Cometh the winter, cometh the weights
With the onset of winter, all the magazines, websites and chit chat at the cake stop turns to discussion of cross-training, base miles, and sometimes, but not always, lifting weights.
Not weightlifting of the bicep-curl in the mirror type (coz we all do that all year around, right?), but I mean leg and core work, an array of unpleasant manoeuvres performed to add muscle to the glutes, hamstrings and quads, and to build stability and resilience around the back and abs.
The idea behind the barbaric activity of lifting big bits of metal up and down is that a strong lower body and core will provide you with a strong support system as you pedal, allowing you to more effectively and efficiently put power through the pedals, eliminating unwanted movements as you ride, and a huge host of other factors that will benefit both your riding and your general wellbeing. I’m not going to go through them here as I’m not qualified to do so, and that’s not really what the blog is about. However, if you do want to know more, I’d suggest this as a really good start point: https://soundcloud.com/user-562497687/fast-talk-ep-6-why-you-should-be-lifting-weights
Although it is becoming increasingly thought of as beneficial to keep at the weights work all year (many pros, such as Joe Dombrowski and Alex Howes do it), typical thinking is that, the squats, deadlifts and lunges of leg work should be reserved for the off-season.
Why? Coz it really hurts. There’s many factors, but this is a big one.
Going to the gym forces your muscles into breaking down and rebuilding with more strength, and this makes your legs very hurty in the days after a session. DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, is the feeling of misery in your legs in the days after they’ve done a workout they’re not used to – the first century of the year, a race-winning breakaway, or lifting weights.
Of weights and watts
I’m one of those who decides every winter that it’s time to hit the gym. Being a man with legs the size of cottonbuds, it sort of seems a good idea to strengthen up a bit and become a bit more robust. Joe Dombrowski was advised to hit the weights room when he first started out in the pro peloton in order to add some presence and resilience to his then-waif like frame, and, as mentioned above, now lifts year-around. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
However, I don’t just go and lift because I’ve read it’s good for you, but, in winter, it feels nice to have something else to focus on. In that off-season time of year where you’re not likely (or probably wouldn’t want) to be hitting PBs on the bike, it feels good to feel progress in other areas. When gains in performance on the bike can feel very slow and hard-won, improvements in the gym can feel quite rapid, and that can be quite a satisfying thing.
However, this progress, shift of focus, and the hopeful building of auxiliary bike-related strength, comes at a cost. You may have guessed where this blog is leading, but, as sure as winter’s arrival is marked by the digging out of the old wheels and the hundreds of layers of clothes, it also brings rides marred, nay, corrupted, by DOMS.
There are so many times that I can recall from last winter, and already a handful from this winter, where a ride of a planned duration outdoors, or set of intervals indoors, come to naught.
The signs are normally there in the little twinge or ache that accompanies the climbing of the stairs that morning or the initial swinging of the leg over the saddle. That nagging doubt is cast aside out of a mixture of ignorant fear and hopeful ambition. The first 15 minutes as you warm up are always fine; the legs are fresh, the mind is strong, the stomach full of porridge.
However, as the time tick by, the little grumbles and mutterings of dissastisfaction from the legs get more frequent and louder. At this early stage, it’s still possible to banish the portents; the adrenaline of the ride is strong and confidence is high. But no amount of self-talk is able to silence the protests for good.
Once the niggle sets itself into the mind, it merely blooms and blossoms. Those initial doubts compound as you realise the legs are slow, heavy and lacklustre, and the ability to put out a consistent wattage is lacking – freewheeling becomes a more and more attractive proposition – even if it is just for a few seconds. As this doubt buries its way in, the motivation to ride becomes less and less; the feeling of failing to achieve the pace you planned bites your confidence and thus the will to carry on.
The instinct to bail takes over, and all too often, wins outright. ‘Save myself for another day’, you tell yourself. But when will that day be?
I’ve been told that DOMS is as much a mental as a physical thing, and the mental aspect is certainly true – a study by Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras from the Strength and Conditioning Journal revealed that “DOMS appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements that sensitize nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensations of pain.” However, a ride in the day(s) after lifting is for me, a feeling of total weakness in the legs; not just a mental feeling of pain, but a physical feeling of debilitation, like that final hour of a five hour slog where no gels or caffeine concoctions are going to save you.
The mental doubt that can blight a long solo ride, or the slightest chink in the mental armour required for an intense set of intervals certainly has a big part to play in a failed session – and DOMS can bring that on. However but when you’re overwhelmed by a sense of all-round malaise, the strength of the mind to ignore and push on isn’t always there. The mental and the physical feed and accelerate one another in a vicious downward spiral.
Marginal gains and various leg pains
Admittedly, lifting is a marginal gain. One of those things that you’ve been told to do, but you cannot really tell how much it is helping – like the insistence on protein within 20 minutes of riding, the use of nitrate to boost Vo2 max, etc etc. You know how it feels to do it, but what if you didn’t? Would there be a difference in performance come the summer? Would banishing the gym work and feeling more capable of actually effectively turning a pedal in winter improve your form at the times that it matters, ‘the season’?
As much as you want it to, it’s impossible to hold a peak in form through the winter and the numbers will drop. But the impact on morale – the mojo (more of which here) – when you consistently feel incapable of completing workouts in the winter is something different. When riding is a big part of your life, not being able to do it effectively can really suck.
I’m not suggesting lifting is a waste of time – far from it – for me, the jury’s out, and I plan to keep lifting tiny weights with my tiny legs through the winter.
Despite the DOMS, I do feel that it does some good. When I abandoned lifting too early this year and perhaps did insufficient core work thereafter, I ended up picked up a hip strain during my main event of the year (The Haute Route Iron – write up here) that didn’t end my race, but certainly impacted it. The various awesome people that helped me manage and rehabilitate from the injury suggested that the strain resulted from a weak psoas (a muscle deep down in the core, near the groin). Would this have occurred had I spent a bit more time working on my core, through both specific core work, and moves that work the whole chain, such as squats, through summer? Who knows….
Do you lift? Do you do it just in winter, or year-round? And how badly, if at all, are you affected by DOMS? I’d love to know, so please do leave a comment below and share your experiences.