Well folks, it's the off season for most all of us road and mountain bike racers who follow a "traditional" March through September racing schedule. While most of us recognize the need to occasionally do something other than ride our bikes, many struggle to find cross training options that don't lead to boredom, injury or burnout. The sad truth is that many good cyclists are not very good all around athletes. We are able to do one thing really well but little of anything else. Yet if we can ride a 100 miles without any problems but can't bring groceries in from the car without injury, we might be heading for disaster. Taking a step back and learning to become a more versatile athlete will help set the foundation for a successful winter and ultimately a better next season.
I tried to narrow this down to a list of fundamental qualities of cross training that cyclists can use to evaluate cross training options. How you prioritize them will depend on your own strengths, weaknesses, history of injuries, mindset and other factors.
Core Strength (CS)
Most think of abs when they think of core but the core includes everything from the shoulders to the hips. Everything you do on the bike requires core strength, but cycling itself does little to improve core strength. A weak core will lead to discomfort on the bike (especially over longer and/or harder rides), poor power transfer (especially when sprinting and climbing), inefficient pedaling and an inability to maintain an aerodynamic position. Although some basic core training is recommended year round, many of us tend to skimp if not completely let this training go once the racing season rolls around.
Lateral Movement (LM)
Cycling is performed almost entirely in one, 2 dimensional plane. In other words, if you are looking at a picture of a cyclist from the side, you could draw the movement of their pedaling without the need for a 3-dimensional view, as would be required, for example, to draw the movements of a basketball player, a skier or a boxer. The more you ride your bike, the more you develop strength in that one plane. If you neglect the "lateral" muscles (e.g. obliques, lats, adductors) you will at best lose some power and efficiency and at worst injure yourself. Think about stacking blocks on top of each other. The taller you stack them, the less stable the tower becomes. The solution to this problem is that the tower must be built wider as it gets taller to maintain its' stability. It's not about making those lateral muscles just as strong, it's about making them strong enough to support the primary muscles.
The human skeletal system works responds like a muscle in that it rebuilds itself stronger with stress and recovery. Bearing weight and impact cause bone density to increase, which reduces the likelihood of breaking a bone during a crash or developing osteoporosis later in life. Since cycling is considered a non weight bearing sport (with the possible exception of mountain biking on bumpy terrain), it does not increase bone density. Quite the opposite in fact. Since calcium and other minerals important in bone building are lost through sweat at an alarming rate, cycling can have a devastating effect on bone density.
Different from Cycling (DC)
Just as it's important to use cross training as a way to work those lateral and supporting muscles that you won't develop just by riding, it's also important to mental break from cycling and get away from the daily grind of training and racing your bike. It's going to be a long off-season and when you really start to pick up your training again you want to be extremely motivated. It can be tempting for some to want to get a jump-start on their base training by putting in a lot of miles in the fall, but doing so almost always leads to an early burnout. Though you probably don't need to stay completely off the bike for a really long time, it is important that you find other activities that are far removed from cycling. The further entrenched you are in that world, the more important it is to get away from it once in a while.
Bicycling Specific Fitness/Skills (BS)
It's never too soon to start working on your weaknesses. If you know that your lack of sprinting or climbing ability, leg speed or bike handling has been holding you back, you can start working on those things right away. As noted above, it's important to find variety in the off-season and remove yourself from the world of cycling a bit and some may find that mountain biking, cyclocross and spinning class is a little too much like the stuff they do most of the time. Yet for others these things can be just different enough to provide a mental break, while specific enough to help improve on specific cycling weaknesses.
Aerobic Training (AT)
Although most of your endurance training will be done on the bike in the base period, it's still nice to feel like you are raising your heart rate a bit and burning some calories. One of the problems many athletes have with cross training is that because their muscles, bones and ligaments become the limiting factors (rather than their heart and lungs), they just don't feel like they are able to "get a good workout". If you know that you have a particularly low metabolism, this may be especially important, since gaining 20 pounds of fat probably won't help you enjoy your time off the bike. Not all cross training is equal when it comes to cardiovascular/aerobic demands. For example, an hour of golf is not the same thing as an hour swim, and while running may be a great workout for an experienced runner, those not used to the pounding and specific muscular demands need to start with runs that are very short and slow in order to avoid injury.
Most cyclists do not think enough about their breathing and focus, despite the fact that these skills can be the difference between winning the race and getting dropped from the pack. Cycling is an endurance sport, which means that the primary concern of a cyclist is not to go as hard as they can at any given moment, but to endure the effort. Just as heart rate, breathing rate and blood lactate concentration increase when the effort increases, pain increases. The mind is a powerful organ, and it plays tricks in the hopes of getting us to relent. In my opinion, trying to ignore or overcome the pain is not helpful. Instead, we must learn to accept and embrace the pain. We just can't let the pain stop us from doing what we need to do. This is not a matter of toughness, it's about learning to focus and control the things that we can control so they don't end up controlling us.
Risk of Injury (RI)
Since one of the primary goals of cross training is to ensure that you can ride without injury, it goes without saying that injuring yourself while cross training would be highly counterproductive. Whenever you try something new and different, there are risks involved. Those risks can be minimized, however, by exercising patience, seeking expert guidance and avoiding anything that poses an unacceptable level of risk for you based on your past experiences and injuries. For example, I used to play indoor soccer in the off-season, but after 3 straight years with sprained ankles I looked for other alternatives...
Social Component (SC)
In addition to the fitness and competition benefits that cycling brings, there is also a social component to our sport. For many of us, the cycling community is a large part (if not the entirety) of our social sphere. Maintaining a healthy social life is important for everyone, and it's especially important to remember this when if are not seeing our friends all the time at rides and races all the time. Cross training can be used as a way to interact with those friends in different ways as well as a way to meet new people. It can also be used as a way to re-connect and reinforce the value of relationships with others who we may have neglected from time to time during the season; not the least of whom being our partners and families.
Sometimes trying something new can be very easy. For example, most people have running shoes and if they don't they can buy a pair for relatively little money. They can run on pavement, sidewalks, parks or trails. Though I strongly believe that coaches can be very helpful in critiquing running form, basic running technique is ingrained is built into human DNA. In contrast, most people don't have speed skating rinks close by, and buying a new bike to try out mountain biking or cyclocross can be expensive. How hard it is to try out a different sport will vary greatly between individuals based on where they live and what kind of equipment they own (or at least are able to borrow/rent) and how much money they have lying around and available to spend on something they might only do for a couple months a year.
In the second part of this article, I will examine a number of cross training alternatives and rate them according to these factors. Stay tuned!
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!