Plan for 2013: Build, maintain competitive fitness for cyclo-cross


By Gus Grissom
Photo by Todd Prekaski
Photo by Todd Prekaski
With the recent rise in popularity of cyclo-cross, many roadies are struggling to figure out how to adapt their training programs and race schedules to accommodate the new cold weather season they’re choosing to enjoy. The desire to enter the arena of dust and mud that defines ‘cross is pushing many racers to reevaluate how they’ve done things in the past in favor of a program that allows them to race competitively both in the summer and fall seasons. The problem, however, is that it is now very possible for amateur racers in some parts of the country to have a racing season that extends from late February to early January! That doesn’t leave much time for the traditional approach of base miles, building intensity and then peaking for key events. So the question has become “is it possible to be competitive on the road and in the mud?”
Well, cyclo-cross coach and member of the Cycle-Smart Coaching Group, Alec Donahue contends that while it is possible to race both seasons competitively, it does take a little planning and a lot of discipline in order to do so. The problem is that cyclo-cross is about “racing at 100% of your fitness and intensity for an entire race.” The ability to warm-up and get the feel for a race is simply not a factor as it sometimes can be in a longer road race. Racers, he says, “need to start their ‘cross season very fit, but also very ready to race at a level where it feels like their eyeballs are being peeled back from the intensity.” So, according to Donahue, the key is to get to cyclo-cross season with both a good deal of fitness as well as a well-rested body and mind capable of producing these efforts.

To that end, Donahue advises the roadie who hopes to transition into ‘cross season actually to cut his road season a bit short, or at least to condense it somewhat. “By late July,” he explains, “racers need to be focusing on their goals and planning their race schedules” so they know what sort of time frame they have for training periods and what times will be spent more focused on racing. Late July and early August, he adds, are perfect times to take a break from road racing – or at least intense road training – and focus on getting back to some basics on the bike. “This is the perfect time to get out on the ‘cross bike and ride some moderately difficult mountain bike trails with friends,” according to Donahue. The focus of such rides, he adds, is to experiment with turns, to find out exactly how much speed a rider can sustain into the turns and how much they can accelerate out of the turns. Riders should “learn to be active pilots of their bikes” at this point in the year.
Photo by Brian Boucheron
Photo by Brian Boucheron
As for the specific training that will help racers prepare for what has become a long season, starting as early as September in some regions, Donahue contends that the key is to focus on variable power sessions. He explains that the nature of ‘cross is to be able to maintain a steady intensity, like a time trial, but to expect two main differences: the overall intensity will be much higher, and the variability of the efforts will be much greater. Racers, he adds, will not hold a single speed for long stretches but will instead experience many high intensity spikes throughout the race. He advocates that racers train for these efforts by incorporating workouts that are like sprint training – with short, maximum intensity efforts – but that incorporate much less rest and recovery time between the efforts. Donahue explains that a good pattern would be to do “20 seconds of full gas, followed by only 20 seconds of recovery, then repeated several times over the course of three to four minutes.” In so doing, he explains, racers will be adapting their bodies to the variable nature of cyclo-cross racing. Coupled with endurance rides lasting no more than three hours for the average racer, this training pattern will get an athlete into competitive shape without wearing down his body to the point that he hits the starting grid of his first races with heavy legs or a dull spirit.
One training phenomenon, however, is the old-school philosophy that one might “race into shape” over the course of a season. Donahue advises against this approach and argues that “while that may work for a European pro in the early season classics, after countless hours of training have prepared his body for the demands of racing, this style does not really benefit the amateur athlete with limited resources for one of the most important part of training: recovery.” Donahue contends that overtraining or trying to “train through” a series of early season races only makes racers feel sluggish overall. “Racing tired,” he argues,” doesn’t work because the racer can’t get a real 100% race effort. They end up with a mediocre start and a sloppy race. Then they get mentally defeated from this performance and tend to spiral downwards into worse races.” Racing like this, he explains, is like “practicing bad racing. It leads to more bad racing with sloppy technique.”
Instead of this approach, Donahue explains that racers need to recognize the demands that racing actually puts on their bodies. They must be willing to incorporate more recovery into their schedule during the season. “If a racer is really doing it right, he will still be tired two days after a race.” In terms of training on a weekly basis, this means that the Monday and Tuesday after a Sunday race will still likely be rest days or, at the most, easy riding days. As the week progresses, Donahue explains, Wednesday might be a good day for an intense workout, another burst of variable power training. But by Thursday and definitely by Friday, racers need to be focused on the next race. These are good days for easy rides focused on skills practice, cornering, off-camber turns, starts, and other ‘cross specific skills.  Donahue believes that “most racers see their performance decline over the course of a season not because they lose fitness, but because they are simply training too much during the periods of intense racing. They just get bogged down in a pattern of poor performances and harder workouts which lead to worse performances.” The key, he adds, is to keep in mind that the racing season is “just as much about recovery as it is about racing.” Recovery is the training piece that allows for a winning effort on race day.
So, if you are one of the growing number of amateur racers starting to experience the thrill of cyclo-cross racing, perhaps it is time to be as smart about it as you once were with all the detailed plans you made for peaks during road season. A little time spent thinking about how to structure a training plan around recovery and a lot of discipline to stick to that plan can lead to huge rewards on race day. Working too hard during the fall season, Donahue argues, “just makes you slower.” So be smart, race hard, and then recover just as hard. Your results will speak for themselves.

This Article Updated December 3, 2012 @ 01:38 PM For more information contact: