Strength Training: Preparing The Legs For The Mountains

Lee Parish, 14th March 2014

A common query from cyclists who have no prior experience of cycling in high mountains is how to prepare for the climbs. In the Pyrenees, "long" can be anything from the Col des Ares at 6km to the Port de Bales at 19km long and can range in gradient from a comfortable 6 to cross a line around 8% and certainly getting difficult above 10%.

mountain road in the Pyrenees

For starters, you need to have a foundation to build upon and if you work on only one thing, it should be endurance training such as riding 100km or more over hilly terrain, ideally on multiple days back-to-back. This is not specific, non-targeted training, but by accident you're likely to improve upon 2 of the most important cycling abilities - strength and endurance. But there comes a point where your training will plateau and only specific training will take you to the next level.

You Are A Mix Of 3 Basic Abilities

Put simply, there are 3 basic abilities you can focus on to improve. These are, endurance, strength and speed skill.

mountain biker using strength

When you mix the basic ability of strength with speed skill (such as high cadence) you get power. Being good at generating power by having good strength and a high, yet efficient cadence will quickly get you to the top of the mountain. This is especially true if you are lightweight and thus have a healthy power-to-weight ratio. Think of Lance Armstrong verses Jan Ullrich as a classic example of opposite styles; speed skill versus strength, yet both producing similar power.

Power is the combination of strength + speed skills

Analyse yourself to determine what you are good at and what is your weakness/ limiting factor to start improving. Next step, work on that weakness . Sounds simple? Well it can be!

Focusing On Strength

The best way to do strength training is on the bike, making it specific and targeting those exact muscles needed and in the same range of motion as used in riding a bike. This is more time efficient as you'll get other training benefits while cycling. General strength training using free weights can be useful at the beginning but as you get closer to competition, it is better to phase out free weights otherwise you will become really good at lifting weights and not much else.

Hill Intervals

Seek out hilly routes at home but remember it's quality over quantity. Add extra resistance by using a much lower than normal cadence for short periods of climbing. Intervals can be time efficient and specifically strengthen muscles. Find a steep hill (10% or more) and do repetitions of 2 minutes at a cadence of 60-70 RPM while staying seated, take 3 minutes recovery then repeat until fatigue sets in and quality deteriorates.

During rolling endurance rides, develop strong hip flexors by staying seated on the bike. Don’t take the easy option by getting out of the saddle when it gets tough, simply stay seated and concentrate on keeping everything relaxed and pedaling 360 degrees engaging all muscles, not just the powerful quads. It is amazing how much more power can be generated when really concentrating on pulling the pedal back, up and over as much as you would try to push the pedal down. When done correctly, the extra stress can accumulate so I would also suggest that your effort is made progressive over several weeks to avoid injury to the knees.

woman displaying power on bike

Technique Supplements

To add to your normal riding, single leg drills using a turbo trainer or done on quiet roads will develop greater strength where your pedaling stroke is weakest. Such drills will force you to engage your hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes to return the pedal back to the three o’clock position where the quads kick in. If you have not tried this before I am sure you will be amazed at how difficult small repetitions of 30 to 60 revolutions can be. Another way to force you to engage these other smaller but important muscles is to sit upright with your hands off the handlebars during a long steady climb on a quiet road.

man riding bike without hands on handlebars

This change of position makes it more difficult to gain power from your quads but you naturally overcome this by using the hamstrings and hip flexors to drive the bike forward and stabilize your unanchored position. This is something that I would do for up to 10 minutes to create a specific stress, but it can also be useful in short bursts, if, when you return your hands back to the handlebar, you continue to apply the same pedaling technique that you have just experienced when sat upright. Done in short bursts it serves as a kind of reminder as to how it feels to apply the smaller muscles to your pedaling stroke.

Finally, if you have a big weakness in the strength area, you could incorporate single-legged squats or step ups. Care is needed to protect the knees and it should be done progressively. Perhaps start with no free weights on a step that is twice the length of your crank arm (no more), increasing resistance slowly by adding weights to a bar bell. The single-legged step up helps you to strengthen the quads but also ensures that each leg gets an equal workout, improving or preventing situations where one leg becomes stronger than the other.

Remember that it is quality over quantity. Every minute on the bike can be used to practice good technique so don't switch off the mind. Aim to improve your technique and efficiency during every ride or training session to improve your power output.

cyclist reaching top of mountain

Before departing for the mountains, also make sure you have the correct gears. Ensure you have the right gear that enables an efficient cadence for you, ensuring that the strength you have gained equates to power on the climbs when it counts.