How to train for cyclocross and ultra-endurance cycling
Some of the endurance cyclists I work with like to do cyclocross in the winter to keep fit, add some interest and enjoy a new challenge. One of the athletes I work with wanted to learn more about the background of the training I am setting. I wrote a lengthy explanation by email and thought the ideas might be useful to others, so I have included the details here.
How to train for cyclocross and ultra-endurance cycling? Cyclocross can be great fun and is a great way to keep fit, build intensity into your training and develop your bike handling skills. For most of the ultra-endurance athletes I work with I combine higher intensity work with longer rides and adding a few cyclocross races into the mix can work perfectly as long as other riding isn’t neglected. The following paragraphs explain my philosophy along with some ideas of how to train specifically for cyclocross events.
In developing a plan I try to learn as much about the athlete, their life commitments, what they like to do and what they have been in training. I then spend some time thinking about how that mix relates to the target event. This gives me an idea of relative strengths and weaknesses that need to be worked on.
Specifically what to work on and how to do it is dependent on available time, basic fitness levels and life commitments.
I prefer to work on a weekly structure, since most people are constrained in some way by the traditional working week, either by their work or by wanting to interact with other people in some way. It is also most effective to have a regular structure to plan harder and easier periods in a regular way, allowing me to understand how hard someone can work and then recover properly. This can be a bit ad-hoc at times because there are so many variables, so communication is vitally important to go with the more objective metrics like heart rate, power, etc.
In general the weekly structure falls into place as having shorter/higher intensity sessions during weekdays and longer sessions at the weekends. This fits with most peoples lives but also allows for inclusion of events that often fall at the weekend.
The highest intensity sessions need to be when the athlete is most rested because it is hard to do high intensity when tired and the effectiveness of the sessions is dependent on hitting the highest powers possible for the planned durations.
To do this I tend to include recovery after the weekend and plan high intensity for Tuesdays or Wednesdays, depending on the athlete, how heavy the weekends need to be and how many high intensity sessions I am aiming for in the given week. I then tend to make Thursday a bit longer and use Friday either for recovery or to build into the weekend if aiming for back to back days over a long weekend.
The basic aim for multi-day self supported events is to get the athlete to be able to ride at the best average speed for several days in a row. To some extent this depends on whether the athlete prefers to ride faster and have longer recoveries (e.g. Paula Regener) or slower with shorter recovery (e.g. Jenny Graham) but most people fit into a similar framework so the training principles are the same. If the race is several weeks long, this average speed needs to be such that the athlete doesn’t get much more tired from day to day, after the first few days, because the effort needs to be sustainable. Therefore riding needs to be at a relatively low intensity on average and the athlete needs to be able to eat at a rate that is just about sustainable.
You may have heard or read about FTP (Functional Threshold Power), which is pretty much the basis of a lot of endurance training nowadays. It is the power/pace/effort you can sustain for a reasonable length of time, somewhere between 30 to 70 minutes, and is basically the effort you can maintain while working aerobically. If you go a little harder you get tired very quickly. You can use FTP to create what are known as training zones, which are just roughly arbitrary levels that relate to the energy system you are working at any given time. I tend to work with the zones in the screenshots, where the percentages are the percentages of the FTP for power and equivalent/threshold heart rate in the heart rate zones.
For longer events where the power/pace/effort doesn’t vary rapidly it isn’t necessary to worry about differentiating powers above VO2max.
Back to average power/speed: I tend to approach the training from 2 directions.
Firstly by training to be able to ride faster at shorter distances, raising FTP, because the faster you can ride for shorter distances (more than 20 minutes) the easier it becomes to ride faster for longer distances, so raising FTP/VO2max powers means endurance and active recovery become faster.
I aim to build the FTP (sustainable power) using Threshold and VO2max sessions. VO2max sets the ceiling to aerobic fitness, so by raising that, other things tend to follow. To raise VO2max you can do efforts of 1 to 5 minutes with recoveries similar to the length of the efforts; aiming for a total of 10 to 20 minutes of hard work. As with any shortish intervals you are trying to do them as hard as you can with all efforts at about the same power. Note that if you base these on heart rate, your heart rate in the last effort will be higher than the first one.
Threshold and Tempo efforts tend to push the FTP by making your body realise it is having to work at an uncomfortable but sustainable pace adapt to make that easier for next time. Training works by inducing a stress then letting the body adapt and build - the adaptation occurs during periods of recovery so rest is critically important.
Secondly, I aim to build endurance with longer rides. Building endurance with longer rides gets the body used to riding longer, everything gets more efficient and maybe surprisingly, it is often the case that doing lots of easy rides with no harder work will build the faster/harder levels by just making you more efficient. This is particularly the case if you are quite new to cycling or cycling training.
Longer rides also train your body to use a greater percentage of body fat when riding, which is more efficient and helps preserve the energy stores in the muscles that are made up of carbohydrates and are limited. When you take exercise you use a combination of carbohydrates and fats that are stored in your body to fuel your activity. The slower you go the greater the proportion of fat, but you can train your body to use more fat as it develops that metabolic system. Once you use up all your muscle energy (carbohydrates) you have to slow down because you only have fat to use, which is slower to metabolise.
So, basically the training I plan for long stuff is getting faster overall via hills/Wattbike/etc and getting more efficient at burning fat by doing longer rides. The mix depends on the athlete and available time.
Cyclocross is a bit different because the duration of the event is relatively short, so there is no need for efficient fat burning and therefore, longer aerobic rides are not as critical.
However, any aerobic/endurance riding will develop aerobic efficiency, so is useful. To some extent in endurance sport, the more you do the better you will be, with the obvious caveat that you need enough recovery.
If you have limited time it is important to prioritise the training that gives you the biggest gains.
Cyclocross requires a fast start and a sustained high effort throughout the event with little time for recovery. Because there are obstacles, hills, variations in terrain and other riders to race against the level of effort required is much more variable than for the longer events discussed earlier. Sometimes efforts are very anaerobic (very hard effort/high powers over short periods of a few seconds) and sometimes much lower power but have to negotiate technical terrain with a very high heart rate/level of fatigue. A combination of skills and fitness. It is also important to push a high force on the pedals to get over short steep sections when it isn’t possible to change gear.
To be good at cyclocross you need to develop your anaerobic fitness; your ability to repeatedly work above your FTP and recover. This is combination of being able to sprint and recover repeatedly as well as to produce higher one off powers.
We develop this in a similar way to the longer stuff, by working at improving your peak powers over short durations and also improving your ability to work hard at longer durations. Sometimes with longer and sometimes with shorter recoveries. This type of training is based on what is known as the power-duration curve, see the screenshot:
I have also included the Power Profile metrics, which compare powers against the norms in TrainingPeaks. These will be skewed if you only sometimes use a power meter. For example, if you are using power only for Wattbike sessions, as many of the athletes I work with do, and you haven’t done any really high intensity Wattbike sessions where you collected power. As an aside, training with a Wattbike using power, combined with riding outside using heart rate is a really effective, cost effective way to train using power and something I use with many athletes.
What the chart does illustrate is the principles of training I am referring to. In cyclocross you will need to be able to produce efforts from around 15s to a few minutes and then recover before doing it again. However, this needs to be done by working at close to your maximum 1 hour effort. So we need to improve your 1 hour effort (FTP) in similar ways to previously but include some higher intensity (10s to 90s efforts). Some with longer recoveries and some with shorter recoveries.
The demands of cyclocross are similar to track and criteriums, so fits well with other things you may be doing outside the longer events.
These two events may seem incompatible but we can fit them together quite nicely.
You may also be looking at the Performance Management Chart with CTL, ATL, TSB, etc. I think this is well explained in this TrainingPeaks article so have a read and then let me know if there is anything you don’t understand. It is worth keeping an eye on performance management metrics, but bearing in mind it will go mad when you do long events and may even get quite odd if you go touring. In my experience it is a bit skewed to weight the loading of longer durations more than higher intensity. In that respect, be careful not to be led into doing too much intensity.
That seems a lot of detail so I will stop there. Let me know if you have any questions or anything needs more explanation and I’ll do my best to answer.