5 Key CX Workouts 1130x600
Training Tips

5 Key Workouts for Cyclocross Racers

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Cyclocross is a unique cycling discipline that incorporates high intensity cycling on grass, dirt, pavement, and sand, interspersed with barriers and stairs that typically necessitate dismounting the bicycle, running with it, and then remounting on the fly. It’s a fun and exciting form of racing, and the short races (40-60 minutes) on short, technical courses (about 2-3km) make it very spectator friendly. If you’re looking for a party that happens to feature some bike racing, you’ll love cyclocross.

The demands of cyclocross racing require some specific training and technical skills. Many cyclists transition to cyclocross training following a summer season of road, gravel, and/or mountain biking and thus start with a lot of aerobic endurance. Heading into the fall, cyclists must increase the specificity of their training to prepare for the short, maximum intensity efforts that characterize cyclocross racing. Although not an exhaustive list, here are some of the workouts cyclocross racers should incorporate into their training plans:

Lactate Threshold

Your lactate threshold defines the steady state power output you can maintain for an hour. It is an intensity level where both your aerobic and anaerobic systems are contributing to energy production and your aerobic system can process the lactate produced through anaerobic glycolysis fast enough to keep blood lactate levels from rising dramatically. Why is your power output at lactate threshold important for cyclocross, which demands power output way above threshold? Because maximal efforts produce a lot of lactate and you have to spend time below threshold to allow the aerobic engine to process it. The higher your lactate threshold, the faster you can go while recovering from max efforts.

Intervals that increase a cyclist’s power at lactate threshold need to be 10 to 20 minutes in duration with a work: recovery ratio of 2:1, meaning 20-minute intervals would be separated by 10 minutes of easy spinning recovery. Over the course of a week or a training block, the goal is to accumulate total time-at-intensity. A single workout might have four 12-minute intervals (48 minutes). Repeating that workout twice a week (96 minutes) for two weeks leads to 192 minutes – a little more than 3 hours – at lactate threshold intensity for the training block.

VO2 max

In addition to focusing on increasing your power at lactate threshold, cyclocross racers will benefit from training that increases maximum aerobic capacity – or VO2 max. The difference between targeting anaerobic capacity and VO2 max comes down to the duration of the efforts and the recovery time between them. In both cases, the intervals are done at as high an intensity as you can sustain for the duration of the effort. For VO2 max intervals, the efforts should last about 3 to 4 minutes and recovery times between efforts should be about half that. As you progress through an interval set of 4-6 efforts, the limited recovery periods will mean starting subsequent efforts before you are fully recovered. This is done on purpose, because when recovery periods are too long you spend too much of the next effort just getting back to VO2 max territory. This type of work can be done as a stand-alone interval workout, or it can be incorporated into the “race simulation” workout described below.

Anaerobic Capacity

On top of increasing sustainable power and maximum aerobic capacity, cyclocross racers also need to increase the amount of work they can do above threshold and the number of times they can repeat those hard efforts. Training anaerobic capacity requires short intervals (45-60 seconds) as hard as you can go. They start out like a sprint and then you hang on until the end of the interval. Recovery periods between intervals should be long (5-10 minutes) so you are completely recovered and able to repeat a high power effort. A typical workout will contain 5-7 efforts. It’s not a lot of time-at-intensity, but 1-2 of these workouts per week is sufficient to elicit a training stimulus. Do not overdo it with anaerobic capacity workouts, particularly during the cyclocross season when you are racing on the weekends; a little goes a long way.

Skills Practice

Mastering the techniques of dismounting, running with your bike, climbing stairs and jumping over barriers with your bike, and remounting at speed are essential for success in cyclocross racing. The best way for beginners to learn these skills is through clinics led by USA Cycling-certified coaches and other experienced cyclocross racers. In many communities there are also mid-week cyclocross practice sessions led by local cycling clubs or teams. During these practice sessions, walk through the techniques at a slow pace to focus on each step of the process. Always start with the simplest movements and add complexity and speed as you progress. For instance, you can start by dismounting and remounting on a flat, grassy field before progressing to dismounting, carrying the bike over barriers and then remounting. And then, finally, increasing the speed of the drill.

Race simulation

Race simulation workouts are often incorporated into skills practice sessions because temporary barriers and a course through a park may already be in place. A race simulation workout is where you put all the components of cyclocross training into practice. A common way to envision this workout is as a series of mini races, each beginning from a standing start and lasting 4-5 minutes. This provides the opportunity to practice the start, which is one of the most critical moments of any cyclocross competition, and then ride a maximum intensity through a course that ideally includes at least one set of two barriers and a runup on a staircase or steep hill. If you are trying to combine the race simulation workout with a VO2 max workout, keep the laps to about four minutes and only rest about two minutes between each effort. To make these sessions more targeted to lactate threshold – or as one of your lactate threshold workouts for the week – you can increase the duration of race simulation efforts to 10 minutes or more.

Combining these workouts into a cyclocross training plan is best done with the help of a USA Cycling certified coach who can customize the arrangement, frequency, and duration of workouts to suit your experience, skill, and fitness level. However, you don’t necessarily need a cyclocross-specific training plan to get started in the sport. The cycling fitness you have from a summer of road and gravel riding and mountain biking is a great starting point and jumping into a local ‘cross practice is a perfect way to get a feel for the sport.