Off-season Cycling Training
Is there room for
By Stephen Cheung, Ph.D.
News After resting off the bike to recharge the batteries and
reviewing your past season, it's time to start planning the off-season training
and priorities. One of the big questions about the off-season is the "need for
speed," namely how much intensity or resistance training work is required or
There is no off-season
Let's explode the myth of the "off" season.
While there's certainly a necessity to take some time off the bike, I much
prefer to get away from the term "off-season" and its implication that it's
time away from serious training. The obvious cycling example is Armstrong vs.
Ullrich is famous for packing on the weight,
with the result that much of his early preparation involves workouts designed
to get rid of the weight. In contrast, Lance rarely "relaxes" enough during the
winter to gain more than two kilograms or so of weight, allowing him to get
back into high-quality training quickly. In turn, this sets him up for
improvement year-to-year rather than always just managing to get back to the
same level each year.
Looking at other sports, the same pattern of
maintaining close-to-peak fitness is consistent. For example, elite swimmers
are typically NEVER more than five percent off their peak fitness or their
performance times throughout the entire year. Dropping any further simply
requires far too much time and effort devoted to rebuilding, with the result
that your growth and improvement over the course of the year and year-to-year
During what I prefer to call the
"non-competition" season, training may incorporate many of the alternative
training modes, such that the actual time on the bike will likely decrease
slightly. However, the concept of training specificity dictates that it
remains critical to continue logging bike time to maintain muscle memory along
with maximizing cardiovascular and metabolic efficiency.
With this in mind, one theory of training
suggests that the primary goal of the winter months is to log large volumes of
low-intensity (often called "long steady distance" or LSD) training on the bike
in order to build a large aerobic capacity for subsequent high-intensity
training in the early racing season.
This advice typically includes warnings to
avoid high-intensity work on the bike and/or resistance training at almost all
costs, as it might somehow ruin the benefits from the aerobic-based
Make no mistake -- cycling remains an
endurance sport, and a strong aerobic capacity remains the foundation for
success in almost all cycling disciplines. However, the latest scientific
evidence suggests that there remains a place for high-intensity work even
during the winter months. This was highlighted in a review published online in
2004 at the excellent Web site
The authors, Carl Paton and Will Hopkins,
surveyed the existing 22 studies in the scientific literature investigating the
use of high-intensity and/or resistance training using elite athletes as
subjects.1 This is a key
approach, as it eliminated a lot of studies using recreational or untrained
athletes, where the addition of almost any training manipulation would lead to
significant increases in performance.
Furthermore, the high-intensity training
studies were further categorized into "sub-maximal," "maximal" and
"supra-maximal" studies, while the resistance training was categorized into
"explosive sport-specific," "explosive non-sport-specific," "plyometrics" and
"usual weights." (See Table 1 below).
Table 1: Summary table of studies
investigating influence of high-intensity or resistance training on elite
athletes during the non-competitive season. From Paton and Hopkins
Analyzing the studies
As always, there are caveats to keep in mind
when reviewing any scientific data. First and most importantly, we're talking a
total of 22 studies over all of these categories, so some of the findings may
be skewed by the fact that they come from only one or two studies. However,
some general trends appear:
Extending the concept of specificity,
look at the findings this way -- the effort required to sprint at, for example,
1000 W, is very specific in terms of metabolic and neuromuscular demands. If
you spend six months not stimulating and forcing your body to this level of
effort, you'll "detrain" from being able to handle this effort and will spend a
lot of time and effort building back up to this level.
- Short but maximal-intensity efforts (at
power outputs near that at your VO2max) and above seem to be the most
beneficial. Paton and Hopkins theorize that this is due to stimulation of the
most metabolic pathways (alactic, anaerobic, and aerobic).1
- Explosive type resistance training,
stressing rapid movement of relatively light weights, seems to have the
In contrast, just a small amount of stimulus
may be enough to maintain these gains throughout the non-competitive season,
allowing you to build and progress year-to-year.
The other common training dogma is that
resistance training should be minimized or eliminated during the competitive
season. All 22 studies in this summary had the additional training performed
during the non-competitive season, and it can be argued that the benefit
observed was simply due to putting high-intensity training where there was none
However, one study by Toussaint and Vervoorn
implemented explosive resistance training in elite swimmers during the
competitive season on top of the already extensive high-intensity training,
and still observed a small but significant improvement in
performance.2 While this is
only one study, this suggests that explosive resistance training is beneficial
throughout the year.
As mentioned above, the key caveat is that
22 studies is still a relatively low number to draw conclusions from when we're
dealing with so many possible training manipulations. In conclusion:
- By no means is any of this suggesting
that you toss out aerobic training and simply do VO2max efforts every ride throughout the
non-competition season! The main conclusion from Paton and Hopkins's review
should be that there is potential benefit from SMALL amounts of high-intensity
efforts supplementing the aerobic training.1
- Paton CD and
Hopkins, WG. Effects of high-intensity training on performance and physiology
of endurance athletes. Sportscience 8: 25-40, 2004.
- Toussaint HM and
Vervoorn K. Effects of specific high resistance training in the water on
competitive swimmers. Int J Sports Med 11: 228-233, 1990.
Stephen Cheung, Ph.D., is an
associate professor of kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research
specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance.
Stephen's company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and
training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of
sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at