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Coach's Column - Shift Your Training From Mountain Bike to Cyclocross and Back Again

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |December 5, 2013 4:30 AM

Coach's Column with Alison Dunlap - Shift Your Training From Mountain Bike to Cyclocross and Back Again

Question: How do I transition from MTB training to training for cross racing and how can I be sure I rest and recover enough after cross season to start training for 2014

Answer: After a long season of mountain bike racing there is always the question of how to make the transition into cyclocross racing.  Should I take some time off?  Should I go right into the cross season?  And what about resting before starting the training for 2014? 

The first question you want to ask yourself is how serious do you want to be about cyclocross.  Are you going to do only the local races purely for the social aspect and to burn a few calories? Or are you taking cyclocross seriously with the intention of racing at the State Championships and Nationals in January? 

If you want to race cyclocross at a very casual level with no intention of focusing on results or going to the bigger events, then I would take a few weeks off immediately following the end of your mountain bike season.  If your last race was Sat Aug 17, for example, then I would take a full 5-7 days completely off the bike.  Then I would take another 2 weeks off from "trainingĒ and do a mix of fun mountain bike rides, road rides, social lunch rides and trips to the coffee shop.  No intensity and if you donít want to ride on a particular day, then donít. 

After your 3 week break I would get back on the bike and do 4 days in a row of 2hr endurance rides.  Then start throwing in some short Vo2 intervals.  I would do 2 days of intensity during the week and at least one cross race on the weekend.  A sample workout would be 5x3min on 3min off at your Vo2 power and/or HR. Your legs are going to hate you for the first few weeks back, but your body needed the break and it will pay off in the long run. 

After a month of Vo2 intervals and racing you can bump it up to the even more painful anaerobic workouts.  My favorite is the microburst workout.   Each interval is 10 minutes long.  It begins with a 10 second sprint, followed by a 20 second recovery, a 10 second sprint, 20 second recovery and so on for the full 10 minutes. Then recover for 10 minutes before doing another set.  Each sprint should be done in the drops and as hard as possible.  Sprint like you were attacking in a race.  Heart rate wonít respond fast enough to use as a gauge of intensity so donít look to it as a guide.  If you have a power meter try and hit a higher number during each sprint. An elite female can hit upwards of 900 watts for 10 seconds.  Elite men will be significantly higher. The microburst workout will help you develop high end anaerobic power and the ability to recover from repeated accelerations without blowing up.

Another great workout that helps develop the anaerobic power needed for cyclocross is the Kilo.  Kilos are some of the most intense intervals Iíve ever done.  Youíll need to find a flat stretch of uninterrupted road.  Measure off a one kilometer stretch, marking the start and finish.  This workout is most effective if done with a power meter. Get up to speed before crossing your "start lineĒ.  Once you cross your start line start your power meter.  You want to go as hard as you possibly can for one kilometer.  You are going for the highest power output over one kilometer.  This effort is harder than the standard Vo2 interval.  On a flat road with little wind it should take you around 1 Ĺ-2 minutes to reach your "finish lineĒ.  Stop your power meter when you finish the kilometer.  Now recover for 10 minutes.  When you do your second one, try and generate a higher average power and a faster time for the same distance.  This workout is exhausting and I recommend doing it only once a week.

If your goals are much more serious for cross and youíd like to go to the State Championships and Nationals, then you will have to approach the transition from MTB to cross a little differently. The biggest difference is you wonít be able to take a break after the mountain bike season is over.  The reason for this is points.  It will be very important to do well at the first cross race of the season because your finishing points determine your start position for the next race.  If you skip the first few races you will have zero points which means that once you do begin racing cross you will be starting in the back row or close to it for the rest of the season.  That is miserable!  To do well at Nationals youíll need to consider racing in as many UCI events as possible to get the valuable points needed for a good call up. If you arenít racing elite, then UCI points donít mean anything at Nationals.  Instead youíll need to accumulate points at local events to bump up your USA Cycling Rider Ranking.  And we all know that to do well in cross you really need to be starting in the first two rows. 

Going straight into the cross season means that you donít have to do any work on increasing your race fitness; it is already in high gear.  What youíll have to do instead is fine tune it by shifting from the more aerobic based workouts needed for the long steady efforts of mountain biking, to the super short high intensity anaerobic efforts necessary in most cross races.  I would do 1-2 of these workouts a week (see above), a few endurance rides and races on the weekends.  There are many anaerobic workouts you can use with the two I described above as being my favorites.  In general you want to do intervals that are short, 10-45 seconds, with a very high power output and heart rate followed by an even shorter recovery.  You want to build up the lactic acid in your legs and then train your body to tolerate that lactic acid.  These are painful and create huge amounts of fatigue.  Donít take them lightly.

Now what do you do once cross season is over? How do you transition back over to the mountain bike or road season?  The most important thing you need to do is figure out your first race on the 2014 calendar and how important that race is.  If your cross season ended at Nationals in January and your first MTB race is the first weekend of March and it is a fairly important one, then your transition into training for mountain biking is going to be short and sweet. With the first big mountain bike race less than two months away you canít afford any time off unfortunately. I suggest taking a few recovery days after Nationals before jumping right into training again. 

If your last cross race was mid-December and your first race of 2014 isnít until late April or early May, then I would recommend taking a good seven days completely off the bike right after your last cross race.  Then start back in with 1-2 weeks of endurance rides before starting your "off-seasonĒ training program.

The shorter your time off the bike going from mountain bike to cross or cross back to mountain bike, the easier the transition is and the less work you have to do to keep your high-end race fitness. However the physical and mental toll of not taking any time off can add up and result in over-training and/or burnout. Listen to what your body and head are telling you and always keep the big picture in mind when planning out your year of training and racing. 

Good luck and happy trails!


Alison is a 2-time Olympian, MTB World Champion and multi-time National Champion.  Alison has been coaching for eleven years and is a certified USA Cycling Level I coach. She is also a WMBA member, a Colorado College graduate, and a Colorado native.  Please visit www.alisondunlap.comfor more information on the camps, clinics, and coaching she does through the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps.  

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