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The Definitive Guide to Cross-Training for Cyclists

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Most every cyclist is aware of the importance of cross-training or at least has been exposed to how cross-training regularly may benefit their riding. However, despite this fact, many cyclists struggle to integrate it properly into their training strategy or are quick to cut it out in favor of more saddle time. Understanding the ins and outs of cross-training and how to make the most of your time off of the bike can help to accelerate your fitness and compliment your goals on the bike.

Who Needs Cross-Training? 

The simple truth is that every cyclist should be cross-training to some extent. Every athlete has different needs when it comes to supplemental exercise. Who you are as a rider, and what your goals are, can and should dictate the approach to cross-training. For many, the goal is to improve cycling specific strength, while others may need to focus on injury prevention, flexibility, or range of motion. For most, cross-training evolves as the season progresses and the overall volume of bike time ebbs and flows. Identifying who you are as an athlete, what your goals are, and what types of training are going to benefit you the most are the first steps. Cross-training should be individualized in such a way that it aligns both with your training approach specific to the bike, as well as any overarching goals that you may have as an athlete. Treat cross-training sessions the same way you would your bike workouts, making sure they’re designed specifically for you and the macro goals of each training period.

How Should You Cross-Train?

Cross-training should be treated as an integral component of your approach to proper preparation. Cross-training will have maximum impact when it carries the same weight as your bike focused sessions. One of the best ways to get the most out of your time off of the bike is to apply the same metrics-based approach that you do when riding. Tracking heart rate, duration, heart rate Training Stress Score (hrTSS) and Intensity Factor (IF) for cross-training sessions allows for them to be accurately factored into your overall training load, and understand how they impact both fitness and fatigue. Understanding how these sessions influence both fitness and fatigue helps you keep your finger on the pulse of critical training metrics, as well as knowing when and what to do for each cross-training effort. Much in the same way that you look for gains from a cycling perspective, you can and should look for improvements in your other activities. Tracking heart rate over time helps you see aerobic gains, or other physiological adaptations, that you otherwise may have not picked up on. Whether it’s a lower heart rate at a given running pace, or a higher threshold during a strength workout, tracking heart rate based metrics over time will help to ascribe meaning and purpose to these supplemental sessions.

 When to Cross-Train

There’s never a bad time to integrate cross-training, but as cyclists, there are times when these sessions should look different or serve a different purpose. Ultimately the goal is to use whatever macro periodization plan is in place for bike specific training to guide the structure and purpose of your cross-training work. In the offseason and early base periods, typically the focus should be on strength and power building. This can be accomplished through heavy strength work, or supplemental intervals in another discipline, to build explosive power. As the focus begins to shift in the later base and early build periods, this often signifies a corresponding shift in cross-training focus. As volume and intensity increase on the bike, the need for injury proofing takes a higher precedence than strength building. Maintaining strength, as well as a range of motion and flexibility, are a great focus during the height of bike-focused specificity. Again, be critical in your approach to cross-training and make sure that the approach compliments your goals on the bike.

 What to Do

Many athletes struggle with the question of, “What type of cross training is best?”. In the end, there are many different sports that one can engage in during your time not training specifically on the bike. Rather than thinking about it in terms of sports and trying to decide between things like running, strength training, swimming, yoga, or any of the other options, think about cross-training by asking yourself what is going to make you a more successful cyclist. What can you be doing to help you more confidently and successfully reach your goals? If there’s a need for muscular strength or increased power, strength training may be the answer. However, if injury prevention is a top priority then swimming, yoga, or pilates may be the highest and best use of your time. To be a better cyclist, specificity is the answer. Training on the bike is a top priority but after that, thinking about where and how you contribute to your bike specific strength will allow for a much more methodical and effective approach to cross-training.

 Why Cross-Train

Cross-training serves a variety of purposes depending on the athlete. First and foremost it should be a way to bolster any weaknesses you have in your bike specific training. Cross-training should always be a compliment to your primary focus. Specifically, it’s a way to build robustness as an athlete. Cycling is a low-impact sport that does not encourage a large range of motion. Due to this fact, it’s helpful to engage in other sports to strengthen areas that may become weak due to the limitations of cycling. Things like bone density, core strength, and weak hips and hamstrings can become problem areas if 100% of your training time is spent riding. Shifting a small amount of focus to being an all-around athlete will pay dividends when it comes to comfort, power, and strength on the bike.

While cross-training has become commonplace for most cyclists, many still struggle with how to properly integrate it into their overall training strategy. Knowing how and when to properly make the most of supplemental work is the key to building a stronger cyclist. Rather than juggling a variety of different sports, think specifically about what it is you can be doing to strengthen your weaknesses on the bike. Look at cross-training as an integral part of your approach to training and treat it with the same importance as bike sessions. Apply the same metrics-based approach that you do when training on the bike, and understand how cross-training factors into both fitness and fatigue. A methodical and critical approach to cross-training will yield better results both on and off of the bike.

Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. Browse their pre-built training plans on TrainingPeaks, or for more information on personal coaching and custom training plans visit www.thomasendurancecoaching.com. Follow TEC at @endurance_coach.

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