The Tour of Flanders bike race: Could functional strength training give riders an edge?
Functional strength training, performed on the bike, has been scientifically studied for the first time. Here are the results.
This year’s edition of the Tour of Flanders bike road cycling race will take place on Sunday the 2nd of April. It’s one of the highlights of the year for the best professional riders – and for a lot of excited television viewers as well.
To a Belgian, a victory in the northern part of Belgium would be considered to be on a par with winning the road cycling world championship.
What separates this monument of cycling, the Tour of Flanders, from other great races are the numerous cobbled hills. Often, this is where the peloton is split up.
And sometimes the entire race will be decided during one of these brutal climbs.
In other words, the riders will often launch their attacks on an uphill stretch. Usually, the riders will generate a maximum power output of 1200 watts on the most crucial climbs like the infamous cobbled hill of Paterberg.
This effort obviously demands a lot of raw muscle power – but what is the best way to prepare, before taking on the steep hills of Flanders?
Enter functional strength training; something that several elite cyclists are already making use of. Read on to learn more about this way of exercising – and find out if it works.
Everybody lifts heavy weights – or do they?
Before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at ‘normal’ heavy strength training in relation to cycling.
We have already done some research, which indicates that heavy strength training increases the performance of cyclists in tests measuring endurance and aerobic fitness. Let us just hope that our own Danish bike heroes have been doing their heavy strength training as part of their preparation for the race.
Conversely, it has been reported by a group of Spanish and Italian researchers, that some of the world’s top riders do not perform weight training at all.
This might be explained in part by logistical challenges, preventing some riders from practicing heavy strength training.
Once the season has begun, it may prove difficult to find the opportunity to practice strength training. Under most circumstances, the training requires special equipment, including an assistant to ensure that the rider avoids injuries.
It will be interesting, then, to see which team becomes the first to bring a complete strength training setup along to the race campaigns (typically 3-5 weeks in one country with multiple races) in one of their accompanying lorries, and to their training camps.
And of course, whether it will have any impact on their results at the finish line.
Strength training on a bike
This has yet to happen, so what are the riders doing instead?
In lieu of heavy strength training, alternative, more functional ways of exercising have evolved. These do not require any specialised equipment and can – perhaps – result in some of the same advantages.
One of these training methods is known as ‘functional strength training’ or ‘power sprints’.
Functional strength training is done on the bike, outdoors.
The procedure is quite simple, if you want to try for yourself. You have to perform 10 maximal accelerations on your bike – preferably in the beginning of your ride when you’re still feeling full of energy.
This kind of practice is meant to be a supplement to your usual training rides and needs to be repeated at least three times a week (that is, if you want to achieve the same results as in our study). Each acceleration is done while seated in the saddle, with maximal effort, and consists of 20 pedal thrusts, i.e. 10 pedal thrusts with each leg.
After each acceleration you need to do two minutes of active restitution, i.e. light pedaling.
Just before you start accelerating, you have to change gear into a large ratio and then brake to a speed of about 5 kilometers per hour. The combination of starting at low speed, using a large gear ratio, and applying maximal effort causes the force of the pedal thrusts to remain high during the entire acceleration.
To ensure that the power in the pedal thrusts is as great as possible, thus maintaining a high mechanical load on the legs, the acceleration may be performed on a road with a slight increase.
But does this method actually work?
In a recent scientific experiment we had bike riders perform the above mentioned functional strength training for a 12-week period.
We wanted to determine whether this specialized training method really does increase the performance of a road cyclist. This has never been the subject of scientific research – until now.
In our study 24 well-trained cyclists were subjected to a performance test before and after a 12-week training period. One half of the riders acted as a control group, carrying out their usual practice scheme. The other half performed functional strength training as a supplement to their usual training.
At the end of the training period, both groups had spent the same amount of time on their bike training.
The test itself, which was identical before and after the training period, consisted of an array of sub-maximal and maximal subtests, which were carried out directly after one another without any breaks in between. The lack of breaks between the different subtests was intentional, as the test was meant to be a simulation of a 2-hour bike ride.
The results demonstrated that functional strength training had a modest effect on performance.
Marginals make all the difference in bike racing
During the final test, we observed an increase of approximately 4 percent in maximal power output during a 7 second seated sprint in the bike riders who had practiced functional strength training.
This was a considerable improvement in comparison to the control group, whose performance deteriorated by approximately 3 percent during the training period.
After the test period, the riders who had practiced functional strength training, were able to generate an average maximal power output of 934 watts. This is somewhat less than the 1200 watts that professional road racers can generate – which is only to be expected.
We observed no significant changes in any other parts of the test. These other parts were designed to reflect classical aspects of a bike rider’s capacity, such as endurance and aerobic fitness.
Hence, the functional strength training, as applied in this study, was not quite as potent as heavy strength training has turned out to be in regard to more classical aspects of capacity, which are usually considered to reflect endurance and aerobic fitness.
Average for amateurs, excellent for elite cyclists
It’s worth mentioning that functional strength training for bike riders, as we have described it here, is already being practiced by some elite riders. And has been for a number of years.
This fact is confirmed by Benjamin Justesen, head coach of the Danish national cyclocross team. Justesen cites Mathieu van der Poel, the current cyclocross world champion, who has stated that he participates in cyclocross racing because it offers him the opportunity to train heavy accelerations.
Mathieu van der Pol believes this will give him an edge when participating in road cycling races (such as the Tour of Flanders, which he won in 2020 and 2022).
It has also come to our knowledge that Mads Pedersen, the Danish former road cycling world champion, has used functional strength training as a part of his preparatory exercise routine.
To sum up our research, we can conclude that functional strength training may lead to a relevant performance improvement in cycling sport situations where generating maximum power output is essential.
This could apply to situations like the paved climb of Paterberg or on short, tough climbs in offroad disciplines such as cyclocross and mountain biking.
An unseen advantage?
Functional strength training could conceivably even have another hidden advantage. Our study did not examine the effect of functional strength training on the capacity to perform repeated heavy accelerations.
This, too, is a key performance ability in offroad cycling or in bike racing events like the Tour of Flanders.
So, it may in fact be possible that performance demands reflecting such circumstances might yield more pronounced improvements, compared to the demands the participants in our test were subjected to.s
This is something we will have to examine in another study – but not till the legendary cobbled climbs have been defeated and this year’s winner has been found in the Flanders region of northern Belgium.
This research is supported by the Ministry of Culture Research Committee in Denmark. The article was translated by Jørn Busch Olsen.
The article was originally published on our Danish sistersite, Forskerzonen.
- Magnus Kristian Hyttel's profile (Linkedin)
- 'Maximal accelerations for twelve weeks elicit improvement in a single out of a collection of cycling performance indicators in trained cyclists', Front. Sports Act. Living (2023), DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2022.1027787