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WODs for watts: Can CrossFit make a difference on the bike?

Full immersion into intense CrossFit workouts may be too much for cyclists, strength work can benefit riders in a number of ways.

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Cyclists can’t be their best on the bike if it’s their only training tool. Elite racers cross-train for a reason, and while most cyclists won’t immediately think of swinging around kettlebells and barbells, adding a high-intensity weightlifting program like CrossFit may improve power, help coordination, and prevent injury.

Crossfit’s ideology, born in the early 2000s, has developed a stereotype for being brutal and cultish. CrossFit gyms are called boxes and the workouts are called WODs, (workout of the day), and are constantly varied. It was intended to be the fitness world’s savior, by combining multi-joint movements like bench press and squats, with cardiovascularly demanding exercises like burpees, running, and rowing.

“If [CrossFit] is done well, it’s fantastic,” says Trevor Connor, a cycling coach and VeloNews’s resident physiologist.

Connor recognizes a few benefits of doing high-intensity workouts combined with weightlifting, like CrossFit. Cyclists can improve their muscle recruitment, neuro-muscular coordination, impact protection, possibly delay fatigue, and prevent overuse injuries.

Earlier studies fell short of proving that there was any benefit to cyclists, or other endurance athletes, from lifting weights. Connor notes that in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a heavy emphasis on muscle isolation exercises, and researchers measured results on Vo2 max. The studies showed non-significant changes in Vo2 max for cyclists.

Dwight Upshaw, a head trainer at CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado demonstrates a peg board climb. CrossFit is known for incorporating a variety in movements. Photo: Matt Miller.

Newer research is showing that programs like CrossFit might be beneficial, though.

“The benefit that you’ll see with strength training, and certainly CrossFit, is it’s going to be really good for the biomechanical side,” says Connor.

In a motion like the pedal stroke, 12-15 different muscles are firing throughout the sequence. In that sequence, there’s also a lot of muscle co-contraction happening, where opposing muscles contract and make the pedal stroke less efficient.

Connor explains that “weight training, especially where you have to use multiple muscles at the same time — which is what CrossFit is all about — really helps the neuromuscular recruitment and helps reduce the co-contraction,” says Connor.

Connor says that weight training and exercises like squats and lunges can help fight co-contraction.

Studies also show that pedaling efficiency after weight lifting may be the result of earlier peak torque in the pedal stroke. A study published in 2013 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that strength training could be beneficial to improve efficiency and endurance.

Another study in the same publication a year later showed that cyclists could achieve peak torque, or the highest amount of rotational power, earlier in their pedal stroke after a 25-week heavy strength-training program.

Although little research shows that weight lifting or CrossFit directly benefits overall endurance in terms of being able to ride longer, the same study showed that by increasing the strength of type I, slow-twitch muscle fibers, it will delay their time to exhaustion, which then delays activating less-efficient type II muscle fibers.

“That’s what newer research is showing, is that heavy lifting will work those slow twitch fibers and make them stronger and then you’re essentially more fatigue-resistant, or you can ride at a higher wattage using only slow twitch muscle fibers and you’ll experience less fatigue,” says Connor.

Connor used to coach the collegiate cycling team at Colorado State University. Every winter he would hand his racers a high-intensity weightlifting program, similar to CrossFit workouts, to perform over the off-season, knowing that it could help his team prevent overuse injuries. Most of the racers had already experienced overuse injuries in their early-20s, while Connor himself, cross-trained regularly and had never had one.

Dwight Upshaw is a head trainer at CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado. He believes in supplementing cycling with CrossFit. Photo: Matt Miller.

Dwight Upshaw, a head trainer at CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado also believes that a workout program like CrossFit can help prevent injuries and correct muscle imbalances that riders develop after hours on the bike.

“I don’t think there’s a substitute for time [on the bike],” he says. Upshaw used to be a triathlete and knows what it’s like to spend countless hours on the bike to maximize pedaling efficiency.

“But, if you can use some extra time in your training to do stuff that’s directly helping to correct some of the imbalances that come from cycling volume, you’re going to feel much healthier overall,” says Upshaw.

Upshaw works with numerous cyclists and endurance athletes out of Boulder who want to cross-train and improve their power in endurance races. He says that CrossFit has enabled his clients to move from aerobic to anaerobic metabolic systems more efficiently. They can sprint more easily two hours into a race, and then move back into a steady state pace.

“That anaerobic capacity yields a high amount of power output that can separate you from the pack,” says Upshaw.
Aside from more power, and preventing overuse injuries, maybe the most important aspect of a program like CrossFit is preventing an impact injury, which would take many cyclists off of the bike for weeks to months.

“Quite frankly, when you crash, if you’ve got no muscle up there, you’re going to do a lot of damage. People underestimate that if you’re a serious bike racer, you’re going to crash — many times,” says Connor.

Muscle tissue can act as a barrier between bone and impact and weightlifting can also improve the strength of connective tissue, making them less susceptible to tears.

Connor offered an anecdote about a client of his, who he described as a “beefy guy,” that slammed into a bus on a training ride at around 25mph. He got up and 20 minutes later he was finishing the ride.

“If he was a skinny, climber, who had atrophied his upper body, he would’ve gotten a hospital trip,” says Connor.

Payson McElveen
Two-time U.S. marathon mountain bike champion Payson McElveen (L) has adapted Crossfit workouts for his own training. Photo: Weldon Weaver | USA Cycling

Professional cross-country mountain bike racer Payson McElveen (Orange Seal) started doing “CrossFit inspired,” workouts in the 2015-2016 off-season. He put on five to seven pounds of muscle that winter.

“Traditionally in cycling, that’s a bad thing,” he says about the weight gain. But, he saw his climbing ability and average wattage and power make a substantial increase. “Ever since I’ve really embraced it,” he adds.

McElveen will throw in moves like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and pull-ups and mix it with a bit of cardio like jogging, or stability exercises that involve rubber resistance bands or stability balls.

He doesn’t race against the clock or do the workouts as an ‘as many reps as possible,’ scheme like a usual WOD structure. Those interfere with his training rides too much, he says.

But the benefits of doing a high-intensity weightlifting program for him outweigh the idea of not cross-training.

He’s seen fewer overuse injuries and has noticed that he recovers from hard workouts and crashes more quickly.

“You hit the deck pretty hard at least a few times a year,” he says. “If I do get injured, I can bounce back pretty quickly.”

Injury prevention alone might be enough reason for many cyclists to incorporate at least a bit of weight training, be it CrossFit-inspired or otherwise.