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Building Cycling Strength – How It Happens

Three cyclists training on a hill climb

To make gains in cycling strength and fitness, consistent training to build fatigue is necessary to create the need for the body to adapt. How you adapt to fatigue will depend solely on how you train, and what systems you target. Adapting, the part of training most overlooked, all depends on how well you recover from the training fatigue you have accumulated. Individual responses to training stress may differ, depending on genetics and fitness levels; however, there will always be an individual limit to the level of fatigue that can be handled before you lose the ability to adapt to any amount of training stress.

The General Adaptation Syndrome, a three-phase response to physiological stress, was introduced by Canadian biologist Hans Selye in 1936. John Garhammer, Ph.D., a specialist in biomechanics and physiology, later took Hans Seley’s work and applied it to resistance training and exercise conditioning. The work of Selye and Garhammer established the groundwork for learning how the human body reacts to training stress, and more importantly, how it adapts.

General Adaptation – A stress phase, adaptation phase, and super compensation phase

A chart depicting the General Adaptation theory in training

Training and Stress

When you experience a new or more intense training stress, the first response from the body is shock and alarm. Increased soreness, stiff muscles, and a drop in performance towards the end of the training block are a result of the shock to the system and a normal part of training. It’s how the body deals with increased stress. During the initial shock to the system, stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline are released to provide instant energy, which helps you handle the stress at hand. Hard group efforts, races, or hard training days will trigger shock and alarm mechanisms. As you build stress with intense training days, fatigue will increase, and performance will decline leading to the need for recovery.  

Recovery and Adaptation

The recovery phase is essential if you have provided enough training stress to recover from. During this stage the body repairs muscle tissue by making various biochemical, structural, and mechanical adjustments, eventually leading to increased power and performance. Reducing training volume and intensity during this stage is critical to this process taking place. If too much training is performed when there is a need for recovery, then over time exhaustion will be reached, otherwise known as over training syndrome. Once overtrained, the recovery phase is much longer, from weeks to months in some cases.

Super Compensation Phase

After a proper recovery period, your body will super compensate in strength. How you super compensate will depend on what systems you were training. If you were training at threshold for a flat cycling time trial effort, then expect to be faster at just that, or if it was hills at threshold, then you will be slightly stronger on the climbs. Whatever most of your focus was during that training period is what you will adapt to. See my article here on muscle fibers, training intensity and adaptations. It is important to train with a periodized method, targeting aerobic systems during certain times of year and harder threshold efforts through key training blocks, to maximize your gains throughout the year.

General adaptation describes the general way the body adapts to training stress or stimulus. There are many variables in training from age to genetic limits to physical limitations. Regardless of the variables, the general process is the same. The precise methods in training will differ from one program to the next, depending on what energy systems you target during training, when you decide to recover, and how you recover. Consistency, pushing the limits and knowing when to recover are the three keys training in general. How you do all those are part of the fine-tuning aspects in training that play a big role overall.

Mike Schultz, CSCS



1- Selye, Hans. “Stress and the general adaptation syndrome.” British Medical Journal. 1950, pp. 1383–1392

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