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Get A Gravel Bike Racing Edge: Why You Should Do Strength Training

One of the most important parts of your training for long gravel races should be strength or resistance training. 

Strength training not only improves your strength and power, but it can help you prevent injuries and improve your endurance. 

Anyone who’s done a long gravel race knows we need to have full-body strength to withstand the challenges of gravel racing. 

Blog post #4: Using intervals to improve performance

Blog post #3: Using the 80/20 model to schedule workouts. 

Blog post #2: Building a base for gravel racing performance

Blog post #1: Five keys to training for gravel racing

Unlock the secrets to gravel racing success with essential strength training tips for improved power, endurance, and injury prevention.

Benefits of strength training:

  • Improved power output: Strength training can enhance the rider's ability to produce power, especially useful for climbing and sprinting.
  • Injury prevention: Riders can reduce their risk of common cycling-related injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues. Cycling primarily moves the body in one direction and we need to strengthen supporting muscles to prevent overuse injuries.
  • Endurance and efficiency: Stronger muscles fatigue less quickly, leading to more efficient pedaling over long distances. Strengthening back and shoulder muscles lead to a stronger position on the bike. 
  • Improved bike handling: Core and upper body strength contribute to better stability and control on rough terrain, preventing fatigue and boosting confidence.

How to start strength training

First of all, it’s important to start slowly when you are strength training for gravel racing. 

When I start working with a new athlete, I give them this Back and Booty video to start training their back and glutes, which are often weaker in cyclists. 

After a couple of weeks of doing this series of exercises several times a week, we’ll start with weights at the gym. 

Going to the gym is often easier simply because of the variety of exercise equipment. 

But you can use adjustable dumbbells, resistance bands, or suspension straps like the TRX at home as well. 

Key strength training exercises for gravel racing

Build full-body strength to be fully ready for gravel racing. 

This means including the following with an example 

Timing and structure of strength training

Generally, I tell my athletes to do two sets of repetitions. 

The first set should be about eight to 10 repetitions to get a sense of how you’re feeling with the weights. 

Maybe the weight you chose needs to be lighter - or heavier -  for your effort today. 

Your goal is to use the second set to do six to 10 repetitions to fatigue. 

This means you stop when you feel like you could do one or two more repetitions. 

Do your strength training all year long

Structure strength training around the cycling season, with more intense strength work in the off-season and maintenance during the racing season.

This means training two to three times a week during the preparation and base phase, and then maintaining your strength gains with once a week training during the race season. 

If you’re racing from April until November like I am, continue training twice a week.

Don’t do your strength training the week of your race. 

Generally, I tell my athletes to do their strength training around 12 hours after their interval work so that they get a hard day. 

This means intervals in the morning and strength training in the evening. 

Or you might simply have a day when you do strength training without any endurance work. 

Nutrition and recovery

When you add strength training to your program, you’ll need to eat more and probably add more protein to your diet. 

When you break the muscles down during strength work, they require protein to rebuild. 

And because you’re adding in additional training stress, you’ll need to eat more calories to maintain your muscle mass. 

You’ll be surprised how much more you need to eat!

That’s why protein shakes or smoothies are a great way to add in more nutrients when it’s tough to physically eat that much food. 

Research supporting strength training for cycling

One study found that both male and female cyclists experience beneficial effects from concurrent strength and endurance training on cycling performance. 

The study suggested that increased muscle cross-sectional area is an important adaptation for improved performance, countering the belief that cyclists should avoid muscle gain​​.

Another review found that combining endurance and heavy or explosive strength training improves running economy and cycling performance. 

Specifically, heavy strength training is recommended for enhancing cycling economy. 

It also suggested that improved endurance performance might be related to delayed activation of less efficient muscle fibers, improved neuromuscular efficiency, or conversion of fast-twitch fibers into more fatigue-resistant types​. 

A third review indicated that strength training enhances cycling economy and can improve short-term cycling performance, including maximal performance gains and time to exhaustion, in both untrained individuals and high-level trained cycling athletes.

Training plus experience

I’m a Level 2 USA-Cycling Coach, a certified yoga instructor, and a certified personal trainer.

I support everyday endurance athletes at Simple Endurance Coaching, based in Milwaukee. 

Plus I’ve been racing gravel, road, mountain bike, and cyclocross for decades, so I’ll bring both experience and training knowledge to help you to your best gravel race performances in 2024. 

I’ll be racing the Big Rivers Gravel Series, the Hungry Bear, likely the Coon Fork 40, and other gravel races this year. 

I’m always available for a free 30-minute Virtual Coffee to talk about your strength training, gravel racing, and your goals

Thanks, and I look forward to meeting you.

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