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Power Gains In Cycling With Plyometrics

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How would you like to increase your lactate threshold cycling power (or the maximum power you could sustain for one hour in a race) by 3.5 percent in just one month? OK, maybe 3.5 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it takes a lot of time on the bike to achieve this kind of improvement. But you can get there in just four weeks by complementing your normal bike training with plyometrics.

Written by: Nathan Koch, PT, ATC and Wolfgang Oswald PT, OCS

Plyometric training was developed in Russia in the 1960s. The term “plyometric” comes from two Greek words meaning “longer” and “to measure or compare.” It refers to the greater tension that muscles develop when a quick stretching phase is followed by a fast contraction. The goal of plyometric training is to train the nervous system to react quickly to the lengthening of the muscle by rapidly shortening the same muscle with maximum force. This is process is typically referred to as the “stretch-shortening cycle”. Plyometric training develops power in the lower extremities through various jumping movements and bounding.

The relevance of plyometrics to sports such as basketball and high jumping is clear. Even distance running is a form of repeated jumping, so it’s no surprise that plyometric training is proven to boost running performance. But in cycling, the feet never even touch the ground. On the other hand, muscle power in the legs is clearly beneficial in cycling. So what does the research say about the effects of plyometrics training on cycling performance?

In a recent New Zealand study, well-trained cyclists were subjected to a plyometric training program consisting of three sessions per week comprising three sets of explosive single-leg jumps (20 for each leg) alternated with three sets of high-resistance cycling sprints (5 x 30 seconds with 30-second recoveries between repetitions). After 12 sessions the cyclists exhibited average gains of 8.1 percent in 1 km power, 6.8 percent in peak power and 3.7 percent in lactate threshold power, all with 3 percent reduction in total oxygen cost. There was no significant change in a control group of cyclists who continued with their normal bike training.

The authors of the study concluded that the addition of explosive training and high-resistance interval training to the programs of already well-trained cyclists produces major gains in sprint and endurance performance, partly through improvements in exercise efficiency and lactate threshold. These benefits may also be attributed in part to improved neuromuscular efficiency—that is, a faster stretch-shortening cycle in the muscles. And it bears emphasizing that all of this was achieved in well-trained athletes, so the average age-grouper may see even greater improvements from incorporating plyometrics into his training program.

Due to the high intensity and ballistic nature of this type of training, it is vital to prepare your muscles, tendons and joints with at least six to eight weeks of resistance training before engaging in plyometrics to reduce the likelihood of injury. There should always be a thorough warm-up prior to these exercises. Plyometrics should also not be performed on excessively fatigued muscles, such as the day after a long ride or run. While the study mentioned in the previous paragraph had the experimental group perform plyometric training three times a week, two times a week may reduce injury risk without compromising benefits. Another frequently recommended way to limit the beating your legs take from plyometrics is by counting ground contacts and limiting them to 80-100 for beginners, 100-120 for intermediates and 120-140 for the advanced athletes.

Plyometric training is most effective when jump height or distance is maximized and when the time that each foot is in contact with the ground between jumps is minimized. Plyometrics exercises are meant to be maximal efforts, performed as quickly and powerfully as possible.

Here are a few sample plyometric exercises:
1. Split jumps
2. Box jumps
3. Lateral jumps

Add these valuable exercises to your training routine to see significant performance gains in short periods of time, with relatively brief exercise sessions. Do not forget to perform the necessary pre-strengthening phase to prepare your muscles for plyometric training and avoid injury. I highly recommend that your coach, trainer or physical therapist review your training prior to starting a plyometric program. He can also provide instruction on proper technique and design a progressive plyometric program that is specific to your needs and goals.

Source: Paton, C.D., and W.G. Hopkins. “Combining explosive and high-resistance training improves performance in competitive cyclists.” Journal of strength and conditioning research. Nov. 2005, 19(4): 826-830.