Cross Training for Cyclists
Cyclists sometimes seek other forms of exercise, even those who love riding and live to race bikes. Wanting to do something else is not necessarily a sign of weakness or lack of devotion. There are valid reasons to do something other than ride. Cyclists naturally crave variety after a long season. Some are looking for a competitive “edge”. Severe weather can make outdoor riding impossible. Riders are tempted to join friends in their activities. One way or another, even the most accomplished cyclists occasionally need a break, but being serious about cycling, they don’t want to stop training or to do anything that will compromise racing. In such a situation, they can “cross train”. Cross training is exercise outside the main sport that boosts main-sport performance. Some exercises work as cross training for cyclists. Others don’t.
Goals of Training
Different exercises cause different adaptations. Some exercise modes will benefit a cyclist, while others can be ineffective or even detrimental. Whether a particular activity is good cross training depends on its effects, the individual’s goals and the time of year. Some people ride to be healthy and “fit”, while others want to be fit specifically for bike racing or another sport. Those who seek sport-specific fitness will need particular attributes: strength, endurance, leanness, toughness, speed, complex skills and so on. Cross training should develop those attributes. One key to athletic success is habitually making time for daily exercise. Any physical activity can help maintain an exercise habit. Cyclists need to be lean and light. Training that involves sustained multi-minute efforts can help there. Exercise of any sort usually makes muscles stronger and speeds recovery. The connections between nerves and muscle fibers develop so that muscles are easier to contract. Depending on the mode of exercise, muscles may get bigger or acquire enhanced ability to metabolize fat or consume oxygen. Particularly with aerobic training, mitochondria are enlarged and blood vessels proliferate and tunnel more deeply into muscles so that capillaries can drop off oxygen and fuel and pick up wastes closer to the contracting muscle fibers, enhancing aerobic power. With high-resistance strength training, the heart wall becomes thicker, stiffer and stronger. With aerobic endurance training, the interior diameter of the heart’s left ventricle increases, boosting stroke volume and maximal output and reducing resting heart rate. The endurance-training induced collection of changes in the heart is often called “cardio” fitness. Training causes numerous changes in the brain as well. Two of the most interesting are refinement of motor programs and increased “toughness” or tolerance for pain. The medulla oblongata is a part of the brain that sits between the cortex (where decisions happen) and spinal cord, which carries movement orders to muscles. The medulla oblongata translates signals of intent from the cortex (“hey legs, pedal”) into a pattern of nerve signals that tells individual muscles to contract or relax to make the legs go around. Four major muscle groups and many smaller ones must contract in a precisely coordinated fashion for efficient pedaling to occur.
Small changes in timing make big differences in efficiency and power. For example, if quads and hams are “on” at the same time for a moment, they pull against each other. They get tired and use oxygen, but don’t drive the pedals. As an individual learns and refines a movement, the pattern of muscle activation and relaxation to make the movement smooth and powerful develops and becomes automatic so the athlete no longer has to think about the details. The pattern is called a “motor program”. It takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of repetitions of a given movement to fully optimize it. That’s one reason that riders continue to improve their cycling for a long time just by riding. Riding seated, or standing for climbing or sprinting require the activation of different motor programs. The medulla oblongata can use established motor programs to form new ones if the movements are similar enough. That’s why one needs to practice standing for climbing or sprinting to be really good at them, but why someone who has done a lot of seated riding will have less trouble learning to stand efficiently than a newer rider would and why cross training movements that are similar to cycling are more effective in building cycling fitness than those that aren’t. It’s also why no form of cross training is ever as effective as bike riding in developing bike-riding ability. There is no question that bike racing can be painful and that ability to persevere is essential to success. Many kinds of exercise can be painful, and can teach pain tolerance, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily good cross training. Since there are many painful forms of exercise, riders should choose the ones that bring other benefits. Bike racing success requires particular training-induced physiological and psychological changes. Other changes, like growth of arm and chest muscles, would be detrimental for road cycling, even though they might boost performance in other sports. Riders should choose cross-training activities that drive beneficial changes and avoid wasting time on activities are neutral or detrimental.
Specificity and Experience
Most physical activities will boost performance in other activities for sedentary individuals. For beginning athletes, confidence, body weight, basic strength, coordination and cardiovascular fitness are likely to be limiters, and physical activity generally will help improve them. The already trained athlete requires more specific exercise to generate sport-specific improvement. That’s why studies of sedentary subjects find that strength training increases VO2-max and endurance training increases maximum strength, but studies on trained individuals don’t find those effects. The rider who is accustomed to riding a couple of hours per week and who is facing either a busy schedule or miserable riding weather will benefit by “staying active”. The competitive bike racer needs to pick modes of cross training more carefully. Timing also affects the value of possible modes of cross training for both recreational riders and racers.
Cross Training is Season-Dependent
Any activity that is done with enough duration and intensity to generate a training effect also generates fatigue. In season, recovery ability is the limiting factor for weekly or more frequent racers. Thus any training undertaken in season should be chosen to maximize training benefit per fatigue generated. Cycling always provides the most performance enhancement for a cyclist per amount of fatigue generated. Thus there is little or no place for cross training other than short, easy recovery-oriented efforts and rehabilitative or maintenance strength training during racing season. Outside of event season, a rider may be looking to improve aerobic fitness, lose weight, gain strength, correct imbalances or injuries accumulated during the season or achieve a variety of other ends that are not optimally served by cycling exclusively. (When I say “imbalances”, I’m not talking about some out-there, new-age sort of concept. I’m talking about riders who have spent so much time bent over their bikes that they can’t easily stand up straight or whose non-cycling muscles have so atrophied muscles that they can’t run without hurting themselves). During the post-season, pre-training period, riders should ride the bike at least once per week. All other activity can be cross training. In the first month or two of base development, riding replaces one or two cross training days, so one should be riding at least three days per week and could be cross training three or four days. Better is to mix modes. When the weather is too miserable for a long ride, mix some cross training with a shorter ride, either indoors or out. Ten weeks before the racing season is time to emphasize pedaling as the principal mode of training, cross training only once per week in modes that are not highly specific to cycling. A cycling-specific strength routine can be done throughout the training season and continued with a light, maintenance routine into the racing season, until few weeks before the key races. Six weeks before the season, it’s time to cease cross training other than cycling specific stuff. Aerobic cross training should be done as base training only. Harder intervals done in cross training modes will benefit performance in that mode, but not in cycling. All training that will be done at harder than base pace, and certainly all race pace work, should be done on a bike
Pros and Cons of Cross Particular Training Modes
Running is good base season cross training for road cyclists, though its high-impact nature causes a lot of knee and shin problems in cyclists. I’ve seen cyclists get shin splints after as little as 7 minutes of running the first few sessions. If a road-cyclist choose to use running as cross training, he or she should start with five minute sessions, add no more than five minutes per session, and limit runs to one hour or less and every other day or less frequently. Because the sessions cannot be long, running must generally be combined with cycling or other cross training the same day. Running as cross training should taper to one day per week with 10 weeks to go before racing and disappear entirely six weeks before racing. The cyclist who takes up running can use the same heart rates he or she uses for cycling, or develop run-specific zones.
Swimming is not a great form of cross training even though it is good, in small amounts, for restoring balance to a cycling body. It uses muscles very differently from cycling, and builds upper body mass. Frequent exposure to cold drives fat storage, making weight loss or maintenance more difficult. Swimming is extremely low impact, so it is good for riders rehabbing lower extremity injuries.
Downhill skiing and rock climbing can be fun but are minimally beneficial to cyclists. They are more strength than aerobic workouts, and the strength they develop is not particularly applicable to cycling. They challenge balance, but not in way that transfers to cycling. They do provide a nice break from cycling, and adrenaline rush and add variety to the activity schedule. Downhill skiing can be done at high altitude, boosting red cell production and aerobic power a couple of weeks after a trip.
Cross Country Skiing in old-fashioned ‘diagonal stride’ style is effective cross training. It’s low impact and not difficult to learn. It can be done in long enough sessions to entirely replace cycling days with a little practice. Diagonal stride skiing uses the muscles of the legs and butt in ranges of motion that are similar enough to standing cycling to be somewhat transferable. “Skate” style cross country skiing is faster and more fun once one has mastered the movement, is still low impact, but is not as transferable to cycling because the movement is more side-to-side than front to back. A cyclist who chooses to cross country ski specifically as cross training should emphasize diagonal stride. Cross country skiing can be continued up to a few weeks before the cycling season, so long as the rider is also getting plenty of saddle time. The cyclist who takes up XC skiing can use the same heart rates he or she uses for cycling, or develop XC-ski-specific zones.
Snow shoeing or Hiking are valuable for metabolizing fat, adding variety, staying active and providing a cardio-vascular workout. The movement pattern is as similar to cycling as diagonal stride skiing, but the movement speed is so much slower as to make the fitness less transferable.
Yoga and Pilates can do wonderful things for the body, especially for people who are tight, stiff or imbalanced from too-many months of cycling without other physical activity. Yoga is also meditative, cutting through the fog of stress and letting the practitioner relax, even in the middle of a crazy life. On the other hand, yoga and Pilates are not aerobic so they are more like physical therapy than cross training. A rider who is too stiff to get a low, comfortable, aero position on the bike or too weak in the core to efficiently control the pelvis while pedaling hard might benefit from yoga or Pilates, as might someone who has back pain from riding, or who is hunched from too many hours on the bike. These activities are not cross training since they are not generally beneficial for cyclists, unless the cyclists specifically need the stretching, strengthening or relaxation they provide.
- Team sports, such as pick-up basketball, volleyball, soccer or softball can be fun and provide variety, but are not similar enough to cycling to be cross training except perhaps for the sprinting aspect of cycyling. They can be done in addition to a full program of cycling or aerobic cross training, and then only very carefully. I don’t recommend these activities because I’ve seen too many riders break wrists and ankles doing them.
Martial arts offer an interesting case. Martial arts movements generally have little in common with cycling movements so they are not cross training most of the time. There is one situation where the skills do overlap however: during crashes. I’ve seen enough riders with martial arts backgrounds end up on their feet or tumbling uninjured out of crashes where anyone else would have gone down hard to recommend a small amount martial arts that include falling or tumbling as a complement to cycling or aerobic cross training.
Strength Training and specialized strength-training systems like CrossFit, PX90, and Plyometrics offer another opportunity to ponder priorities. PX90 advertises that it makes participants build muscle fast. The vast majority of amateur bike racers have either too much muscle mass for optimal competitiveness or about the right amount. Very few would benefit by adding muscle mass all over, and an even tinier fraction would benefit from adding upper body mass, so PX90 is not going to be a good choice for most cyclists. CrossFit can be wonderful fun and very challenging and advertises that its practitioners are the fittest people on Earth, appealing to the racer’s competitive instinct. Unfortunately, the measure of fitness is not cycling ability. CrossFit falls in the category of activities that generate a lot of fatigue with little cycling-specific benefit and build muscle mass where it is not helpful for cycling. It is not recommend for bike racers. Plyometrics and weight-lifting type strength training can benefit cyclists, if cycling specific routines are adopted. That is, weight lifting and plyometric routines can be developed to emphasize the muscles used during cycling (quads, hams, calves, glutes, core) and with the high repetitions and moderate resistance that develop the right sort of muscular endurance. Plyometrics can also benefit cycling performance, but the chances of injury are also substantial, so I don’t recommend plyometrics unless the particular athlete can learn the movement under close supervision of an expert, not from a book. Both strength training and plyometric training, if undertaken, should be tapered as racing starts and eliminated, other than rehabilitation, several weeks before any major events.
The Best Cross-Training
Alternative modes of cycling, like mountain biking, ice-biking, indoor training and even spin classes are ideal ways for road cyclists to build fitness in the off season. All of these can be included in the roadie’s program year round in generous amounts, substituting directly for road riding so long as the position is similar to the road bike, the trails are easy enough to allow steady effort, and the intensity is appropriate to the training plan for the time of year. Off-road and ice biking have the added benefit of building bike handling skills and confidence. Off road riding can have the disadvantage, if trails are not chosen properly, of being so technical that the intensity is too variable to build pedaling fitness.
Road racers are competitive. Their competitiveness often leaks over from road cycling to other activities, leading to a potential danger: The cyclist who takes up running or cross country skiing for instance may be tempted to train like a competitive runner or cross country skier, to do intervals, blast past other athletes on the trails or even enter races. Those behaviors are detrimental to bike racing performance. The cyclist must remember what cross training is for; that it is done to improve cycling and should be approached that way. A cyclist who includes high-intensity running intervals in anticipation of running a 5K is no longer a cyclist cross training by running. He or she has become a runner who just came off a season of cross training by cycling. It would be wonderful to compete near one’s potential in several sports but it takes several years to completely transform from one sport to another so it is not possible to race to one’s potential in two sports in the same year. The competitive cyclists should choose cross training activities that boost cycling performance, and then do them in such a way as to achieve that end.