Your Recipe for Success for Cyclocross Season

Let’s get right to the point. Cyclocross racing is just around the corner. If you haven’t started training specifically for cyclocross yet, you’re either late to the game or peaking for a late season race. Nonetheless, with the upcoming cyclocross season rapidly approaching, you’ll want to make sure your focus is where it needs to be and that you are pointing your efforts in the right direction. Well, we are here to help and in doing so, we are laying out some basic training principles that you should focus on while preparing for cyclocross season.

Improve your Aerobic capacity and critical racing power

As discussed in previous versions of preparing for the cyclocross season a few basic principles were laid out that will point you in the right direction. Coach Adam Mills recently presented in“ Cyclocross: What You Should Be Doing In July To Prepare” that in order to elevate your fitness, you must add training load (Training stress) in both intensity and duration. In essence we are talking about the range above and below your critical power that you race at.
Specifically,  you’ll want to look at the demands of the race and data from previous races to assess what your needs may be and take some averages. Although this will depend on your current level of fitness and the level at which you race, in general, you’ll want to work up to at least 3-4 days per week performing intervals close to and around threshold. These types of workouts can take on many forms but when it comes to improving the upper limits of your aerobic system, it’s anywhere from what you can maximally do for roughly 20 minutes to 60 minutes. Though this may seem like a big range, it’s really not.

In this power duration curve, we are looking at a fairly balanced athlete coming off of a road season. Looking his last 90 days of numbers as his best 20 minute effort is a mean maximal power of 280 watts as his best 60 minute effort is 233 watts. We are looking at a range of only ~50 watts. This illustrates the importance of dialing in your efforts and appropriately designing workouts that fit your needs. Using a power duration curve is a great place to start to identify your needs on the basic level, beyond that we use advanced software analytics to specifically target these areas of improvement.

Consider the varying force, cadence, and anaerobic demands of cross

Over the course of a cyclocross race, you’ll see a wide range of power numbers that elicits an average or normalized power. However, just seeking to improve the average, will lead to average finishes. We can see from the power profile of a specific race that the highs are high and the lows are low.

In addition to training to accommodate for the bursts of power that are seen in cyclocross races, it may also be wise to train at a variance of cadences and work on force development. As a cyclocross race is almost guaranteed to have mud, sand, or otherwise variable terrain, these features force rapid accelerations and changes in cadence as result. Speaking to force development, it becomes an advantage to be able to produce power quickly at different points in a course including the start of the race. Leading up to racing season, each week should include workouts that seek to target a variance of cadences and improving rate of force development.
In addition to cadence and force development, cyclocross itself has a high anaerobic demand. Given the first recommendation to work on aerobic capacity and time spent around threshold, it is also important to work on your ability to produce energy well above threshold and be able to repeat spikes in power that a cyclocross race elicits. The good news is that force, cadence, and anaerobic capacity are easy to target at the same time or within the same workout. Having some overlap with targeting these specific elements should prove to be beneficial and help you spend your time wisely.

Skill development.

So, now you’ve got a nice and well rounded engine and the cyclocross specific type intervals are going well, but do you have the skills to corner well in mud or pedal through a sand-pit? The gains you make in terms of power will certainly help you, but not near as much if it’s something you can’t control. Seems as if most everyone does the “let’s practice some barriers a couple weeks before the first race” routine, but it may not be enough. Practicing barriers, shouldering your bike, making off camber turns (both uphill and downhill), linking turns, lifting or hopping the bike over smaller obstacles, and pretty much anything you can do in a cross race should be practiced before the season starts at a minimum of 4 weeks before. Even the most seasoned cyclocross athletes should seek to improve their ability on and off the bike.
Many of the athletes we work with have participated in our cyclocross clinics as well as carried out skills specific workouts prior to the season beginning. For each of these, it takes a bit of planning to replicate some of the features, but once you’ve got a good location and a general set-up, skills workouts start to become highly effective in a short amount of time.
Check out the upcoming skills camps with Source Endurance coaches:

  • Wednesdays in August, Seattle, WA. Wednesday Night CX Workouts with Coach Matt Hill. Learn more.
  • August 25-27th: Fort Collins, CO. Hosted by the Source Endurance Training Center of the Rockies with Olympic Medalist and Cyclocross Pro Racer Georgia Gould. Learn more.
  • Last week of August: Seattle, WA. Cyclocross bootcamp with SE Coach Matt Hill. Learn more.

Balanced fitness and musculature

Perhaps one of the most underrated elements of being a successful cyclocross racer is a balanced body. Before your calendar is loaded with some of the aforementioned workouts make sure your body has fully recovered from the previous training cycle. A good way to do this is to take a week or two off from the road season and develop an off the bike training regime that seeks to not add functional strength to other areas of the body besides the legs. Ideally this is maintained into the season. After that focus on building strength in areas that will help you be balanced. For example, core strength and/or flexibility are very important in moving and stabilizing the lower extremities.  Often times dismounts  are in precarious conditions or locations. This is an instance where the stability of the ankle joint or the knee is at risk for injury. If you have strong and compliant muscles around the hips, knees and ankles, the risk of injury is substantially less. 
Arguably, a solid preparation for cyclocross includes training modalities outside of just interval training on the bike. In your preparation phase it may be wise to strength train or perform body weight or light and short resistance training workouts. At the very least, performing some dynamic stretches 2-3 weekly will help prepare you to not only survive on a run-up a muddy hill, but gain positions. Other suggestions may include weekly yoga and/or meditation, or even some light running.

Take Home

With these principles in mind, try to design your cyclocross training according to your needs and the demands of the races you seek to do the best in. If the demand in your major race is to climb a 100 foot hill, by foot, every lap, practicing that will only help you. Ultimately fitness will account for a large percentage of your ability in cyclocross, however your skill and specificity of your training will also largely influence your performance. Make sure that in getting ready for this season you aren’t leaving anything out of your training. As always if you need more guidance, we are here to help.

About Coach Grant: Grant Harrison has a M.S. Exercise & Sport Science – Human Performance, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse. He has led various types of athletes to achieve athletic success In mountain biking, road cycling, cyclo-cross while offering a background in strength training and nutrition. Grant has placed riders on the podium of major events such as Jingle Cross and the Dirty Kanza 200, in addition to helping many athletes achieve their nutritional and body composition goals. Learn more about Grant.