Full ride season is upon us! While we have put in the work and been consistent with our strength training through the winter and spring season, we often find that it slowly falls out of our weekly routine in favor of either more ride time or more sleep (so we can recover for more ride time). But if you're like I was back in the summer of 2009, you'll have woken up on some Wednesday deep into the Tour, only to realize your power has fallen off a little bit and/or those small, niggly pains that had stopped with your regular strength routine have come home to roost again.
It can often be overwhelming, and just straight up difficult, to figure out how to add strength training back into the mix. How much? What effort level? What should we focus on?
Let's take a look at the four cornerstones that can help us get back to regular strength training and looking, moving, and feeling fantastic.
Less is more
If you’ve read my book Strength Training for Cycling Performance, you'll know that I suggest lifting heavy stuff during the season but in smaller, more focused doses. However, for those of us who have fallen off the strength training wagon for longer than three weeks, jumping into heavy weights can do more harm than good.
What's most important to keep in mind as we get going again in our strength training is that we are only looking for the minimal effective dose, the least amount of work that will allow us to see the returns. This is where RPE (rate of perceived exertion) can keep us on track. The RPE scale we use for strength training is 1-10, where 1 is easy (like lifting a feather) and 10 is like trying to push a car from a dead stop.
As we ramp back in, we are looking for:
First week back: RPE 5 (medium light)
Second week back: If no soreness from week 1, RPE 6 (medium); if sore from week 1, RPE 5
Third week back: If no soreness from week 2, RPE 6-7 (medium +)
From the third week back, you may feel that you're up to speed, and from there you can follow your strength program as it's written, such as the Stronger After 50 Early Season Strength & Power program, where the RPE ranges from 7-9.
More isn't better, BETTER is better!
That said, hitting the RPEs should come as we improve the quality of our movements.
The focus of our mid-season strength training should be postures, positions, and keeping the right amount of stiffness where it's needed to get movement from where we want it. While the heavier loads are a part of the general picture, we do not want to add heavier weights if our movements are not crisp.
In fact, one of the ways we'll often challenge some of the best riders in the world is, instead of going heavier, to focus on feeling the movement and making it look as close to perfect as they can get on that day. What this does is dial up our focus and intent given to that task, which in turn turns up the intensity a level or two.
A simple and easy way to do the same at home these days (certainly much easier than Alf had it in his time) is to use your smartphone to record yourself. However, DO NOT LOOK AT THE PHONE WHILE YOU RECORD. Set your phone up on selfie mode, find the appropriate (or best) zoom level so you fit in the frame, hit record, and do your set. Use your rest periods to watch your video to see what you did really well and choose one thing to improve for the next set.
Stick to your rest periods!
Speaking of rest periods, one of the biggest mistakes I see endurance athletes make in their strength regimen mid-season, is trying to "make it harder" by having short or no rest periods. While there are times and instances where this could be very useful (such as when traveling without your bike with no option to ride), during our more regular training weeks, this can lead to decreasing the results from our strength training!
Stick to 3-5 minutes of rest between sets, which will allow the nervous system and energy systems to recharge and thus help use our strength session to boost our recovery, adaptation, and performance.
Choose two main lifts
The temptation of trying to do everything is one we need to fight against in our mid-season strength program, whether or not we've been consistent up to this point.
But if we want to see great returns on our strength training, we need to commit to just two "main lifts," one that helps mitigate our weakest point and one that improves our main strength.
Just as we see Ron Tyson (lead singer of the Temptations, above) not trying to do a full-on split (something he wouldn't be able to do without hurting himself or possibly having a nice big tear on his inseam on the Ed Sullivan Show), we too must realize the importance of sticking to our strengths and building ourselves an ever-so-slightly-bigger margin of safety.
How often should we strength train?
Leaving a margin of safety is a recurring theme for mid-season strength training, as we want to allow our strength training program to support and boost our riding, not sap our energy and take away from our ability to recover and adapt to our training.
For many riders, one day of strength training every week plus one to two 15- to 20-minute movement sessions sprinkled through the rest of the week does the trick.
If you're one who has a deeper training history and can carry more training stress (and you have the time to fit in a second strength day), you may thrive on two strength training days a week.
Or, if you're like me, you may have some weeks where it's one day, and others where it's two, depending on your life/family/work situation.
There is no magic single answer for all riders (or any single rider for that matter), aside from this: Be consistent with at least one dedicated strength session within every 7-10 days, following the pillars outlined above. This dosing tends to allow just enough training stress to be placed on you without breaking you, thus allowing you to see improving returns on your time, energy, and effort.