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Cyclo-cross coaching clinic: part three – fitness and training sessions

How to hit top form as a cyclo-cross racer

In parts one and two of our cyclo-cross coaching clinic from Dig Deep Coaching, we looked at the technique and equipment required to race cyclo-cross – now it’s time to consider the training required, and how you can adapt your body and fitness to handle the demands of high intensity cyclo-cross racing.

For those of you who are new to ‘cross racing, you’ll soon notice how demanding the effort is and how it can be a world away from road racing or cross-country mountain biking. What are the key areas of performance you need to focus on and what training sessions will help in your development as a cyclo-cross racer?

What is the key to cyclo-cross fitness?

First we need to identify the demands cyclo-cross racing has on your body and the areas you need to develop as a result. In short, there are three key physiological attributes required to thrive in a cyclo-cross race: high FTP, high variable power and the ability to nail front-loaded effort. Let’s take a closer look at all three.

Cyclo-cross places unique demands on a rider’s fitness (Pic: Balint Hamvas)

High FTP (Functional Threshold Power)

Functional Threshold Power, or FTP, acts as a marker of your base fitness for all cycling-related performance, not just cyclo-cross. FTP is essentially the intensity which you can sustain for a prolonged period of time, usually given as a heart rate or power level maintained at an even level for a maximum of one hour.

– Six things you need you know about… lactate threshold –

FTP can vary greatly from rider to rider but should be a priority in any initial building phase towards a peak of cyclo-cross fitness. Although a high FTP is also important in prolonged steady state efforts, for example when riding up a 15km mountain or during a time trial, it is an essential component of ‘cross, with a race typically lasting around one hour in duration. You can then begin to develop more ‘cross-specific areas of training and performance on top of this base line fitness.

High variable power

This will probably be the most noticeable part of cyclo-cross racing which people new to the sport will find the challenging – and also the area where experienced riders spend time trying to improve.

A typical cyclo-cross race will contain very little in the way of sustained steady-state efforts and with the added obstacles, corners, tight circuits and steep inclines you will be either ‘ON’ or ‘OFF’ the gas when it comes to the power you are pushing through the pedals.

Power files from some of the elite UCI cyclo-cross racers we work with can contain more than 180 sprints of 600 watts or above, each lasting between ten and 15 seconds, in a single race. This will help you understand the demands which is required from your body to perform in a ‘cross race.

The ability to have a high variable power for a prolonged period of time, i.e. the length of time a race lasts, is more crucial than trying to hit a higher power on the ‘ON’ efforts for shorter periods. By this I mean it’s better to be able to do sustained on/off efforts for an hour than be able to put out a higher on/off power for only 20 minutes. It’s also important to work on variable power intensities at different torques and cadences.

Front loaded efforts

Front loaded efforts refer to the fact that you can start at a very high intensity and then this initial effort gradually begins to tail off as you continue the race. This is the effort every ‘cross rider needs to execute at the start of every race. As we ran through in part one of our coaching clinic, a good start may not win you a race, but it can 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 effort, but after this initial effort you will need to continue with a high intensity to hold position and keep the gains you made off the line.

The first four to five minutes of a cyclo-cross race normally produce the highest peak power for the entire hour, so you need to be able to get a big effort out at the start but also be able to continue at a high intensity which will set you up for a solid performance. Every ‘cross rider needs to work on their ability to recover from an initial high effort and not find themselves going backwards after the first minute of racing.

Specific training sessions

Now we’ve looked at what it takes to perform in a cyclo-cross race, let’s consider what training you can do behind the scenes to build your ‘cross form and fitness.

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 relevant in cyclo-cross as any other discipline.

Threshold with ‘bursts’

This involves doing sustained efforts, at or just below your threshold pace, but including a burst (a sub-maximal sprint) at regular times through this sustained effort. This helps develop your aerobic fitness (FTP) while also training your body to cope with the variable efforts which will be demanded during a race.

The threshold effort can vary depending on your current fitness but I would suggest riding at 90-95 per cent of threshold heart rate or power and including bursts which are not quite a full-on sprint, but higher than your sustained effort, for around ten to 15 seconds. If using a power meter those bursts may be around 500-600 watts, though this will vary from rider to rider, of course. After each burst settle back down to sub-threshold pace as quickly as possible.

Session example

20min warm-up

3x12min intervals
Do as: threshold intensity for 12 minutes but include a burst every third minute minute during this effort. A total of four bursts within each 12-minute interval.

5-7min recovery between each interval

10min cool down

Practice your start in training if you want to be in the heart of the race off the grid

Start practice

As we’ve already covered, starts are a key area to concentrate on and one that can play a big part in your final performance and placing in a cyclo-cross race.

By the time a cyclo-cross race starts, you’ll normally have been hanging around on the start line for at least ten minutes after your warm-up, and more than likely the weather will be cold. As a result, you should replicate that using the following internal session, so having a few minutes of inactivity before going into each interval from static position to replicate a race scenario.

Remember in the first article how we said how important it is to have your crank arm/in the correct position to get straight on the power? And how your body leans into the start? Well, incorporate that technique into each interval you do here.

These intervals will be ‘front goaded’, so try and make a sustained effort after an initial maximal effort. Ideally this should be done on the ‘cross bike and on a loop that will give you enough time to take in each interval length.

Session example

20-30min warm-up

4x5min intervals
Do as (from a standing start): one minute of maximum effort and develop into a four-minute high aerobic effort, preferably at or just slightly above your threshold pace.

5-7min recovery between efforts but include two minutes of standing before each interval as part of this recovery period.

Ten minute cool down

Skills work at race pace

We talked in the first article about cyclo-cross skills and the essential techniques needed to perform on race day. Once you’ve honed your technique at an easy pace and feel confident, you now have to do them at race pace. It’s 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 ten-minute loop where you can develop your own obstacles, including some fast corners, dead turns and dismounts/remounts. This session is not so much about the exact intensity but more about building the pace at which you can tackle each obstacle, and building technique so you can take on these particular areas of racing at a faster pace and with more confidence.

Look at doing three or four ten-minute loops which will see you tackle each circuit at a high intensity. Make sure you focus on the details of each technique.

A typical cyclo-cross race will contain very little in the way of sustained steady-state efforts (Pic: Balint Hamvas)

Over under efforts

This is a classic workout which should be prioritised by most Cyclo Cross riders and 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 before recovering – but only for a short enough period to not allow a full recovery.

Typically we look at doing 15 seconds ‘on’ and then 15 seconds ‘off’ for a set period of time. The 15 seconds on should be just the below maximal intensity which you might sustain for a one-off 15-second sprint, but higher than the intensity of the ‘bursts’ we talked about in the first session.

The ‘off’ should be easy spinning at a low intensity. This session is best done either indoors on the turbo trainer or on a road where you can control the effort easily. If doing it indoors look at our tailored cyclo-cross indoor training video, designed by us and delivered by the Sufferfest.

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 three-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, so drop us a message on Facebook or Twitter.

Website: Dig Deep Coaching

Want to learn more? Four-time British cyclo-cross champion and Dig Deep coach Ian Field offers his pro tips in this free downloadable webinar.

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