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The Power of Cyclo-Cross

By Hunter Allen

Peaks Coaching Group

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Cyclo-Cross is a unique discipline within cycling that shares many of the same demands of other disciplines, like criteriums, road races, mountain biking, time trialing and even track racing. This is one of the characteristics of CX, that makes it popular along with very demanding. To be successful at CX, you must have a high functional threshold power, be able to time trial at the limit and over it quite frequently, have the anaerobic capacity to accelerate for short periods of time, be able to do incredible intense short bursts of power and have the handling skills of a cheetah in pursuit. Because of the varied demands of the sport, training for it is not just as easy as using all of the same workouts you have been using for the road racing season.

If you have spent the season doing some racing and training smart, you are going to have many of the skills needed for successful CX racing, but there are some critical aspects you’ll want to fine tune before the season starts. Let’s take a look at some of the demands of CX, a couple of key workouts you should incorporate into your pre-season training.

Franco Bitossi

Many top pros use cyclo-cross to improve their skills and and power. Here's one of the best ever, Franco Bitossi, leaping over a barrier.

Let’s take a look at some of the demands of cyclo-cross first. Anytime you embark on a new athletic endeavor, one of the first things you must consider are the specific demands of that event. No sense in continuing to train for hill-climbing if you are trying to prepare for cyclo-cross! Cyclo-Cross is characterized by: short, very intense bursts of power, followed by a relatively short period of very little leg muscular contractions (downhills, coasting), some running, and finally a flat out period of high power for less than a minute or two. All the while, the event itself lasts from 45-60minutes, which makes it relatively short in comparison to most cycling events. Once you understand what is involved in the sport, then you can start to tailor your training for it. My co-author of Training and Racing with a Power Meter, Dr. Andrew R. Coggan, has preached to the masses at every seminar we have taught that one of the most important things to consider when training for an event is event specificity. Learn and understand the demands of the event itself, that’s the first step towards planning a training regime.

Let’s take a look at a cyclo-cross power file and see what we can find in the file that will further help us develop some specific training for success in Cyclo-Cross.


Cyclo-cross figure 1

Figure 1: 18 minutes spent “Not Pedaling” in an one hour race, means that 30% of the race was spent coasting. While this doesn’t mean recovering, it does mean that technical skills are critical to success in a CX race.

In examining just this one power distribution chart above it’s easy to see that cyclo-cross has some interesting characteristics. This above distribution chart is very similar to how a criterium road event might look. The first thing you notice from this power distribution chart is the sheer amount of “not pedaling”. Here, in an hour long race, 18 minutes were spent coasting, which tells us something about the course. Most likely the course was technical and included some run-ups, and other sections that just didn’t allow for pedaling. The second thing we see in this distribution chart is the relative even distribution of power from 200- 600 watts, with a concentration from 400-500 watts, which is significant, since this rider’s FTP is 350 watts, but the majority of the time in the race he spent at a much higher wattage than his FTP.

Here in the graph below, we see just how incredibly ‘stochastic’ or highly variable the power in this file is. This race is nothing but a set of ‘micro-bursts’ all strung together! Tiny effort after tiny effort, with equally short rest periods for an entire hour, makes this race incredibly unique.  One thing to note as well is that we do not see much extended time without power, so there must not have been any significant running sections in this race.

Furgure 2

Figure 2: An incredibly stochastic race, with lots of bursts, and nearly lacking in sustained power for more than even 30 seconds.  Plan for lots of hard efforts in your upcoming races.

As we examine the file even further, let’s see what we can learn by ‘smoothing’ the data over a 30 second time period. Smoothing by 30 seconds is a good time course to use when smoothing a the power file. This time course of 30 seconds relates well to the time it takes for the heart rate to respond to the increase in workload, along with the half-life of lactate in the blood, which impacts your ability to recover quickly. What we see below with the data smoothed, is that we can pick out the individual laps in the race and we can also see that the upper limit of watts which are limited to a range from 350-450watts for much of the time this athlete was pedaling.

These two components will help us to design some workouts in the future to meet these demands.

Fugure 3

Figure 3: By smoothing the power file a little bit, we can see the individual laps in the race more clearly. The light blue line is at 600watts, the yellow line at 500 watts and the thicker, dark, blue line is a simple linear regression that shows the trend of the power throughout the race as this rider fatigues.

Another important aspect of the above graph is we can nearly pinpoint when the athlete was no longer able to produce the same power that he produced for much of the race. This gives us insight into the athlete’s fitness and ‘repeatability’, or the ability to do multiple hard efforts and recover quickly. In this case, this athlete begins to fade around 45 minutes into the race, so he needs to increase the number of intervals that he is doing in training to make sure he can maintain the needed wattage for the entire race.

Now that we have determined some of the key components for cyclo-cross success, let’s design some workouts that will help better prepare our athlete for the next event. The first workout that is very obvious in which the athlete needs to be able to do with their eyes closed is the ‘Micro-burst’ workout. The micro-burst workout is done by a series of 15 second ‘ON’ periods with watts at 150% of the athletes functional threshold power (FTP) and with the ‘OFF’ period only 15 seconds long at 50% of FTP.  So, 150%-15 seconds ON, 50%- 15 seconds OFF. Repeat this ‘on-off’ cycle for 10 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes or so, and then go again. If your race is going to be an hour long, then you need to be able to do at least (6) of these interval sets without any major drop in wattage from the first set to the sixth set. This will be great preparation for the stochastic nature of cyclo-cross.

The second workout you should consider is a variation of this workout, that I call the “30 Cubed” workout. It’s also a microburst workout, but now the ‘ON’ period is 30seconds long at 150% of FTP, followed by 30 seconds of 50%, followed by a 30 second period of running. This makes you get off the bike every minute thereby practicing your mounts and dismounts, along with giving you a huge burst of power as well.

The third workout that will help the cyclo-cross rider is an hour of 2 minute efforts.

Normally when you do a 2 minute effort, you are trying to hit at least 120% of your FTP for each one, but when you do an hour of them, it’s impossible to do the that high of a percentage of your FTP and finish the workout. So, by reducing the intensity of the effort to 100-110% of your FTP, it will help you in completing the workout, and thereby accomplishing your goal of increasing your ‘repeatability’. Since the ability to consistently repeat a strong effort over and over is paramount in cyclo-cross, you need to address this ‘repeatability’ issue with the only thing that will help… and that’s hard work! When you do this workout, make sure you are warmed up well, and use your power meter to regulate your effort, as you will tend to overshoot your goal wattage if not careful. On the rest periods, start out by making them double the length of the interval, so 4 minutes, and then as you get better and better, see if you can do this workout with only 2 minutes rest, or a 1:1 work/rest ratio.

As you can tell from this article, cyclo-cross racing has some very specific demands to the sport. Not only do you have to love the cold, rain, mud and to suffer, but you have to be able to put out the effort needed for the event. With the popularity of the event continuing to rise and the demands of the sport being better defined, the use of a power meter becomes more and more important in training for a cyclo-cross event. Make sure you race with your power meter as well, so that you can be certain that you are training specifically for your event. By understanding the demands of the event, training specifically for them and then racing your hardest, you will be assured of a greater chance of success in this fun new popular sport in cycling.

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