The 4 Pillars of Strength-Training for Cyclists – Part II: Intensity

In Part I of this series, we discussed how often a cyclist should perform strength-training. And of course, like most other athletic performance questions, the answer was essentially “it depends”, and we sought to uncover some of the factors that might influence your decision-making as a rider or coach.

Today, we will build off of the same theme — “it depends” — this time, however, covering intensity.

Part I — Frequency: when and how often to train?

Part II — Intensityhow hard to train?

Part III — Volume how much to train?

Part IV — Planning, Programming, Periodization how to piece it all together?

Defining the Term and What to Consider

First thing’s first, let’s define the term Intensity: this essentially denotes the amount of load applied, and can be broken down by the set, exercise, day, week, or cycle.

  • We can increase intensity from set to set for a specific exercise
  • Exercises in a workout can vary in intensity, or they can all be relatively equal
  • Days can undulate in intensity across a week
  • Specific weeks in a cycle can be higher intensity relative to others

Understanding intensity is a vital part of holistically designing and prescribing our training programs, as they can allow us to find optimal stress and recovery by (a) aggregating and ordering high and low sessions in a training week, and (b) ensuring we are targeting adaptations with appropriate training doses

Intensity in Terms of Stress and Recovery

As it is more commonly understood now than in the past, physiological adaptations from training do not come during the training session, but after: during the recovery in between bouts. Therefore, as we attempt to integrate multiple facets of a training program into our cycling — whether it be strength-training, nutrition, regeneration, mobility, etc — it is increasingly important that we strive to find an order to the components in such a way that we optimize stress and recovery.

I say optimize both recovery and stress because, oftentimes, athletes hear the importance of recovery and think this means we are asking them to do less work. This is, in fact, not the case: athletes can perform more work if they focus on wellness behaviors such as sleep, hydration, and nutrition, while also ensuring they have an organized, periodized training plan that accounts for balanced stress and recovery. Simply put: the more we can recover from our training and the more organized our training plan is, the greater potential we will have to perform more work overall.

This is partly why recreational athletes like myself will be limited in how great we can truly be on the bike: we have substantial obligations away from training that not only limit our training time, but also our recovery time. A professional athlete is paid to train hard, yes, but they are also afforded the freedom (especially as they ascend the ranks and make more money from their sport) to spend their time away from training in a manner that supports their work: relaxing, recovering, fueling, and sleeping. For most of us, however, we spend 1-2 hours per day training, and then another 8-12 hours working, where we accumulate professional and personal stressors on top of our training loads. And, stress is stress: whether it is on in the saddle or under the barbell, at home or in the office, it is impossible to prevent these stressors to accumulate and interact with each other.

On the bright side, the non-professional cyclist can still optimize their current training situation by structuring their training in such a way that maximizes each dose of training stress while providing adequate recovery in between bouts. To do this, stressors can be aggregated — or bucketed — into peaks and valleys — i.e. days of high and low intensity, with sprinklings of moderate intensity days as needed.

In this way, we can get the most bang-for-the-buck on our hard days, while also doing the same for our recovery days; this is opposition to a common line of thinking, where every day and training session needs to be feel like a physical and/or mental challenge, in which case we are more than likely compromising both recovery and adaptation from the previous session, while also compromising our readiness for the next session as well.

The High-Low model can be done in many ways, with true intensity itself being the guiding factor (high stress days on the bike being on the same day as heavy lifting), or it could be structured with overall workload in mind (high workload days vs. minimal-to-no workload days). Either way, stacking stressors in this manner is an effective first step toward organizing training and avoiding monotony.

Understanding Intensity in terms of Bikes and Barbells

In addition to looking a training intensity and load as a tool for structuring the week, getting to know intensity as a training variable can also help us determine the best way to order our training within a day or week. In other words, intensity can help us prioritize our training sessions.

How intensity helps us in this regard comes down to what it actually indicates for both strength-training and cycling: simply put, we can infer what we are actually training in terms of physical adaptations and energy systems when we know the training intensity.

What is High Intensity in Strength-Training?

When it comes to your lifting session, intensity is measured by the force application needed to overcome a resistance. Thus, moving a heavy load (e.g. performing 5×2 @ 92% of your 1RM) is considered a high intensity effort, whereas moving lighter loads (e.g. 3×8 @ 65% of your 1RM) is considered lower in intensity. An exception, however, would be a lighter weight moved as fast as possible: while the force for a lighter weight may be lower, the velocity needed to move it explosively would be exceptionally high. Thus, the rate of force application would be high, making it a powerful, high-intensity effort.

Intuitively we can probably make more sense of this in cycling terms: attaining high wattages on the bike can either be done with high force/low cadence efforts (think about grinding in a big gear), or low force/high cadence efforts (think about spin faster and strong in a sprint). And, this is akin to using a very heavy load in the weight room with slow movement, versus utilizing a light load but with rapid movement. So, essentially, when we say “force application” or “rate of force development” in the weight room, and watts on the bike, we are essentially talking about power (P), where P = Force x Velocity

In either scenario — heavy weight or high velocity movements — we are training relatively high power outputs that require resources from the body.

In the case of high intensity training in the weight room, the resources we are predominantly talking about revolve around the Central Nervous System (CNS), thus training heavy or explosive movements in the weight room will come at the cost of neural (CNS) fatigue. More on this soon…

What is High Intensity on the Bike?

When it comes to training in the saddle, intensity is very simply captured by power outputs and/or heart rate. Ride with very high power outputs (and subsequently higher heart rates) and you will be performing a higher intensity session. An example of this would be anaerobic power sessions, where explosive, powerful outputs are required. Each effort might be short, but it takes a neurological toll, and also comes at a bioenergetic cost as well.

Conversely, Recovery spins and Endurance rides are considered lower in their intensity, and this can be seen in the lower power outputs required.

What is Moderate Intensity?

What about moderate intensity work? In the case of cycling, these are those medium-wattage sustained efforts, such as Sweet Spot work. While these efforts can be repeated several times in a week, they still can take their toll, especially if overdone.

In the same light, moderate intensity work in the weight room would be more along the lines of medium-difficulty loads performed to near-failure (e.g. doing 8 reps at 75% of your 1RM, where bar-speed is not prioritized). These same weights could be used to perform more explosive reps with fewer reps (high velocity work), and heavier weights could be used at lower reps (high force work) to work at high intensities; but, performing a moderate load to fatigue splits the difference to the point that neither high velocity nor high force is addressed. In other words, more “work” is getting done, but the power and intensity is still lower relative to high-load or high-velocity sets.

In both scenarios, using moderate intensity work comes at less of a neurological cost, but more of a muscular and bioenergetic one — and you can feel this with the burning in your legs.

Pulling it All Together

Now that we know what high intensity means in terms of strength-training and cycling, and with what “cost” it carries in each endeavor, we can start to understand how this helps us prioritize our training.

If you plan to conduct a strength-training session close to a session on the bike (whether that be same day or next day), the order of operations matter.

|| Whichever session involves the highest intensity should probably take the priority

When there is a mismatch in intensity between sessions, this is a no-brainer: if you have a heavy lifting session and a Z2 ride on the bike in the same day, then we can pretty safely say that the lift would be most appropriate prior to the spin; training heavy means you are training to get stronger, and a couple of hours of endurance riding will only accrue counterproductive metabolites that will interfere if performed prior to the lift.

As the intensity of the sessions become more similar, it will likely become more of a judgement call dependent on where you are in the race-season or off-season: if the strength adaptation takes precedence (i.e. this is a time of year where you want to get stronger), then it should probably come first. But, if the emphasis is on energy system development or race-specific work, then freshness in the saddle will be paramount.

Either way, performing activities that live on the same side of the intensity continuum leaves room for options: if you are training the CNS with bike sprints and also training with high intensity loads in the weight room on the same day, in all reality you have the wiggle room to perform either first without making too much of a compromise.

Training on opposite ends of the spectrum in a single day (low intensity in one session, high in another) is not a bad option either; depending on your focus, as long as you have adequate rest, it is still doable without too much compromise. I think it is important to note because, in the real world, it is hard to find ideals.

For example, living in Arizona like I personally do can make riding in the summer nearly impossible. Just today, the high temperature will be just below 120*F, and it was 92*F by 5:30am. Adding a lift prior to my ride would have meant getting up at 3:30 or 4:30am, or riding in 100*F+ temperatures. So, sometimes even when we are armed with all of the science and good ideas, life will still dictate our plans.

It is training in the moderate ranges, however, that can have real consequences when performing two-a-day sessions. Spend a lot of time at Sweet Spot or even high-end Tempo work on the bike, and you will undoubtedly feel a bit of muscular fatigue going into your strength-training later that day. Perform moderately-loaded sets with moderate-to-high repetitions in the weight room prior to a bike session, and you will certainly be carrying muscular fatigue over as well. It is in these scenarios that you are likely to compromise the most.

So, when is it best to strength-train around your time in the saddle? Well, ultimately, this post is the second installment in a longwinded way of saying it depends. But, with an understanding of what it can depend on — with intensity being a major factor — hopefully we can narrow the bandwidth of options and make the best training decisions possible.


Ryan J. Faer

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