To Ride or Not to Ride: Off-Season Training

Pro cyclists climb Hoosier Pass in the US Pro Challenge

With the weather forecasted to be 75 degrees this weekend, it’s an appropriate time to talk about a favorite off-season activity that has been getting a bad rap in the Strength and Conditioning community lately:  Cycling.

For decades, many speed skaters and hockey players have been using cycling as great way to build base endurance during the summer months while keeping their legs fresh for skating. Because it’s both low impact and uses the quadriceps muscles similarly to skating, it’s perfect for skaters.

But lately strength and conditioning coaches, especially those that work with hockey teams, have been blaming cycling for something called FAI, or Femoral Acetabular Impingement.  You may have heard it referred to as “hip impingement.”  This has led to a big backlash against cycling as a training tool and running making a comeback in popularity.

The most popular theory is that the repetitive motion in skating and cycling (and actually in some people running) causes the overgrowth of the ball of the femur which in turn causes impingement in the joint.  However, there is actually very little research to support this theory. Looking at the basic physiology of human bone growth, as well as the low number of professional cyclists that suffer from FAI, one very specific and scientifically proven phenomenon is ignored: The role force plays in the overgrowth in impingement.  To be concise, force causes osteoblast production, which then calcifies into bone.  Therefore, while the angle of the pelvis in both skating and cycling may cause an unnatural wearing of the hip socket, the force is what will cause the excess bone to grow and cause impingement.

So how can participants in skating sports enjoy cycling without causing additional damage to their hips while experiencing optimal endurance gains during the off-season?  Here are some very important guidelines:

1)   High cadence, low resistance. Keeping the resistance low is key in cycling.  Too often, people turn over a tough gear slowly.   The torque of being in your big ring causes force, flexion and hence promotion of bone growth, all potentially leading to impingement.  Try to keep your cadence between 85-90 rpm in a spinning gear to save your hips.

2)   Stay in a low heart rate zone. While it may seem counterintuitive, spinning in what is known as “zone 2,” a level that allows you to carry on a conversation, is the best for building endurance and strength.

A couple of years ago.  I decided to work with Dr. Inigo San Millan, the former physiologist for professional cycling team Garmin-Sharp, who revolutionized cycling training. He insisted that spending 10 hours a week in zone 2 and only 15 minutes in zone 4 would increase speed and endurance.  I was skeptical based on newer theories about sprint training.  However, I stuck to the program and after just 4 weeks I set a PR on an 8% grade that I hadn’t ridden in months.

Remember, with the heavy resistance training that is usually required in the off-season, cycling needs to be such that it doesn’t cause additional fatigue to already taxed muscles.  Cycling two to three days a week in a low heart rate zone will allow you to climb more as the summer progresses and will help build optimal endurance as you enter the hockey or skating season without overtraining.

3)  Don’t sacrifice your weight sessions. While you don’t want to overtrain, remember the importance of building strength in the off-season.  Hockey and speed skating (all but long distance, long-track) demand both Type 1 (slow twitch) and Type 2 (fast twitch) muscles.  In order to keep your muscles optimized for power, strength workouts in the gym are crucial to maintain Type 2 musculature.

4)   Get out of the saddle. If you find yourself on a climb where your cadence drops and you really have to push, get out of the saddle as much as you can to minimize the pressure on your hips.

5)  Use a bicycle computer. Get a computer that measures both heart rate and cadence. While not a necessity, it does help making sure you don’t go into too high of a training zone and grind in too hard of a gear.  A general heart rate zone chart can be found on numerous Internet sites.

6) Get a good bike fit. Like the heart rate monitor, a bike fit isn’t required but can really help prevent back, hip and knee pain.  Fits can range from free where you buy your bike, to $250 with an experienced specialist.  There are also web sites that give guidelines so you can try it yourself if you are on a budget.

7)   If it hurts, stop. It should go without saying that if despite following all the above guidelines you experience hip and back pain while you’re riding, you may want to avoid cycling.  Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about better alternatives.

Cycling is a great activity that can get you some great vitamin D exposure, prevent skating burnout and build some great endurance in the off-season.  When done properly, it can be an exceptional cross training activity.

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