Creative Cross-Training for Cyclists in Winter in Snow Country

Creative Cross-Training for Cyclists in Winter in Snow Country
Coach Luke Winger gets creative with cross training in his backyard on a bermed snow track.
cyclist on snow track in winter

Coach Luke Winger gets creative with cross training  on a bermed snow track in his back yard.

A coach once told me, “You are not just a cyclist, you are an athlete, and fitness goes a long way.” Having come from skiing, I always liked that idea because it gave me an excuse to use skiing as training for cycling, but as I got older I realized he was more right than I thought. For a rider in southern Minnesota there are many winter days on which riding outdoors is not safe or even possible. There’s also the threat that if your workouts consist of nothing but spinning your pedals indoors staring at a wall, your winter training will lead to rehab in the psychiatric ward.

Supplementing complementary sports such as skiing and skating is a no-brainer when they are available. Growing up, I was spoiled with cross training options. We had a top trail system at our fingertips for xc-skiing and snowshoeing, hockey rinks and a skating oval close by, and even snowmobile trails out past my back yard to mountain bike on when the snow had settled. Then I moved to Beijing, China in a year with record high air pollution. I was forced indoors for months with none of my old favorite options available. Normal outdoor training was not a possibility, and even venturing out with filter masks was limited because of subfreezing temperatures. Four years later, we moved back to Minnesota, to an area where snowmobiling was the only outdoor activity and wind chills commonly reach 50º below zero. These experiences were a shock and have lead me to a new way of thinking about winter training.

Activity IS Training

If weather is limiting your riding options, don’t be afraid to find something more fun to do. If you work to build yourself as an athlete on the court, on the slope, or on the rink, and ride the trainer for 15 to 20 minutes after, you’ll be doing better than if you ride the trainer an hour a day, struggling to find the motivation to get your heart rate or power up to the required training numbers.

Although I’m an advocate for complementary sports, like skiing, that require sustained efforts and use similar muscle groups to cycling, that doesn’t mean that team sports or sports not considered directly complementary are not helpful. Some of the best cyclists I ever raced came with a variety of sports backgrounds that they continued to play as cyclists, including hockey, downhill skiing, basketball, powerlifting, and swimming. Many of them require explosive strength, balance and other fitness components that can carry over to your cycling. For clarity, I’m not saying playing basketball will lead to bike-race-winning performance. I am saying that playing a hard game uses a lot of energy, builds your whole body, and is plain fun. That keeps you on top of your game as an athlete, and will help you keep on top of your game as a cyclist, if you keep your end goals in mind.

Think “Why not?”

Are there sports to avoid? Maybe, but just like with food, we can moderate, not eliminate. When looking at cross-training options, think “why not?” If you are likely to bulk up a lot from CrossFit-style lifting, the “why not” might be that your climbing will suffer from added weight gain. But ask yourself this, will you gain 5 pounds of muscle if you do it and 10 pouds of fat if you don’t? If you’re likely to gain fat by not doing it and lifting motivates you to work at something over the winter, it may be worth the weight. And you can shed the useless (for cyclists) muscle later.

Maybe you like basketball or indoor soccer but your “why not” is the worry of a knee or Achilles injury. Trust me, those are legitimate; I hurt my Achilles playing basketball 10 years ago and it still bothers me. However, there are things you can do to limit the risk, such as specific strength training and arriving early to the game to do a 10 minute dynamic warm-up every time. Cycling isn’t an inherently safe sport either, but just like in cycling, if you take some extra steps to warm up well and take care of your equipment (in this case, your footwear, tendons, and muscles) before and after your games, it will likely be worth the slight risk.

Think first about what can you do that you like and is complementary. Next, think about what is athletic and will build you as an athlete. Even a slow endurance activity like a long hike in deep snow can be valuable if it keeps you motivated, so take advantage of what you have.

A cyclist time trials while a male athlete holds the plank position.

Making the Most of Limited Time and Resources

Get thinking and turn daily activities into training time – stop feeling like you’re failing – find ways to succeed through creativity.

  • Think bad of your snow blower, grab the shovel. If you shovel your driveway, you will work your core, back, arms, legs – just about everything – and will get a good cardio workout. This, no doubt, is training. By the end of a big driveway, you may find yourself shirtless and sweating in 15ºF. I do.
  • Think about how to make your childhood dreams come true. As a kid, I always wanted to take my sled down a bobsled run. So this past winter, after the heavy snow fell and the temperature “warmed up” to 35ºF making the snow perfect for snowballs, my kids and I took shovels and created a bobsled type race track with berms in the backyard. It took about three hours of manual labor to build up the berms and pack them in, which was a great workout. When it refroze the next day we had a 50 meter long race track that rode like a mini cross-country mountain bike course. My wife was out of town for three days and I was home alone with my three kids under five years old so I set my alarm clock for 6 am the next morning. On my fat bike, I went out and rode the little loop. After about 5 laps, I’d learned the balance points on the berms and was able to ride the loop for 30 minutes flat out. Later that day, using a few MTB tubes tied to my kids sled and looped around my waist, I pulled my kids on their sleds for another hour around the track. The workout ended up being extremely physical and my kids had a blast getting pulled around a track. Since then, it has become a workout I’ve chosen to repeat because in the fenced in backyard, I can ride when it’s five below and windy, when I have the kids, or when I have a time crunch.
  • Think positive of workout videos. As a racer, I always felt I was above group fitness. However, I’ve found that not only was I being arrogant, but workout videos can be very helpful if chosen well. I’ve found that the P90X 3 series of 30-minute videos is an excellent way to keep up my fitness and stay motivated when I’m stuck inside. P90X, along with other workout video brands, offers cardio workouts for the whole body, isometric workouts that drill the core or other targeted areas, and yoga and Pilates that work the body in ways we often don’t work as cyclists. There are other videos that target upper body, agility, etc,. A video series that you enjoy can be an excellent way to break up the same-old-same-old and work many of the areas that need it. I wouldn’t recommend doing the full 3-month P90X series if you are serious about your racing season, but I would recommend supplementing a few days a week with videos to help make the time you need or just break up the routine. If 30 minutes is not enough time, a 30- to 60-minute roller spin is a lot easier after a video than trying to endure an hour and a half of riding in place.
  • Think social. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the gym where I live, but I would argue that anything you do with people will be more motivating. So, If you have a membership to a gym with spin bikes, why not go to a class and do your workout on a spin bike where you’ll have company even if you don’t follow the instructor? Or invite teammates with trainers to your garage. I’ve seen some silly stuff in spin classes, but the bikes are well made, and a day in a toe-clip is not going to ruin your pedal stroke. You could easily do a tempo ride next to people doing their spin routines.
  • Think Rocky 4. I’ll never forget my west coast-based coach assigning me a 100-mile ride when it was 5 below zero outside with 2 feet of snow on the ground. Keep in mind this was pre-fat bike era too. I was like, “dude, I’m a die hard, but it’s simply not possible for me.” We found a way to get the 5 to 6 hours in by including hiking in deep snow as part of the workout. If it’s cold and there is a lot of snow, finding knee deep snow and hiking for an hour will feel like a good ride. Why do you think Rocky used snow walking as training to beat the Russian? It works!
  • Think outside the box. I had a friend who started a new job that involved sitting at a desk. He rigged up a Stair Master with a desk top so he could step for up to 8 hours a day. Needless to say, he ended up one fit dude. The point here is to think about what you have. If your time, sanity, work schedule, or weather keep you from doing the workout as you want, look for outside the box ways to fit things in.
  • Think recess. When we were kids and the bell rang for recess, we all went running. As adults, most people don’t do anything on their breaks, but you could. If your building has stairs, or a workout center, or court area, take advantage by moving during your breaks. Sitting in a chair all day will not help you loosen up your hip flexors after sittimg, but moving will. Adding activity to your daily routine when you’re trapped inside can help loosen up some of the things you are trying to stretch at night before bed. It may not seem like cross training, but dynamic movement should be a part of your training plan, so why not do that all throgh the day instead of doing it all at once in the evening.

Sometimes a simple change of mindset can help a lot during the off season. Do we need to put in miles and time on the bike to reach our goals? Of course, but keep in mind the value of fitness. Look at what you have at your disposal first and see if you can use it. Not everyone can buy a cross bike, fat bike, road bike, track bike, smart-trainer and thousands of dollars worth of winter clothing. Don’t let that keep you from moving forward. See what’s available and use it. Be creative. There is nothing wrong with a 36 year-old man pretending to be Apollo Ohno on hockey skates trying to stay tucked down while skating laps around his kids. (That may have been me I was referencing.) Your kids don’t judge you for ugly form, and the quad burn is money in the bank. Is it ideal every day? No. But you can make it a part of your plan and will it offer a benefit? Yes. That’s the key: Do what you can do, and fill the rest with fun creative ways to meet the goals you have for this year.

Good luck,
Coach Luke

Coach Luke Winger is accustomed to harsh winters and creative cross training to make a successful cyclist. He works with all levels of riders and racers, both in Minnesota and beyond.