Of all cycling events, cyclocross has to be the most fun to train for. In addition to building fitness for a 40- to 60-minute effort, racers must prepare to ride short rolling hills and steep ascents and descents, negotiate off-camber turns, and stay upright in loose and muddy terrain. On top of that, a racer must learn how to dismount, run, carry the bike and remount — all as fluidly and quickly as possible.
Because most roadies and mountain bikers are coming off a full or partial season, training for ’cross can focus more on skills than on basic fitness. An interval workout, for instance, doesn’t just have to be a straightforward interval on the road or trail. It can include dismounts, running, obstacles and tricky terrain to keep things interesting.
CHOOSING YOUR TRAINING FOCUS
How often and how intensely you train depends on how serious you are about the cyclocross season and where it fits into your road or mountain-bike plans. What you focus upon in your skill and performance training will depend on your racing background, strengths and weaknesses.
If you come from road racing, it’s likely that you’ll do well on the more open, rolling and less technical courses, where bigger gears rule. Roadies should focus on their weaknesses — usually, the steep hills that require dismounts or tiny gears, or the off-camber and loose terrain cornering. If you come from mountain-bike racing, you’re likely to lose ground on the rolling and flat sections, but get it back on the technical climbs, in the sticky mud, and from your ability to accelerate to speed from a near stop.
Skill can be a great equalizer in cyclocross, and whether your goal is results or just a more enjoyable experience, you’ll need to focus on your weakest components.
DISMOUNTS AND RUNNING
When watching the best cyclocross riders, the most striking thing about their dismounts, bike carries and remounts is their smoothness. Attend CX clinics or follow experienced riders to learn how to do this correctly. Poorly executed dismounts and remounts will cost you time, either bit by bit over the course of the race, or all at once if you’re attacked right at a barrier or run-up.
Practice dismounts both on fast, flat terrain and on hills, where you have a choice between riding as far as you can up the hill before dismounting, or dismounting early to carry some speed into the transition from riding to running. Have someone time you over a section to see which approach is faster for you. Start slowly and rehearse the technique, then gradually add speed to your practice.
Develop the basic strength and motion around the action of the dismount and bike pickup. Sit-ups, crunches and back extensions help you prepare for the twisting and lifting motion of lifting the bike. Bicep, tricep and shoulder work in the weight room can also help with lifting the bike, particularly for women or riders who will race ’cross on a mountain bike. This kind of strength work can be done several times a week throughout the season.
START SLOW WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING FOR CYCLOCROSS
Before you can hop off your bike at race pace, you’ll need to prepare your body for the footwork. Coming off a road or mountain-bike season, it’s likely that when you head out for your first run, you’ll feel as though you could easily run 10 or even 20 minutes without a break. While aerobically you have the capacity to do this, you’ll find your legs a sore mess in the next few days if you do so. Start running slowly, combining walking with one- or two-minute periods of running, and gradually add more running to each workout. Run only every other day, which will enhance recovery.
After several weeks of this breaking-in process, you can add some stairs and steep hills to your running program. Start by doing stair climbing in the zone you would normally use for a tempo ride. Get into a rhythm; focus on staying on the balls of your feet, moving lightly, quickly and efficiently. Begin by bounding up every stair, then go to every other stair.
Eventually, you can start carrying the bike, and add some race-pace and sprint intervals that fit into your overall training plan. But regardless of how seriously you’re taking the CX season, your program should include some form of running at least twice per week, in addition to race day — it will help prevent injury.
MUD, LOOSE TERRAIN, AND TRICKY TURNS
Unless you started in BMX or MTB and can ride over or through anything, you have to learn to ride through mud and negotiate graveled or leaf-strewn turns. Again, smoothness is a major goal. Master tricky turns on your training routes because it’s likely that you’ll run into something like them during a race.
How do you conquer them? Head out with a more skilled teammate and practice them over and over again at varying speeds. Practice with an experienced rider or clinic on where to look, where to position your body weight, where to have your pedals. Unless it’s a protected trail or city park, it’s okay if it gets rutted, since this will give you the feel of real racing. Learning to keep your weight back and where to scrub your speed before entering turns will help your road-handling skills as well.
RIDING ROLLING AND STEEP TERRAIN
To work on your power for rolling terrain and flat stretches while still retaining the ability to spin smaller gears at high cadence when necessary up steep inclines, practice pushing big gears and spinning small gears, even within the same workout. This can be most efficiently accomplished through road training.
A specific exercise for this is called Big Gear/Little Gear. After a solid warm-up, choose a larger gear such as a 53×16 and a smaller gear such as 39×16, and switch back and forth at a designated interval, such as every 10 minutes. This exercise should be done in the endurance intensity zone. Regardless of the terrain, you’ll stay in the prescribed gear, forcing yourself to spin or mash at times. This exercise also helps to prepare for when you may not always be able to use the optimal gear due to rider traffic, a bobble or evasive maneuver.
DON’T FORGET TO REST
Like mountain-bike racing, ’cross racing can give your muscles and joints quite a beating. You’ll likely recover at the same speed or quicker than from a mountain-bike race, but more slowly than from a road race of the same length. Give yourself time to bounce back from the weekend races, and don’t overdo it by trying to race twice a weekend at every opportunity. Take an occasional weekend off during the season and focus on resting or training in preparation for more important events.
Regardless of whether you race cyclocross as your main season or as a winter training diversion, remember that it is supposed to be fun. Keep it that way by being prepared!
Head Coach Kendra Wenzel works with developing and elite cyclocrossers, roadies and mountain bikers, many who race multiple seasons each year.
This post was originally published in Velonews.