Cyclo-Cross Clinic Part 3: Fitness & Training

Cyclo-Cross Clinic Part 3: Fitness & Training

In part one and two of our Cyclo-Cross clinic we have looked at technique and equipment, in this edition we move to how you can adapt your body and fitness to handle and demands of this highly intensive racing discipline. For those people who are new to cross racing they will notice how demanding the effort is and how it can be a world away from the road and XC racing scene. In this edition we try and expand your knowledge on areas of performance you need to consider and particular sessions that will help your development.

What Are The Essential Elements To Cyclo-Cross Race Fitness?

Firstly, we need to identify areas of fitness key to develop to ensure you are race ready:

High FTP (Functional Threshold Power)

This is really your base line fitness and what you can build on with the other specific areas mentioned below. FTP is the intensity in which you can sustain for a prolonged period of time, normally a power you can sustain at an even level for around 45min to 1hr. This can vary greatly from person to person but this should be a priority in any initial building phases towards a peak of fitness for cross racing. A high FTP is as important in cross racing as it is for prolonged steady state efforts, i.e. riding up a 15km mountain or a time trial. It is an essential component of cross and with a race typically lasting around 1hr in duration a high FTP is crucial.

High “Variable” Power Ability

This will probably be the most noticeable and significant area of Cross racing which new people to the sport will find the most challenging and also the area where experienced riders spend time trying to improve. Cyclo Cross has very little sustained steady state efforts and with the added obstacles, corners, tight circuits and steep inclines you will be either ‘ON’ or ‘Off’ when it comes to the power you are pressing through the pedals. We have seen some power data from the Elite UCI riders we work with and on one occasion a rider produced 180 sprints of 600w for a duration lasting 10-15sec for each sprint. This will help you understand the demands which is required from your body to perform in a cross race.

The ability to have high variable power for a prolonged period of time i.e. the duration of a race, is more crucial than trying to hit a higher power on the ‘ON’ efforts for shorter periods. By this we mean it is better to complete repeated On/Off efforts for 1hr than doing a higher power On/Off efforts for 20min’s. Completing these variable power intensities at different torques and cadences are also an areas individuals need to focus in developing.

Front Loaded Efforts

Front loaded efforts means that you start with a very high intensity and then this initial effort gradually begins to tail off as you continue the race. This is the effort which every Cross rider needs to perform at the start of each race, as described in Part 1 of our coaching clinic, a good start will not win you a race but it will definitely lose you a race. Each start has a very intensive effort to begin with which requires you to perform a 30sec-1min MAX intensity but after this initial effort you will need to continue with a high intensity to hold position and keep the gains you made in that initial effort. The first 4-5min of a Cross race normally produces the highest peak powers for the total duration of the race so you need to be able to get out a big effort at the start but be able to continue with a high intensity which will see you continue with a solid performance.

Every Cross rider needs to practice the ability to recover from an initial high effort and not find themselves going backwards after the first minute of racing because they have failed to train their fitness levels to cope with this intensity.

women cyclo cross

Specific Training Sessions

With any discipline within cycling, the focus needs to be on the specifics and not just the volume of training. Don’t judge your quality of training by the hours you do but what you do within those hours and how productive they are towards your goal event. this is as much relevant in Cross as any other discipline.

Threshold With ‘Bursts’

This is completing sustained efforts which are at or just below your threshold pace but include a burst (sub maximal sprint) at regular intervals through the sustained effort. What this will achieve is maintaining your aerobic fitness (FTP) but help you handle the variable efforts which will be demanded during the race. The threshold effort either can vary depending on current fitness but we would suggest you ride at 90-95% of threshold power but include bursts which are not full out sprints for 10-15sec but efforts which are higher than your sustained effort. If using power a burst may be around 500-600w for the 10-15sec, this is slightly variable depending on current fitness. After each burst settle back down to threshold pace as quickly as possible.

Session example:
– 20min warm up
– 3x12min intervals
– Threshold intensity for 12min but include a burst every 3rd minute during this effort. A total of 4 ‘bursts’ within each 12min interval.
– 5-7min recovery between each interval.
– 10min cool down

Start Practices

As explained earlier in the article, starts are an essential area to concentrate on and one that can play a big part in your final performance and placing. One area which needs looked at is the process which you begin each interval in, when you look at Cross races the start usually takes in a time in which you will wait on the start line for 10min so you are starting to cool down and more than likely the weather will be cold. You will need to replicate the following intervals with this ethos so spending a few minutes of inactivity and going into each interval from static position will really help replicate the races. Remember in the first article we said how important it is to have your crank/pedal position the same and how your body leans into the start, we’ll incorporate this technique into each interval.

These intervals will be ‘Front Loaded’, try and develop your ability to make sustained efforts after an initial maximal effort. Ideally this should be completed on the Cross bike and on a loop that will be enough time to take in each interval length.

Session Example:
– 20-30min warm up
– 4x5min intervals

Do as (from a standing start):
– 1min of ‘MAX’ effort and develop into a 4min aerobic effort, preferably at or just slightly above your threshold effort.
– 5-7min recovery between efforts but include 2min of ‘standing/static movement’ before each interval as part of this recovery period.
– 10min cool down,

Skills Work at Race Pace

We talked in the first article about skills and the essential techniques needed to perform on race day, once you have honed your technique at an easy pace and feel confident to build you now have to complete them at race pace. It is vastly different going into an off camber corner or shouldering a bike with a heart rate of 180bpm than that of 130bpm, so let’s get working on this.

Ideally you would look at using a 10min loop that you can develop your own obstacles which might include some fast corners, dead turn and dismounting/mounting. This session is not so much about the exact intensity in which you hit each part but more about building the pace you can tackle each obstacle and build technique so you can take on these particular areas of racing at a faster pace and with more confidence. Look at doing 3 to 4 10min loops. Which will see you tackle each loop at a high intensity and make sure you focus on the details of technique along with the intensity which you take during the loop.

Over Under Efforts

This is a classic workout which should be prioritized by most Cyclo Cross riders and it will play a big part in your overall fitness come race day. In this session we look at going over your threshold intensity by doing an anaerobic effort which will result in you accumulating lots of lactate and then recovering for a short enough period to not allow a full recovery. Typically we look at doing 15sec ‘on’ and then 15sec ‘off’ for a set period of time. The 15sec on should be just below maximal intensity which you might sustain for one off 15sec sprint but higher than the intensity of the ‘bursts’ we talk about in the first session. The ‘Off’ should be full rest/easy spinning at low intensity. This session is best completed either indoors or on the road where you can control the effort more easy, if doing this session indoor look at Dig Deep Coaching’s tailored CycloX indoor training video designed by Dig Deep Coaching and delivered by The Sufferfest which you can use to replicate this session.

Session example:
-20min warm up
– 3x8min intervals (build this to 3x10min and onto 4x10min over a period of 3-4 weeks)

Do as:
– 15sec ‘Sprint’  15sec ‘recovery’ and repeat until the 8min is completed.
– 10min rest between each interval
– 10min cool down

Hopefully this 3 piece Cyclo Cross clinic will help you enhance and enjoy this fantastic discipline and see you develop in future races. The team at Dig Deep Coaching would love to hear about your progress.


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