It’s the time of year when thoughts turn to cowbells, barriers, and mud. Yes, it is time for cyclocross. Rider approaches to cross vary widely; for some, cross is the focus of the season and they’re just ramping up their training, while others are winding down the road season and thinking about extending the racing with some cross. In both cases, there is a need to rebuild FTP (functional threshold power), but in a cross-focused way.
If you've been racing all summer, your power at threshold has declined as you focus on racing and recovering. Even if you haven’t spent the summer racing on the road and instead put in some long base rides to build aerobic fitness and endurance, you'll want to get a good block just topping off the tank, as it were. Nearly all riders know that riding in their sweet spot (88-93% of FTP) is one of the most time-efficient ways to increase FTP, but for cross there are some minor adjustments that can be made to make the workouts even more specific.
When it comes to specificity, let’s think about what makes a cross race different from other races. First, think about the start. The first half to full lap of a cross race is perhaps the hardest few minutes you can experience on a bike as everyone fights for position into the first technical sections. So the first recommendation I make is that EVERY workout begin with a five-minute blowout effort at VO2max intensity (zone 5 power).
The next thing about cross is that the effort is never steady; instead, there are lots and lots of jumps at near max intensity. In this way cross is like a technical crit, but with a key difference: in cross there is no pack and very little drafting. Yes, there are moments when you aren’t pedaling, but it’s not because you’re being swept along by the pack but because you’re setting up for a corner or obstacle. Besides those moments, you need to be on the gas, so we design workouts that mimic that kind of effort.
There are two ways I address this with my athletes: intervals with jumps and intervals with bursts. Essentially you perform tempo or sweet spot interval (e.g. 45-60 at 80-85% FTP or 2 x 20 at 88-93%) and at set intervals you perform either a jump (a 10- to 12-second sprint) or a burst (30 seconds at 110%+ FTP). The jumps help with accelerating after a slow corner or a remount, the bursts with those times in a race when you want to respond to or initiate an attack. But the key is that after the intense effort you don't let power fall below the zone for the interval. This forces your body to make a hard effort without easing off to recover, just like the uneven efforts you find in cross races.
Below are two of my favorite variations on classic workouts aimed at cross. I usually start with the tempo-with-jumps workout and begin with 30-45 minutes (depending on the length of the race) and work up to an hour.
Cyclocross Workout 1: Tempo with JumpsWU: 10-15 minutes working into zone 2, with 3 x 1-minute fast pedal/low power efforts with 1 minute recovery between.
MS1: 5-minute blowout VO2max effort. Do 5 minutes at 110% FTP or Zone 5. Think of this as the first few minutes of a cross race; even if you’re not going for the hole shot, you need to maintain or improve your position. Recover 3-5 minutes afterwards (as you get stronger, decrease the recovery interval).
MS2: Ride 60 minutes in Zone 3. Within this effort do 12-20 all-out jumps of 10-12 seconds. Recover immediately to Zone 3 after each jump. Start with 12 jumps (every 5 minutes) and add more each time you do the workout.
CD: 10-15 minutes in Zone 1.
Cyclocross Workout 2: Sweet Spot with BurstsWU: 10-15 minutes working into zone 2, with 3 x 1-minute fast pedal/low power efforts with 1 minute recovery between.
MS1: 5-minute blowout VO2max effort. Do 5 minutes at 110% FTP or Zone 5. Think of this as the first few minutes of a cross race; even if you’re not going for the hole shot, you need to maintain or improve your position. Recover 3-5 minutes afterward (as you get stronger, decrease the recovery interval).
MS2: 2 x 20 minutes sweet spot, with watts 88-93% FTP. Within this effort, do 5 x 30-second efforts at 110% FTP. After these 30 second efforts, return immediately to sweet spot, never letting watts fall below 88% FTP. So, you are doing the bursts WITHIN the 20 Minutes. Recover 5 minutes between efforts.
CD: 10-15 minutes in Zone 1.
Photo: PCG elite coach Iain Banks powers over a cyclocross course. Original photo credit: Alex Pline.
Christian Sheridan is a Level 2 USAC cycling coach, an assistant professor at Bridgewater College, and a father of one living near Charlottesville, Virginia. He has coached athletes at all levels and has helped several athletes upgrade from Cat 5 to Cat 2. Christian can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org or www.peakscoachinggroup.com.