Many cyclocross racers are fully consumed by the sport and have fantastical dreams of bombing the slick flyovers in any gray Superprestige event – but the reality is they have limited time to devote to training and racing. If you only have 2 or 3 days to train during the week, superior bang-for-your-buck workouts are the ticket, and can serve you with a huge plate of success. Success in the autumn is not about quantity in training… but about quality.
Cyclocross races are 30-45 minutes for most racers, something most athletes can physically prepare for and wrap their minds around. The racing effort is part criterium, part time-trial, part bike-handling skills — the goal is to systematically prepare for each. If we break down the components of a cyclocross race effort, we must focus on four things: 1) riding above threshold for longer durations 2) pushing shorter max efforts 3) ripping plenty of sprints and accelerations with varying degrees of recovery and 4) working on bike-handling skills.
Many athletes fail to realize the importance of specificity. If you race on your ‘cross bike, you train on your ‘cross bike. Part of maximizing time is also condensing and combining workouts, like fitting recovery rides into skills session, or practicing skills work during hard intervals. With limited time, we need to focus with blinders on, preparing 100% for specific efforts and objectives.
Ideally, you want to have 2 cyclocross training compounds: one loop that is more technical, full of turns, off-camber, a barrier/dismount section, a run-up, a hill, a techy section, etc… and then a second loop that is less technical, like the perimeter of a soccer field with various mild features, where it’s easier to work on pure power efforts.
With reduced volume and overall ride days, this training outlook will allow you to have greater energy levels, perhaps more enthusiasm for the harder workouts. You’ll earn superior recovery and balance in this part of your life, no burnout or overtraining as you rip through cyclocross season… Splitting up the training weeks, for most training blocks I prefer the 3-weeks on, 1-recovery-week split. During cyclo-cross season, this is a safe plan to follow. Let’s start with the first week:
Mondays will always be an off day: accept that. Tuesday is a simple sprint workout that addresses fierce, short accelerations. Head to a soccer field. Sprint 100% down the straightaways, seated or standing, then recovery riding at the ends. Repeat this brutal pattern for 5-8 minutes, do 2-3 sets – each time you do this, you don’t necessarily need to increase the sets or time – aim to increase the intensity! Simple workout — but brutally effective.
Wednesday is your base interval day. Head to your non-techy loop, start from a standstill like a race, and hammer out 2 10-minute intervals. Time the overall loop time so you have future motivation to keep whittling down these times. Full 10+-minute recovery. End the workout with 15+minutes of brisk gray Tempo riding on your technical loop, comfortably pushing the pace but in control, no red zone. Work on
riding through and perfecting all movements of cyclocross in this fatigued state, staying smooth, zero mistakes.
Thursday is skills day. This day also serves as an active recovery ride. The body best responds to specificity and repetition; for each skills session, aim to work on one thing: run-ups, dismount remounts, cornering, off-cambers, running, drifting, starts, fast remounts, stairs. You’ll want to really get a good handle of all these skills, and then as the season progresses, aim to consistently work your weakness – by limiting any weakness, you are then able to maximize your strength. You heard it here first!
Friday is an optional recovery ride with a few 2-minute openers, efforts that aren’t hard or easy — that fun gray area, high-aerobic brisk riding. If slammed busy, taking Friday off is 100% okay.
Saturday or Sunday is race day. The key to the weekend is to keep it FUN. If you race on Saturday only, Sunday is a “free” ride, really free to do what you want, no rigidity — a MTB jaunt, a fun road group ride, even a brisk trail run — the key is to have an enjoyable, stress-free day that really leaves you feeling awesome! If just racing Sunday, Saturday is an easy endurance ride, or a buddy ride, or a fun group ride — all are fantastic, non-stressful ways to shake out the legs for Sunday’s race…
The second week, we take Monday off. Accept that! Tuesday is off or a very short recovery ride. Wednesday this second week is a combined workout: a solid workout would be doing 2-3 6-minute max efforts on your techy loop, trying to negotiate this terrain at max speeds, then finishing the workout with 10/20s, which are 10-second max efforts with 20-second recoveries. Start each set from a standstill, mimicking the start of a ‘cross race (The Start is one of the most important aspects of ‘cross to master, able to start in a swift, hard, and consistent manner). 4 efforts is 1 set, do 3-4 sets. You can also complete these on a steep pitch if you want more climbing prep – remember, we need to always be maximizing our time here.
Thursday can be off or a light recovery ride.
Friday we do a light skills ride, mastering the basics, perhaps starting to lean towards a weakness… This workout will also serve as a terrific opener for the weekend’s racing…
The third week split is based upon your upcoming weekend racing schedule. If racing just on Sunday, sprints on Tue, steadier intervals and Tempo on Wed, and then skills ride on Thurs is a split that yields strong performance gains. If racing both Saturday and Sunday, best to make Mon and Tue recovery-based (can take off), Wednesday is a workout that mixes both steady-hard intervals and sprint-work, Thursday is a well-oiled skills session, Friday can be off or a light recovery ride with some light openers, and then you’re primed to race well for both weekend days.
The fourth week is pure recovery-based. Monday is off. If free, Tuesday should be a skills session that addresses your weakness. Wednesday off, Thursday a short ride at your techy loop, say 2 12+-minute Tempo intervals, pushing a brisk, aerobic pace while trying to negotiate the techy terrain smoother and more confidently than ever… Friday can be off or a short recovery ride, with some gray openers if racing
Saturday… If no race on Saturday, then a fun buddy ride or a ride similar to Thursday is ideal, and then race day Sunday!
As the weeks progress, this paradigm can stay the same, but look to spice up the workouts. If one Tuesday sprint session had sprints with less recovery, now do sprints with more recovery, aiming for harder, sharper efforts. If Wednesday last week was 2 8-minute threshold efforts with 12-minutes of Tempo, perhaps now do 1 15-minute effort with two longer gray Tempo intervals after. On your skills day, you will be staying sharp on your ‘cross bike while working on your weakness — every workout has a place, always propelling you forward…
But, what if it rains? Week 1: Monday is off. Tuesday indoors, aim for an effective session of 20/40s. 20-second max efforts, seated, with 40-second recovery. 4 efforts is one set, do 4 sets, full recovery between sets. Ride-time is under 45 minutes. Wednesday, 60 minutes indoors, do 2 8-minute steady LT efforts, pushing a steady-hard pace for 8-minutes, at your limit, 12-minute recovery, then finish the ride with 10 minutes of tempo, pushing the pace comfortably, challenging but no red zone. This ride can be done in an hour. Thursday should be a day off, and then Friday is just a simple recovery ride, easy spinning for 40 minutes. If just racing on Sunday, keep Saturday light but with a few openers: an ideal pre-race workout is 40 minutes with 3 30-second LT efforts, on the gas steady hard but in control, full 4+ minute recoveries, then do 2 3-minute Tempo efforts, more gray zone, not easy not hard, shaking the legs loose, shaking the legs open. You are ready to rip for Sunday.
With a second week of rain, Mon off. Tue we hit it HARD: 50-minute ride with 3 3-minute Max intervals, raw maximal efforts with 5-minute recovery, then do a 10-minute Super Tempo where you ride at a challenging pace, just below full red zone, an upper sweet spot where you’re pushing and it hurts. 2-minutes steady, then 15 seconds full-max pace. Repeat this pattern for the entire interval. Wed is a 40-minute recovery ride. Thurs the same 20/40 ride you did last Tue. Fri is off, and now you are equipped with info to prepare for a Sat or Sun ‘cross race…
Truth: you can race at a very high level on 2-3 hours of training a week! Every workout here can be completed in under an hour. Your training time is maximized and all your energy is focused purely on cyclocross, zero epic MTB rides, zero long hard road rides — every workout serves a vicious purpose and replicates exactly what you will be doing in cyclocross racing. If you commit to a steady race schedule or compete in a series, your days will be filled with immense satisfaction as you see true and wild improvements with limited training time, essentially showing up on race day as a complete cyclocross racer, which is the nirvana goal… There is a choice you have to make, in everything you do. So keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make… makes you.