Training for a Successful Cyclocross Season: The Basics

Learn from Georgia Gould's coach how to become faster

Cross season has arrived! Cyclocross is arguably the hardest form of bicycle racing. If you are just getting into ‘cross racing, don’t let your drooling, cross-eyed competitors scare you away. If you prepare yourself properly, cyclocross can be hard and enjoyable. If you follow the guidelines listed below, you’ll be on the right track to a successful season. Need pre-season advice for cyclocross check this out or how to warm up for a cyclocross race.

Lactate Threshold is Your Limiter
The term “Lactate Threshold,” while narrowly defined in the sport science community, seems to have a variety of definitions among cycling coaches. When I use it, I am referring to an athlete’s 60 minute max power. Lactate Threshold (LT) is the energy system that will determine your race pace in cyclocross. The higher your power at LT, the faster your race pace will be.

The beginning racer should expect a cyclocross race to be a 45 minute max effort.
Therefore, the goal of your training should be to increase your 45 minute power output. To accomplish this, you’ll need to hit the LT system with interval work, anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes in length. The intensity of these intervals will vary. The ten minute effort will be at a much faster pace than the 60 minute. This will build a powerful aerobic engine that will be the foundation behind your racing.

Efficiency is Paramount
A great racer is not only fit, but also smooth and efficient. The energy saved through skilled bike handling and smooth transitions on and off the bike directly translates into a faster race pace. So, if you’re struggling with the technical aspects of ‘cross (barriers, runups, transitions on and off the bike, general bike handling), take the time each week to practice these skills until they become second nature during a race.

High Intensity Training is Potent
Cyclocross races are very high intensity and extremely demanding. The racer is at or above lactate threshold for the entire race. It would follow then that to tolerate the demands of a cross race, one needs to train at a very high intensity, right? There is widespread information regarding ‘cross training that advocates loads of VO2 work (one to five minute max efforts). I disagree. I believe high intensity efforts are potent and should be used sparingly. I use the guideline of 2 high intensity days per week, and 3 to 4 total “training days” per week. The other training days include sub-threshold work and/or skillwork, and the remaining 3 to 4 days per week include lots of resting.

Don’t Neglect Recovery
Recovery is equally as important as training. The recovery period is when fitness gains are made and you reap the benefits of the hard work you’ve done. Sleep, Stretching, Hydration, and Nutrition are the SSHNs of Recovery.

You are Going to Have Bad Races
This is a scientific fact. Some days it just isn’t going to come together. However, there is always something to be gained by finishing the race. So, put forth your best effort and make it happen. Don’t DNF unless you or your bike are physically unable to complete the race.

Preferred Products for Training
Monitor and Track

Polar CS400

More bike computers
Learn and Grow

The Cyclist Training Diary
Perform and Train

Cycleops Fluid 2 Trainer

Let’s apply some of the above ideas. Below are two sample training weeks – one is for a week prior to a race weekend and the other is for a pure training week. A training week should have 3 to 4 hard days, depending on how fresh and motivated you’re feeling. Only 1-2 of these days should be a high intensity (LT or above) day. The other two should be sub-threshold or skillwork days. A couple of notes: 1) A heart rate monitor or power meter are recommended to better define training zones, 2) Its better to be conservative with hard days during cross season. So, listen to your body - if it’s telling you that its tired, rest up. The “less is more” principle is a good one to keep in mind during cross season.

The Training Plan!

Training Week (assumes the previous weekend was a race weekend):
Mon: recovery day – off the bike – focus on SSHNs of Recovery
Tues: 1hr easy ride w/ 3-5 seated 10 second sprints or easy 15-20min jog. If you haven’t run in a while, you need to ease into the jogging slowly to prevent excessive soreness – do a walk-jog instead 2mins jog, 2mins walk, etc.
Wed: High Intensity Day: 4x10min LT efforts slightly below race pace. Rest for 5 mins b/t each effort.
Thurs: Sub Threshold Day – 1.5hr ride w/ 60mins of steady “tempo” pace – you should be above conversational pace but not labored breathing.
Fri: recovery day – easy 15-20 min jog
Sat: High Intensity Day – Hard Group Ride or 3x15min LT intervals just below race pace
Sun: Sub-Threshold Day – 2hr ride w/ 60mins of steady tempo and 30mins of skillwork

Race Week:
Mon: recovery day – off
Tues: 1.5hr easy ride w/ 3-5 seated 10 second sprints and an easy 10-15min jog
Wed: Sub-Threshold Day: 1.5 to 2hr ride w/ 2x20min tempo efforts followed by light skillwork. Rest for 5 mins inb/t efforts.
Thurs: easy 1hr spin and easy 10min jog
Fri: Openers – The goal today is to “prime the engine” for the weekend. Intervals are meant to sharpen, not fatigue. 1 to 1.5hrs w/ 10mins of tempo and 3x1min max efforts. 5mins easy b/t all efforts.
Sat: Race
Sun: Race

Many thanks to Ben at Ollett Coaching for taking the time to make this training plan and explain it! Want more help or a customized plan that fits your needs and time constrains, contact ben at ollettcoaching dot com. Make sure you Print this Now

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Beer And Fun

I'm a fan of both schools of thought. Beer/Fun and hard work. The combination is what makes cyclocross so much fun and worth doing. Training is a weird animal. Here are some of my rules;
1. Never write things down in advance
2. Always work hard
3. Ride with a smile
4. Learn from every crash and every race
5. Races are the best training tool... improve your line and corner on every lap.
6. Hate losing!
7. Did I mention, "have fun"?

Cross Training

Ben, thanks for a great overview, and especially the example weeks!

I've always had the question of, for a given week, whether race day should be considered one of the two high-intensity (e.g. interval) days for the week? For instance, if one is to race on Saturday, should they still do two high-intensity interval-type days the week prior or even the week following. If a person pretty much races 1 day per weekend, that consistently adds up to what I would think to be 3
high-intesity efforts/wk which over the course of a season could be hard to recover from.


2 questions

How would you change the plan if there was only one race over the weekend?

Also, what "week" do you use if you're in between back to back race weekends (training or race)? I'm assuming training week is only used whenever there aren't any races that coming weekend.