Gym work for cyclists? An interview with Adrie Van Diemen
It’s been an impressive return to form for Nathan Haas. After a couple years of struggling to find his feet at Garmin-Sharp, Haas has started 2014 with a second-placed finish on stage 3 of this year’s Tour Down Under, fifth overall at that race and, just today, a win on stage 1 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
We spoke with Haas last week to find out more about his return to form and in that interview he gave all the credit to his coach Adrie van Diemen. In this post Jono Lovelock speaks to van Diemen himself to find out how a focus on gym work can be of real benefit to cyclists.
Nathan Haas gave you full credit for his return to top form. What were the biggest changes that you made?
He got more serious, that was the biggest change! [Laughs] No, you have to spend time and attention on him and look back and see what type of rider he is. See what his strong and weak points are, and if the weak points are so weak he cannot use his strong point, it is of no use to work on strong points.
He can sprint quite well but if he is dropped uphill, he cannot use his sprint. So it is only of use to spend time focusing on his sprint when he can make it to the finish, because then he can use his sprint.
The use of strength work for cyclists is a contentious topic. Was Nathan already doing some strength work before or did you introduce it to him?
I worked with him last year, not so close, but I worked with him last year as well and he had started doing it also. But strengthening for bike racers? I’ve been doing that for 25 years with bike racers already. At the time when I started they just thought I was a lunatic! “What the hell are you doing? It is an endurance sport; you don’t need big muscles…”
They are right, you don’t need big muscles, especially not as a climber. So you must get strong, but not big muscles. All the load you have to carry with you, it takes oxygen, it can produce lactate, so you don’t need big fat muscles. But what you need is leanness, strength and capillarisation of the muscle. I’m convinced that you need do to strengthening. It doesn’t matter so much how you do it, on the bike or in the gym, but I chose normally to do it in the gym and on the bike.
Obviously you can’t give away all your secrets, but the one thing of most interest is what actual work do you have riders do in the gym? Does strength work for you mean high weight, low repetition, five-sets-of-five-style work?
No, if you do high-weight low-reps, that is in principle strengthening based on weightlifting or body-building. Like I said if you start a training program looking to get stronger you have two main effects; one is an increase in cross-sectional area of the muscle and the other is an increased coordination of the muscle fibres in the muscle.
The better coordination comes from your neural system and you can acquire more motor units by concentrating and by doing a big effort. The other part is that your muscles grow and get thicker, but that is not such an advantage in cycling so I try to find a combination where you get stronger but not have so much muscle growth.
Nearly all professional racing now has a lot of climbing so you must try to get stronger without an increase in body weight. That means the strength must come from better coordination and more motor units.
— Adrie van Diemen (@webtrainer) January 23, 2014
In terms of exercises, would you be looking at tradition squats and deadlifts or something more dynamic?
We try to keep it dynamic. For example if you look to the movement of cycling, if you push your pedal, your hip, your knee and your ankle all move at the same time. The angles all get bigger at the same time.
What you often see is people will be doing the strengthening exercise like the calf raise, to make your ankle stronger, so you can push harder with your foot. Then they do leg extension to get the quadriceps stronger, then they do hip flexion to make the hips stronger. But they are three separate exercises, they are all three involved with cycling but they are no way working together.
Cycling is an easy movement, but if you see a bike rider passing by you can see if it is a really well trained endurance athlete or not because of the smoothness of the movement, so there is quite a lot of coordination involved even when your foot is connected to the pedal and you’re sitting on the saddle.
You just can’t separate the cycling movement into three different parts; ankle, knee and hip. So when I’m doing exercises with the bike racers for getting stronger, it’s always a complete movement. Then if you ask, do you have to do a few reps, or a lot of reps? Like I said low reps drives too much muscle growth so I don’t do that… Well once every now and then but it’s not a regular part of the program.
Nathan says Dan Martin is someone he looks up to, but I’ve always wondered with Dan — he’s strong but he tends to bounce around a lot on the bike! Do you think you can correct that with strength work or is that just the way he moves?
No, that’s Dan Martin! Just the way he is. He does not bounce when it is going easy, but once he starts pushing he always goes [Adrie does a phenomenal Dan Martin head-bobbing impression] but as long as he is winning, no problem for me!
Nathan said the other day that he was doing roughly 12-15 hours on the bike and 6-7 hours in the gym. As he gets closer to the Giro will his hours on the bike increase?
No, but we’re going to reduce the gym for sure. What you can find in the literature — I try to do all the things I do based on literature and experience — but if you look at the literature you can find that if you do weight training as a professional bike racer as you build up to the season that you can improve your time trial [in this instance, threshold].
If you go on doing the weights during the season in the right way you can see that your time trial improves … but if you stop with the weights, it doesn’t increase anymore. So what I try to do with the guys is we start a strengthening weight training program — mind you just because it has weights doesn’t mean it is always in the gym — and the strengthening program we try to keep on doing that the whole season, but it is difficult.
If you have done a Grand Tour you are completely fried after three weeks, then you have to start over again. It takes two, three, four days to get over the real big fatigue and then you start doing your weights. If you cannot do it, that’s OK, we pick it up in the off-season or in a big break between two big events.
In your early days you worked with the Rabobank junior and amateur teams?
So you’ve been around for a while and …
Well my first pro was Greg LeMond!
There goes my next question!
1993, or 1994. A long time ago, when I showed up it was the end of his career [laughs]. Where does the time go?
The difference people have been asking?I think it's @webtrainer my wonderful coach. Great guy, great friend and awesome coach. Thanks Adrie
— Nathan Haas (@NathanPeterHaas) January 26, 2014
In that time, how much of your coaching style has come from literature versus experience?
I guess as you get older you take more from experience. When you have coached for a long time you have seen so many things going good and going wrong, and you keep that in your mind. You then recognise guys; there’s an ADHD guy, or there’s a ‘too-relaxed’ guy, or there’s a guy that wants to have a coach but doesn’t want to listen to the coach. So dealing with all types, that’s experience.
The literature — that develops and develops and you must keep reading to stay up to date. But you combine them for the best. Sometimes you read a really nice article but you think “yeah but we tried and we tried in the past and it did not work.” Then we try to think why in the research they might find a positive result but why it may not have worked for us.
Then the real experience is finding what you should do with each guy, because for Dan Martin I don’t do the same things as with Dave Millar or Tylar Farrar or even in the past with Christian Vande Velde. And I train Ryder [Hesjedal] as well. I do different things with all of them.
Do you have any riders who don’t do any strength training?
Yeah, but they don’t do it in the gym, they do it on the bike. If you look to cycling it is primarily an endurance sport but you also need strength. You cannot push 400w of power without a reasonable amount of strength. Having said that, if you look at the absolute strength you need to do 400w, it’s not so high.
Where the strength training becomes useful is if you look at the accelerations you have to do out of the corners, or in the sprints or at the top of the climb, that’s when you still need a decent amount of muscle strength.
Do you use TrainingPeaks?
Yes, but in the past I had my own Excel files. I broke down the power file and put it in my Excel file and and then in the other columns I would add all kinds of calculation models … they were huge those files! [cackles]
Most people reading this would be more time-pressed than the pros. For someone with just eight hours a week to train, would you still recommend strength training?
My conclusion is that if you have just eight to ten hours for training each week and it is winter time — like for example here in the Netherlands were it is f**king bad, freezing cold, rainy and windy weather — well it’s not so bad to be in the gym. But there are also guys who just hate being in the gym, and then you really shouldn’t do it, because you have to have fun and love what you do.
About the author
Jonathan ‘Jono’ Lovelock has raced with a variety of Australian national teams, various continental teams and travelled the world a few times over, and is still just 24 years of age.
While trying to find constructive ways of procrastinating during his commerce degree Jono discovered the art of blogging and the rest is history. When not busy riding he was writing and what started as nothing more than a fleeting foray has snowballed into regular features with RIDE Cycling Review and full-time employment with Cyclingnews.com.
Now a free agent again Jono is busily preparing himself for a return to racing, but not without the odd story in between.
Disclosure statement: Jono Lovelock is a former teammate of Nathan Haas’, the two having ridden together at Genesys Wealth Advisers.