury by improving movement quality and muscular balance
  4. Improve robustness for unpredictable situations (crashes!)
  5. Protect joints and bones- cyclic loading stimulates bone and joint growth and repair, particularly relevant for older and female cyclists
  6. Improve posture for better on the bike position
  7. Stability exercises can prepare you for discipline-specific situations
Activities such as martial arts, pilates, yoga, racket sports, ice skating, dancing, team & racquet sports. In these activities, you need to coordinate movements in a fluid way.  These activities could be helpful to any cycling discipline where balance is an important part of learning a technique.

Goal specific- What can coordination and balance activities do for you?

  • Spacial awareness
  • Improve stability and balance in context
  • Learning to learn – learning new skills can help you to create useful learning strategies that can be applied to your discipline.
  • ‘Rewire’ unhelpful movement patterns – if you have a certain unhelpful technical habit in cycling, learning a new skill could give you a chance to ‘rewire’ movement patterns

Will learning new skills undo your discipline-specific work? I think it’s unlikely and in my own experience, I can see no evidence of it. However, it’s important not to get side-tracked from discipline-specific training.

For endurance cyclists, it’s unlikely you will find another activity which will prepare you for the specific aerobic demands of racing, however you can work on some of the contributing elements to race fitness.

Goal specific – What can off-the-bike aerobic work do for you?

  • Maintain energy systems – train your body to turn over large energy loads for long races and day to day training
  • Build cardiovascular fitness for low-intensity endurance
  • Maintain your training routine
  • Active recovery from high intensity cycling training

Running – running is good for maintaining fitness due to the high intensity, this makes it an efficient use of training time. However, the muscular adaptions required to run faster will interfere with cycling performance (depending on your discipline). On the flip side, running has been associated with improved joint and bone health due to the stimulating effect of cycles of impact.

Walking – Most athletes can walk for a long time which makes it good for maintaining energy systems, but it’s probably not going to have much of a training effect until you get closer to running speed (which is difficult!)

Rowing – This is probably the most transferrable non-cycling sport, the load is similar to cycling and there is a smooth transition between loading cycles. Most cyclists will be able to work at a hard aerobic pace on a rowing machine. However the only benefit over cycling training is the symetry of the movment which could help correct a significant left/right pedalling imbalance.

Swimming – To swim at a high intensity requires good technical ability, but for most people, it’s good low-intensity fitness. The stretched out position and use of arms/torso can help correct poor posture from cycling. It’s is also unlikely to impact cycling adversely even within the race season, as the leg/hip muscles are loaded to such a lower level it won’t interfere with movement patterns.

Skating/Roller Blading – next to rowing this is probably the next most transferrable activity. The hip is in a flexed position and there is a smooth transfer of weight from one leg to the other, however, you will struggle to work at a high intensity unless you are very technically proficient.

Your physical performance doesn’t just rely on muscles, lungs, heart, capillaries etc, your psychology plays a big part.

Centred and grounded – Target sports, such as archery, shooting, darts. The movements are very subtle and your posture needs to be very precise. In these sports, there is a feeling of being relaxed but firm for a split second before the action takes place. This is similar to the feeling you might have prior to an attack in a road race, or your final punch in a sprint, or before you negotiate a difficult technical section in a downhill race.

Group tactics – activities involving manipulation of groups and position could help learn bunch tactics. Pool, snooker, chess, all involve a number of pieces which you need to understand and manipulate to win.

Position/spacial tactics – Computer games,  first-person games are better for positioning and strategy games for group tactics. Play online in order to learn how real competitors make decisions, (bots are too predictable). In first-person team games, such as Counter-Strike, you have a small map view on the same screen as your first-person view. This trains your decision making in the context of task switching and working memory limitation. Unlike the previous point, real-time games also simulate the urgency of decision making in a race. Be aware that games also rely on other skills that are not relevant to cycling, such as precision and coordination of hand movements, spending hours playing games could be a big waste of time if you don’t think about how to apply what you are learning, or making sure you are challenging yourself in key areas specific to you.