How to Cross-Train for Cyclocross

Photo credit: Media Platforms Design Team
Photo credit: Media Platforms Design Team

Plenty of cyclists claim they only run when in fear of being set aflame. Yet you’ll spy many of those same pedal-only-please cyclists hoofing it like wild horses over barriers, up rocky inclines, and through sand and bogs during, you guessed it, cyclocross season.

Cyclocross is the one cycling discipline that by rule forces you off your bike and onto your feet. Depending on the course and conditions, you could end up with your cleats on the ground more than in your pedals. So if you’re serious about ‘cross season—or really just want to enjoy it more—it’s a good idea to light a fire under yourself and do a little running to get ready, says John Verheul of JBV Coaching, who has coached numerous national champs in the discipline.

How much foot time you need depends on a number of factors, Verheul says, including how much running you generally need to do in your races; how good (or not) of a runner you already are; and how prone to injury you are while running. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, you should at least run a bit to get your body ready, he says. Here’s what Verheul recommends depending on your ‘cross skills and goals.

When to start: Unless you’re traveling across the pond to race in Europe where courses are muddy and demand lots of running (in which case you should probably run all year), wait until after your target road and/or mountain bike events are finished. “Ideally, you should start running no less than about four weeks before the start of your ‘cross season,” Verheul says. Too late? Better late than never. “Just try not to do your first run the day before your first ‘cross race. Soreness from those first few runs is not a great performance enhancer.”

How much to run: If you’re already a pretty good runner; are prone to overuse injuries when you run; and/or aren't super serious about it all, simply run during your skills practice sessions and training races—short bursts of run-ups, stairs, and so forth, once or twice a week. “Minimally, an athlete can run once per week for 15 to 20 minutes and that ought to be enough that the running portion won’t be a terrible weakness on most US courses,” Verheul says. If time is tight or you’re injury prone, stick to the minimum.

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If you’re on courses with a lot of running, like those with unrideable mud, run three or four times per week leading into the season, with half of that running time being specific to the type of running you’ll be doing. That means shouldering your bike and running on terrain as close as you can find to race course conditions. Once the season starts, you can pare down these runs to once a week. “You’ll be running in races and you need to allow more recovery between races,” Verheul says.

How fast to run: To start, just go at a basic endurance/tempo pace to get your legs used to running. Once you have a base (i.e. you’re not super sore the next day), start adding hard efforts on stairs, steep run-ups, sand, and mud. You don’t need to sprint, but hit race intensity.

Once the race season starts, monitor your progress. Are you losing or gaining ground on the competition when running? “If you're getting killed on pedaling sections but crushing everyone when running, maybe spend less time running and more energy on bike fitness,” Verheul says. “The same holds true if technical skills are poor in relation to running ability. You want to always look to improve what the weakest link is.”

Of course, keep an eye out for injuries. “Many people originally got into cycling due to bad knees, ankles, backs, and so forth,” Verheul says. “If running causes problems with those pre-existing conditions, then you have to make choices about what's important, even if it means running less and just doing the best you can to compete and have fun.”

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