So by cross training, I’m going to define that as any cycling that is not your primary discipline (think roadies doing MTB) and any off the bike training that is not S&C (as that should be done all year round ideally). Cross training is often a way to mix training up, keep up enjoyment levels, or a means of avoiding cycling in wet, windy and wintery weather. There are several common ways that cyclists try to include cross training as part of their winter training, and we’re going to cover the pros and cons of several of them.
Other forms of cycling
For us roadies, we often stick to just road riding and time trialling, maybe the odd bit of gravel. However, there are many other cycling disciplines that can be very beneficial to road race performance. Although gravel is technical, it doesn’t quite match MTB, either XC or Downhill.
Doing some MTB work can be great for several factors linked to road riding. Firstly, technical skills. Look at Tom Pidcock, Peter Sagan, and MVDP, all great MTBers with some incredible bike handling and control on the road. Another big benefit is smooth pedalling as on loose or slippery surfaces, delivering power smoothly is essential so a more efficient pedalling stroke can be developed for the road as well. There are similar benefits from doing CX as well, but CX also really works the lung busting hour of pain and high power capacity, as well as providing a fun competitive event for over the winter.
BMX is another aspect of cycling that is less often used in cross training by road riders but has some great benefits. For example, BMX riders often have some of the highest peak power outputs of any cyclists, sometimes besting track sprinters! The combination of high torque and very high leg speed at the starts means huge power delivery and pedalling efficiency. There are also many benefits to bike handling skills for doing BMX, even if just for tricks and fun.
Track cycling is another useful cross training tool to include when track isn’t your main focus. From helping develop a smooth pedalling stroke, to also improving your ability with bunch handling in a close environment. Then we have the events themselves which can scratch our competitive itch, while also being great training sessions with a lot of focus on very high end performance from maximal aerobic power and upwards.
An added bonus of these disciplines is also avoiding icy conditions on the road, or in the case of track cycling, avoiding all wintery weather and not having to spend so much time cleaning bikes. Obviously you need the facilities near by and also the equipment, but all of these other disciplines of cycling offer great ways to vary training throughout the winter.
Swimming is a useful exercise for cyclists, as if you’re not doing it as your sole sport you are not going to develop huge back and shoulder muscles from a couple of swims a week. What you will improve is aerobic performance and your breathing ability. Swimming requires large breaths to be inhaled and exhaled very quickly, which helps work your respiratory muscles and can improve their resistance to fatigue. Add to that the fact that swimming involves no impact so there are no eccentric contractions and you get reduced chance of injury and DOMS compared to say running. It’s definitely a useful exercise to include if you want to mix up your training over the winter while still looking to improve aspects of your cycling.
This is a very common one for cyclists in the winter, but it needs to be done carefully. The problem is that cyclists are aerobically very very capable. Muscularly, not so much. Cyclists spend almost all their time doing concentric muscle contractions, pushing down to create force, and very little time doing eccentric contractions, where muscles shorten due to external force such as landing from a jump. Eccentric contractions are great for strengthening muscles, however they also lead to greater DOMS and if you are not properly conditioned you will get injuries. So a very aerobically fit cyclist can likely run a marathon very happily, 4 hours isn’t that long for a cyclist after-all. However, muscularly they will get injured, often badly as their body will likely not be conditioned to deal with the impact and eccentric load. This means the key to including running alongside cycling is to start very easy (think 1 mile run at a low HR) and build up very gradually. 15 minutes of running will put more stress on your body than 1 hour of riding even at the same heart rate. It is also important to do this alongside S&C to make sure your body can deal with the loads experienced when running.
Like running, but far less impact or chance of injury. Walking and hiking are actually better than many would think for cycling performance. A big issue many cyclists have with low intensity long duration training is that they work too hard. Walking and hiking can often elicit a heart rate that is in the right physiological zone and quite a steady continuous effort. A long hike for example will be effective endurance training in the winter without the risk of injury associated with running.
Sometimes, the cross training you might want to do might not be traditional aerobic exercise, and you might want to do some football, rugby, or other team sports. As team sports like these often require running, changes of direction, and in some cases contact, like running it becomes essential that the body is well conditioned and you start off very lightly. Cyclists often do not have very strong hamstrings and both football and rugby are notorious for resulting in hamstring injuries if players aren’t well conditioned. It can still be fun and a very useful sporting activity to keep fit in the winter, but it is essential that you make sure you are well conditioned and not over doing it.
At the end of the day, most benefit in training will be gained from actually cycling, as it is the most sport specific training if cycling is your goal. S&C is essential for building up increased strength and power too along with injury prevention, but needs to be done in the right way and correct volume. However people often like to mix up their training in the winter, try something new, or scratch the competitive itch. This is where different forms of training can be really useful for motivation and fun, while still helping you towards your goal of being a better cyclist. However cross training needs to be balanced and implemented in the correct way, both to increase the benefit directed towards cycling, and also to reduce the chance of injury.