Cycling Strength for Gym Haters

Avoid the weight room with this quad-blasting hill workout.

Photo: Getty Images

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Strength is important, particularly on the bike, and exercises like squats are essential for building the power needed in time-trial efforts. Yet most triathletes would rather do a five-hour ride than go to a gym for 20 minutes. For that crowd, decreasing cadence hill repeats are the best way to build cycling-specific power that translates into race-day speed. Bonus: You won’t have to worry about sitting in someone else’s sweat.

Find a hill

This workout only works with the right hill. It shouldn’t be so steep that you need to go into your lowest gear to climb it—think of an incline that your non-triathlete friends could bike up without too much complaining. The hill should be long enough to accommodate more than 5 minutes of climbing. Find a point on your special hill that takes anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes to reach where you can safely and quickly turn around.

Climb #1

After a 15- to 30-minute warm-up of light riding, do your climb at roughly 70 RPM. Going above 70 RPM is fine for the first rep, but don’t go any lower. The effort should be roughly 7 out of 10, or Zone 3 if you use heart rate. Play with your gearing to find a cadence and effort combo that is fairly comfortable. Speed doesn’t matter—the most important thing is pedaling in circles (applying even pressure around the whole pedal stroke) as much as possible and maintaining that same cadence.

Once you reach the pre-defined turnaround point, shift into a very easy gear and spin your legs very quickly downhill. You should be riding more than 100 RPM, but don’t bounce on your saddle. Not only does the downhill spinning allow you to recover and shake out the lactic acid, but it also teaches your legs to quickly work at very different cadences—exactly what they’ll have to do in a hilly race.

Climb #2

Find a gear combo that doesn’t increase effort too much, then hit this repeat at 60 RPM or slightly higher. Try to keep heart rate roughly the same as on the first climb. Focus on keeping the cadence even, hit the top and try to spin back down at an even higher cadence than you did before.

Climb #3

The final climb should be at 50 RPM or lower and will probably feel very unnatural. You are now in full-on “squat mode”—building power and strength around the entire pedal rotation. Because the cadence is so low on this climb, you may increase your effort to keep moving forward, but that’s OK. Spin back down as fast as you can (without bouncing around like a rider on horseback) and finish with a 15- to 30-minute cool-down at your normal cycling cadence.

Note: This workout is not for athletes with knee injuries as pushing a very low cadence can worsen existing knee issues. For everyone else, this workout should only be done once per week, and not within two weeks of an “A race.”

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