May 18, 2022

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Strength training for cyclists: how to prevent injury and get stronger

Whether it’s the biting winter chill or the legacy of last year’s summer miles, this is the time of year when cyclists’ bodies begin to creak and groan with all sorts of niggles and injuries. No matter how much you love riding, pain will eventually force you off your bike and chip away at your hard-earned gains if you don’t address the problem.

Is that you? There’s a good chance it is, and even if you don’t cycle the distances of the pros, a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 94 per cent of professional cyclists had suffered overuse injuries. Around 45 per cent of those were related to back pain, while 23 per cent suffered from knee pain, but pain can strike anywhere while cycling.

Thankfully, there is a solution. To help you remedy your aches and dodge new problems, we asked a team of experts how to condition every part of your body for the ultimate injury-prevention blueprint.

This programme of strength and conditioning exercises is designed to focus on the key areas that can benefit cyclists. It takes little time, will reap big rewards and can be added to a training plan alongside your on-bike workouts.

Before we get started, we’ve also got advice on stretches for cyclists and core training, if you want more on those topics.

Meet the experts

Bianca Broadbent is the former physiotherapist and senior bike-fitter at the Boardman Performance Centre, and helps amateur and professional riders to avoid injuries and optimise their performance.

Dave Clarke is the director of Hybrid Performance and a strength and conditioning expert who works with cyclists through Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching.

Nichola Roberts is the founder of Velophysio. As a chartered physiotherapist and experienced rider, Nichola specialises in cycling and triathlon issues.

Feet

Problems

Cyclists’ delicate tootsies don’t suffer the same pounding as runners’ blistered paws, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune from injury.

“It’s common for cyclists to report clawing of the toes, pain under the arch of the foot, pain under the ball of the foot (metatarsalgia), lateral foot pain or numbness (paraesthesia),” warns Boardman’s Bianca Broadbent.

Causes

Foot injuries usually stem from ill-fitting shoes, so always get them properly sized up and adjusted. Any good bike-fitter should also have a sound knowledge of podiatry.

“Often, cyclists purchase shoes that are too big, simply to accommodate the width of their feet, but brands such as Lake and Shimano now offer a wide-fit option,” explains physiotherapist and bike-fitter Bianca Broadbent. “Your shoes might also need optimising via orthotics, wedges or a corrected cleat position.”

How to toughen up

Even when your shoes fit like Cinderella’s slippers, completing this pair of foot exercises every week will strengthen your foot muscles, boost your ankle proprioception (the body’s sense of self-movement and position) and stabilise your foot arch to help prevent pain and numbness.

Aim for 3 x 20 reps, 2 to 3 times a week.

1. Short foot stretches

Sit with your knees bent and your feet on the floor [1] then pull the ball of your foot towards your heel, as if picking up a pencil with your foot [2].

2. Heel raises

Heel raises - An exercise to strengthen your feet

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Stand up and squeeze a towel in between your heels. This will invert your feet slightly in order to activate the tibialis posterior, a key stabilising muscle that supports your foot arch [1].

Heel raises - An exercise to strengthen your feet

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Shift your weight onto your toes, lift your heels up and hold [2].

Shoulders and neck

Problems

If your shoulders and neck ache on the bike, it’s because they’re working much harder than you think.

“The upper body serves a dual function when cycling: to support your weight and allow you to steer,” explains Broadbent. “As a result, it’s common to experience discomfort in the upper trapezius and neck.”

Causes

A bad bike setup won’t help, so consider getting a proper bike fit, but dodging the gym is also an issue.

“Some cyclists lack adequate upper-body strength to support their weight over a prolonged period,” says Broadbent. “This can result in muscle fatigue and cause the rider to adopt a hunched position.” Fight back with these two upper-body exercises.

How to toughen up

1. Single-arm punches with rotation

Single-arm punches with rotation - An exercise to strengthen your shoulders and neck

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Holding a resistance band tied to a stable object, or a cable machine, adopt a lunge position, with your right leg forward of your left arm [1].

Single-arm punches with rotation - An exercise to strengthen your shoulders and neck

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Starting with your left arm by your shoulder [2], push out in a punching motion.

Aim for 3 x 12 reps per arm, 2 to 3 times per week.

2. Incline pull-ups

Incline pull-ups - An exercise to strengthen your shoulders and neck

Incline pull-ups can build strength in your shoulders and neck.
Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

If you have access to a gym, grip TRX-style suspension rings just wider than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing down then pull your body upwards. Use a more upright position to make it easier.

Aim for 3 x 12 reps, 2 to 3 times per week.

Core

Problems

A weak core can impact your pedalling mechanics and limit power output.

“The core’s role is to transfer and absorb force from one limb to another through different planes of motion and movements,” explains strength and conditioning cycling expert Dave Clarke. Put simply, the stronger your core, the more efficient your technique.

Causes

“Most athletes don’t understand what the core actually is,” cautions Clarke. “Core strength means mobility and stability through the hips, torso and shoulders.

“It’s a mistake to focus just on the abdominals and ignore the obliques (side muscles) and erector spinae (back muscles).”

That’s why you should try these two exercises to build a steel core.

How to toughen up

1. Dynamic plank

Dynamic plank - An exercise to strengthen your core

A dynamic plank will help give you a core of steel.
Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Adopt a plank position with your forearms on a Swiss ball.

Lean into the ball with your forearms and ensure your hips don’t hang down. Keeping your body stable, slowly push the ball away from you, pause and then return to your original position.

Aim for 3 x 8 reps.

2. Anti-rotation press

Anti-rotation press - An exercise to strengthen your core

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Position yourself side-on to a cable machine or a resistance band affixed to a steady object. Adopt a half kneel, with one knee on the floor and one foot on the floor [1].

Anti-rotation press - An exercise to strengthen your core

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Now bring the cable or band to your chest and press that forwards [2]. Pause and return.

“Aim to hold your posture and not let the weight pull you around,” adds Clarke.

Aim for 3 x 8 reps per side.

Arms, wrists and hands

Problems

From balancing your weight to steering around corners, a cyclist’s arms take a surprising amount of punishment.

“The main issue is nerve compression,” says physio Nichola Roberts. “It often presents as tingling or a weak grip and usually affects the ring and little finger.”

Causes

“This is common in ultra-distance cycling and through extended time on the bike, but it can also be down to a poor bike fit, which can cause locked elbows or an extended reach,” adds Roberts.

How to toughen up

1. Semi-planks

Lie propped-up with your elbows underneath your shoulders and with your hands in line with your elbows [1].

Lift your chest so you feel your shoulder blades separate. While looking down, bring your belly button up and hold this position while resting on top of your thighs for 15 to 30secs [2] Aim for 6 reps.

“This exercise cuts loading on your hands when you ride by encouraging your core and shoulder blades to support your upper body,” explains Roberts.

2. Arm circles

Semi-planks - An exercise to strengthen your arms, wrist and hands

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Lie on your side with both arms out in front, your head on a pillow and your knees bent [1].

Semi-planks - An exercise to strengthen your arms, wrist and hands

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Make a circle with the top arm by reaching out around and above your head [2]. Aim for four reps each side.

As Roberts explains, “Bending over a bike or a desk can result in reduced spinal mobility, which has a negative effect on your bike posture, but arm circles, yoga or Pilates will help maintain flexibility.”

Lower leg

Problems

From cramps to calf strains, lower-leg pain can ruin your training.

“The lower leg’s less prone to injury from cycling compared to running,” explains Broadbent, “but injuries still happen and manifest themselves in the calf through cramps or burning.”

Causes

“If your cleats are too far forward, this can increase the load on the calf, but a more common cause is weakness of the posterior chain and calf complex,” cautions Broadbent.

These two targeted stretches will strengthen your soleus and gastrocnemius muscles, which form the bulk of the calf complex, to help prevent lower-leg pain and cramps.

How to toughen up

1. Soleus stretches

Sit with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet pointing forwards [1].

Lift your heels by pushing through your big toe then lower your heels to the floor [2].

As you progress, try resting a barbell or weight across your thighs.

Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 25 to 30 reps twice a week.

2. Gastrocnemius stretches

Gastrocnemius stretches - An exercise to strengthen your lower leg

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Stand on a step with your heels overhanging and hold onto a rail for balance. Keeping your knees straight, push up onto your tiptoes [1], making sure your big toes take the load.

Gastrocnemius stretches - An exercise to strengthen your lower leg

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Lower your heels back over the step [2].

Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 25 to 30 reps twice a week.

Upper legs

Problems

“One of the most common problems for cyclists is tight or painful hip flexors,” warns Clarke. As your hip flexors help to lift your knees to your abdomen, tight flexors will wreck your pedalling technique and inhibit the work of your glutes, which help power your pedal stroke.

Causes

When you ride a bike, your hips are never fully flexed or extended so your hip flexors can pretty quickly tighten up. “This tightness is caused by spending many, many hours on the bike but also by specific weaknesses,” adds Clarke.

Working your hip flexors with these exercises can help prevent this.

How to toughen up

1. Couch stretches

Adopt a half-kneeling position with your rear foot on a bench or sofa [1].

Keeping your abs and buttocks nice and tight, push your hips forward until you feel a stretch down the front of the rear leg [2].

Aim to do 3 reps holding for 45 to 60 seconds each time.

2. Dumbbell split squats

Dumbbell split squats - An exercise to strengthen your upper leg

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Stand with one foot in front of the other and grab two dumbbells [1].

Dumbbell split squats - An exercise to strengthen your upper leg

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Shift your weight onto your front leg and squat by bending both knees [2]. Keep your hips straight. Pause at the bottom then drive your foot into the floor to rise up again.

Do 3 x 5 reps per leg.

Knees

Problems

Riding with a cadence of 90rpm involves a heck of a lot of knee-bending, so anterior, posterior, lateral or medial knee pain is a constant hazard for cyclists. But if your knees ache, don’t panic.

“Although knee pain is common and very frustrating, it’s rarely associated with long-term problems such as osteoarthritis and ligament injuries,” explains Roberts.

Causes

“Usually knee pain is biomechanical in origin, caused by a muscle imbalance, a bad bike fit, cleat or shoe changes, a slipped seatpost or a sudden increase in training,” says Roberts.

Visiting a cycling physio will help you zero in on the exact cause, but you can avoid/help knee problems with these two conditioning drills.

How to toughen up

1. Single-leg glute bridges

Lie on your back with your knees bent up and your feet on the floor. Lift one leg up, so your knee is over your pelvis [1], then push through the heel of the foot on the floor to lift your pelvis [2].

Aim for 8 x 3 sets per side.

“This targets the glute max – a powerful cycling muscle – and stabilises the hip joint to prevent the imbalances that cause knee pain,” says Roberts.

2. Knee stretches

Knee stretches - An exercise to strengthen your knees

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Stand with one hand on a wall for balance and grip your foot with the other hand [1].

Lift your foot to your buttocks so your knee is pointing down. Squeeze your glutes and hold for 15 to 20secs but don’t arch your back [2].

Knee stretches - An exercise to strengthen your knees

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Aim for six reps each side.

“This will maintain flexibility through the hip flexors and quadriceps to help prevent knee pain,” explains Roberts.

Back

Problems

If you finish a ride with an aching back, it doesn’t mean you’re growing old. “A painful, tight or weak lower back is common in cyclists,” explains Clarke. And the longer your rides, the more likely you are to suffer.

Causes

“Lower-back pain can be caused by an anterior pelvic tilt,” says Clarke. This is when the front of the pelvis rotates forward, and the back of the pelvis rises, causing postural problems.

“Weak abs, glutes and hamstrings, and tight hip flexors and quadriceps, can also cause this,” adds Clarke. “But we can strengthen the weak areas and lengthen the tight areas with these exercises.”

How to toughen up

1. Foam rolling

Lying face down with one leg on a foam roller [1], and as much weight as possible going into the roller, slowly shift forwards and backwards from the bottom of your hip to the top of your knee [2].

This will loosen your quadriceps and hip flexors.

Aim for 45–60 seconds per leg.

2. Deadbugs

Deadbugs - An exercise to strengthen your back

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

To strengthen your back and core, lie on your back, with your feet off the floor, your knees bent and your arms pointing up [1].

Deadbugs - An exercise to strengthen your back

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Adam Gasson / Immediate Media

Keeping your lower back on the floor and your abs braced, extend your left arm while simultaneously pushing your right leg out straight [2].

Aim for 3 x 12 reps per side.

Working out from home

Britons reportedly spend £4 billion a year on unused gym memberships. That contrasts with exercising from home where you need a few basic pieces of gym gear.

It’s also a time-efficient method of boosting performance. You can do it as a standalone session or boost efficiency further by tagging this workout, or a truncated version of it, onto a slightly shortened ride or easy turbo session.