by tiggaFeb 7th 2012
I'm often posed with the question of 'off season' training - Do I do weights? I often see on articles/forums etc that there people who completely diss the gym and say 'of no use'. I however, seem to be one of the minority who has used weights and gym for dramatic gains.
I spent my virgin year as a multisporter (ie newbie cyclist) as a pretty rubbish cyclist. In fact I would hazard a guess that a good percentage of people rode their first ride quicker than me. On a borrowed road bike I clocked up an unspectacular 20km at 26.7km/hr and I was pretty wasted after it. So much so, that it wasn't until 4 months later that I bought my own bike that I could still be rubbish onÂ... at least now I could attempt to make myself a better cyclist.
Progress was good. I rode with guys better than me, who dropped me like a sack of spuds at will, but I was enjoying it more. The one thing that got to me though was I was completely useless at time trialling. A bit better at hills, but since I came from a competitive and unexpectedly successful (in my eyes) running background, I got slightly annoyed that I seemingly still got hammered even though I was improving. Initially my thought was, if I can't get dropped on the hills I'd be OK. Being a light weight with a bit of an engine from running, that seemed like a good tactic early on in my cycling development. In the first 5-6 months of cycling I was 'tricked' into riding a cycle race by my so called mates. Road races back then were pretty much enter the race, get pushed into a seeded batch start depending on other results and you should in theory be riding with other more or less your ability. My first race was also my buddy's first race, so we entered together, got seeded together in 'C' batch. It was helluva excitingÂ... riding in a bunch as big as that. A tad nervous, but wicked fun. It seemed incredibly fast too. Eventually we made a break and my three buddies Sean, Steve and Carl (I think) got into a break after 20km of the 60km. We proceeded to team trial with one other fellow breakaway rider, making it a 5 man TTT. At that stage 60km was the second furtherest I'd ridden, nevermind raced. Needless to say when that final 4km hill came, even though it was only a gentle gradient, my skinny little legs could take me no further with them and in fact with pretty much every other person that came passed me. 1hr43min for 60km, my legs in bits and the winner did 1hr 28! I simply couldn't undetstand how someone could ride that fast, for that long. Hey, I was young, not an avid cycle race follower, how was I to know the Tour De France boys rode 3000+km in 3 weeks over mountains and quicker than that!
There is a point to this, so bear with me:-)
I was starting to notice one thing that all these 'good' cyclist had that I didn'tÂ... a set of pins that had a bit of meat to power them. I had a a few bones and the odd little bit of sinew attached to them. Awesome for running, bloody useless for cycling. My first proper season of duathlon was fast approaching, and pre-season I raced a couple of low key pan flat duathlons along the Durban beachfront. 4km run followed by a 20km bike, followed by 3km run. Hands down I was easily the fastest runner, but along came Mr Pistons for Legs on the bike and proceeded to bike 30min dead for a 20km I was able to do 34mins on. Andrew Fogg was his nameÂ... oh and to add to my list of excuses was his disc wheel. I was sh!tscared of the noise a disc madeÂ... only because I knew it meant the inevitable. Steam train come through!
Roll on 1995 duathlon season in earnest. I series of 3km run -23km bike - 3km run. A rolling course, more my cuppa tea. Well so I thought, but this was now the real deal, the big boys came out to play and with their expensive toys too. My first race was probably my best effort to date in fact it took until 1997 to beat my time of 53min31secs (course record was 52:21). I came a very pleasing 2nd on the day and that was to the guy who'd placed 4th at the National Champs the year before. The coast however has these unforgiving winds and my piddly little legs were rubbish when the chips were down.
By the end of the year I'd not improved a jot, I went to world champs in my age group in Mexico but got smashed to bit on the pan flat hot Cancun coastline. Still weighing in at a paltry 61kg, running less biking more in the hope that I'd make that 'jump' to fast biker.
I had a slightly better 1996 season as it was the first year it was a drafting race and I managed a 5th place at South African champs and top 6 meant an Elite spot. I also picked up a bronze medal at the national long distance champs held in my home town of Durban, but that was no thanks to the fact hardly anyone pitched up. Biking wise, I was better over distance but still rubbish at a time trial with my best 40km effort of a shade under 1hr04min. I could still run like the wind though, which was helping me to stay near the front end of races, just not win anything!
By the end of 1996 I'd made my mind that if this duathlon lark was something I wanted to pursue I'd better change something. Only 63kg and still very whippet/runner like I decided to join the local gym and have a bit fun for an off season. Beef up a bit, watch the weight, still ride not run much but focus entirely on just how much weight I lift in squat, leg press, leg extension and ham curl. Doing reps of 30-60, doing a massive amount of core, lower back to make sure I had a 'strong' torso to put the stronger legs to good use. It made no sense to gain all that strength and be able to push enormous weights with the legs if you had a comparatively jelly like core.
In 3 months I put on a huge 6kg (10%) of pure muscle. I still wasn't quite sure if this was going to translate to going faster on the bike, but I at least looked like cyclist now, well nearly. I ramped up my training after dropping the gym intensity and doing only core and within 3 weeks my running legs came back. Carrying an extra 6kg I was worried my running was going to suffer. I rode initially in my comfort zone with a few one legged drills to get the pedal stroke efficiently finely tuned. I knew there was something very different though cos now when I put the hammer down in bike rides it was my buddies turn to kak off. My season started with a huge bang. It was windy as hell, but I came back with my first real win against decent opposition and came with 20secs of the course record. 52:50Â... and it was all on the bike. I ran slower by 30secs but biked a huge 90secs quicker over 23km in much windier conditions. It wasn't just a win, it was a complete annialation. I won by 4 minutes. The next time out was my most perfect race to date. I went 1min 30secs quicker than the 5 year old course record, I was riding the same 40km TT in 55min in duathlon!! Wah hey, I'd found my sport. I'd found my weight 68/69kg. I had power on the bike, I had run speed and I was much much more consistent. With the big improvents came a new motivation to push harder, not necessarily longer, but I felt I had this extra gear I was desparately looking for in the first two years of competing. I went back to the same 60km race I was dropped in 'C' batch by our little breakaway and started with the big boys at the front. 30km in and the pace was a little to easy for me, so when someone drifted off the front I followed themÂ... noticed noone had followed so simply put my head down and time trialled to a 2min win in 1hr26mins! I'd come a very long way in 2 years. Not improved all that much on the run, maybe 30-40secs faster over 10km but my bike was now my weapon of choice. No disc, no fancy wheels, just good old fashioned legs, lungs and will power. I had now made the jump to uber biker, and simply skipped the fast biker thing altogether.
I don't profess to have a knowledge in sports science like Tim Noakes, or even like some of the those that are anti-gym in cycling, but I will tell the bare facts. In one off season:-
I put on 6 kgs
I improved my 5 sets of 60 rep leg press from 75kg to 150kg
I could now do sit ups until the cows came home
I could do reps in hyper extension with a 20kg on my chest
I could ham curl double, I could leg extension nearly double.
It worked for me for a couple of reasons:
1) I lost motivation on the bike cos it seemed like a had plateaued, saying 'ride harder' was not working, I was at my limit? How was I going to measure even more effort.
2) I was actually leaner than ever before
3) I had a big engine, I knew that from my running ability, I needed a little extra bit of hard earned muscle to find the extra gear in cycling. None of this muscle from doing 4-5 reps of massive weight, but mega reps of a weight that had my HR near my max.
4) Weights, and lifting them was measurable. Which meant I could stick on another 2.5kg-5kg each week, and it was there to be pushed. It's not as easy to look at a power meter and say 'today' I will average 300W for 3mins! To much mental focus is required, something which the average person working 9-5 (Like me) simply may not have on that given day for whatever reason.
5) I monitored my weight throughout my weights phase of training, sometimes I was only doing 5-6 hours of training a week, but 3 hours of that was hard core leg press sets that had me pushing more than double my bodyweight for nearly 3mins! It felt like I had permanent DOMSÂ... for 3 months straight!
Of course I know this kind of routine is not what everyone should be doing. In fact, as I now coach a fair few athetes, I simply don't recommend weights/gym to anyone that has any explosive ability ie some that has a high max power, no matter how long or short they can maintain it. Core, however, is a different kettle of fish. I still see weights as my alternative off season fun, but I no longer need it as I have that top end explosive ability that I never had as a skinny runner. I still find leg press in particular, I fantastic way to push the bodies 2-3min interval limits without numbing the brain with more riding and more riding, then when the season comes round yet more harder riding. It's my break from the bike intensity, yet within 2-3 weeks of dropping the weights sessions I can be so so strong on a bike, and I love it!
Not for everyone, but hells bells I would not be the athlete I am today were it not for my first step into a weights room!