‘Cross Musings Vol. 1: Training for Cyclocross

Cyclocrossers and cyclo-curious:
Finals are over, days are long, the weather’s great, all of which suggest it’s time to start base training for cyclocross!  The ECCC schedule will likely run from November 1st (the first Saturday after Mt. Bike Nationals) to December 7th (the Sunday before ‘Cross Nationals).  In this email I’ll lay out a general training philosophy, based largely upon Joe Friel’s methods but with some cross-specific adjustments.  Additional references are listed at the end.  This schedule assumes that ‘cross is your primary focus, but the sport can also be good preparation for road season or just a way to keep the winter weight off.

Training Goals:
Our number one goal is to have fun!  That sounds cliche, but it’s true.  Cycling should be the bright spot in your day.  If your training is bringing you down, cut back.  I’d rather have you slow and happy than fast and homicidal.  Goal number two is to defend our ECCC title.  Goal number three is to regain the national title.  I encourage you to develop some personal goals as well: move up a category, shoot for an individual ECCC title, etc.

Cyclocross Training vs. Road Training:
Cyclocross is somewhere between a long time trial and a fast, strung-out crit.  It’s also a bit like a XC Mt. Bike race, but shorter and with fewer opportunities for recovery.  Men’s A’s race for an hour, MB for 45 minutes, and WA, WB and MC for 40 minutes.  It’s very different from a road race, and your training should reflect that.  In general you need less volume but more intensity.  The primary goal of your training, other than having fun, should be to boost your lactate threshold (AKA functional threshold power, 60 minute critical power, etc.) as high as you can.  A strong sprint might gain you a place or two, but good steady-state power is worth far more.

To Run or Not to Run:
Many people associate cyclocross with running, but ask a dozen New England ‘crossers about their running training and you’ll get thirteen different answers.  Some run consistently, as recommended by Simon Burney, whereas others feel that running proficiency comes at the expense of on-bike speed.  My personal observation is that local courses tend to be dry and fast, particularly in November, so that you’re only off the bike 10-20 seconds per lap, or 2 minutes in a 45 minute race.  Getting 25% better at your run is equivalent to getting 1.16% better on your bike.  Consider your personal abilities and choose accordingly.  Even if you choose not to target your run, some jogging or hiking is beneficial to strengthen the stabilizing muscles around the ankles.  It won’t make you faster, but it might help prevent an injury.

Training Schedule:
The schedule consists of six four-week training blocks, followed by a taper and a six week race season.  Within each training block, you should gradually build your volume and/or intensity over three weeks and then take the fourth as a recovery week.  I’ll try to send out details each month, but here’s the big picture so you see where we’re going.

5/5 – 6/1: Pre-base – I’m a little late in getting this out, but hopefully you’ve started moving again, cut back on the donuts, maybe ridden your bike a few times . . .

6/2 – 6/29: Base 1 – The emphasis here is on establishing aerobic fitness.  Lots of zone 2 (75-85% of your lactate threshold or time trial heart rate) workouts.  Be wary of “racy” group rides: pure roadies will likely be going faster than you should be this time of year.  Cross-training is encouraged, to help keep you mentally fresh for the bike training to follow.  Try to do some spinning drills at least once a week.  Hours will vary by individual; I build up to ~9 in the third week.

6/30 – 7/27: Base 2 – Continued emphasis on aerobic base.  I try to hit ~11 hours in the third week.  Long rides don’t need to be longer than 3 hours.  Phase out cross-training miway through.  Continue the spinning drills, and add one day of tempo (85 – 90% of threshold HR) work.  Start with a 15 or 20 minute tempo interval and add 5 or 10 minutes per week.

7/28 – 8/24: Base 3 – The highest hourly volume of the season.  I build to ~13 hours in the third week.  Continue spinning drills and tempo workouts, and add one day per week of lower threshold (90 – 95% of threshold HR) workouts.  Start with two or three 12 minute intervals, and build gradually each week, to four 12 minute intervals, to three fifteen minute intervals, to two twenty minute intervals, etc.  Try to get some hilly rides in as well – low cadence, high torque work helps develop leg and core strength.  ‘Cross terrain often limits your cadence to 80 RPM or less, so it’s important to develop strength for these efforts.

8/25 – 9/21: Build 1 – Now that you’ve established a solid aerobic, tempo, and lower threshold base, you can start to do one workout per week at threshold, or race, intensity.  Start with two 12 minute intervals at 95 – 100% of threshold HR and add a little each week.  By the end of Build 2 you should be able to do a threshold interval the length of your race.  The biggest challenge around here is to find a course where you can do 20 to 40 minutes continuously without stoplights, traffic etc.  The Charlie Baker course is one option, or take your ‘cross bike to a local park and do it off-road.  Continue to do one day per week of tempo work and two days aerobic.  The fifth day might be form sprints or handling skills.  Keep the remaining two days for rest or active recovery (<75% threshold HR) – threshold work takes a lot out of you.  Hours come down to perhaps 10 per week.

9/22 – 10/19: Build 2 – The final push.  Continue the threshold workouts, and add some short (VO2max) intervals as well.  Races can be a good way to develop fitness and skills simultaneously.  Try a collegiate Mt. Bike race or a USCF ‘cross race or two.  Keep the intensity down just a hair so that you’ll be mentally fresh for the big races yet to come.

10/20 – 10/31: Taper

11/1 – 12/14: Race!

12/15 – ?: Eat donuts

References from people who know a lot more than me:
  • “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” by Joe Friel: aptly titled, a great reference.  Not cross-specific, but very helpful nonetheless
  • “Base Building for Cyclists” by Thomas Chapple: extends Friel’s work.
  • “Cyclocross Training and Technique” by Simon Burney: more helpful for technique; his training plan is a bit primitive.
  • “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan.  Great workouts, but doesn’t discuss season-long planning.