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The Top 5 Fitness Benefits of Racing Cyclocross

BY Jim Rutberg

Besides being fun, there are other great reasons to get started in this off-beat sport. Coach Jim Rutberg outlines five benefits of racing cyclocross, giving you more reasons to get started this year.

Cyclocross is enjoying a boom in popularity, which is wonderful because it’s one of the most accessible disciplines in the spectrum of cycling events. The events are short, venues don’t require closing streets, and it’s super spectator-friendly. Also, a cyclocross bike is probably the most versatile bike you can buy — what’s not to love about a go-anywhere, do-anything bike on pavement, gravel, bike paths, and moderate singletrack? But for athletes, perhaps the best reason to get into cyclocross is what it can do for your year-round fitness.

Simply put, the athletes who compete during the cyclocross season are the one who will be kicking your butt on the road, trail, and track next spring and summer. If you prefer to be the person kicking butt, here’s what racing ‘cross will do for you:

1. Increases Power at VO2 Max

Actually, it’s a combination of the races and the training that increases your power at VO2 max. When you look at the demands of ‘cross racing, events are characterized by repeated short efforts at maximum intensity, separated by very short recovery periods. To prepare for these demands, the training for ‘cross must incorporate similar efforts, starting with three- to five-minute, maximum-intensity efforts to build power at VO2 max, and then shorter, more race-specific efforts of 30 seconds to two minutes as you get closer to goal races. Recovery periods should be equal in duration to the previous interval (one minute interval, one minute recovery, etc). A typical race-specific workout might be one to three sets of 10 x 1 minute maximum efforts (all out) with one minute easy spinning recovery between efforts.

Why is increasing VO2 max power during the fall and winter good for your year-round training? Because many athletes who race only in the spring and summer lose a significant percentage of their power at VO2 max between September and January, and then have to spend months regaining that power to be ready to race again in the spring. If you don’t lose it, you don’t have to spend valuable time regaining it.

2. Reduces Off-Season Weight Gain

The peak of the cyclocross season carries deep into December, and in some places continues into January. The period between Halloween and New Year’s is when most people lose the battle of the bulge. The energy expenditure of low-intensity off-season rides is often too low to keep a cyclist’s waistline from expanding, and the additional expenditure from high-intensity interval workouts for cyclocross training can tip the scales in your favor. In this case, the weight you don’t gain is weight you don’t have to burn off in the New Year.

3. Makes You a Safer Cyclist

Every cyclist crashes, but the more comfortable you are with getting out of control the more likely you will be to keep your bike upright when conditions get squirrely. ‘Cross is a great place to learn better bike handling skills. You’ll be cornering in grass, gravel, sand, mud, and snow. There will be sliding involved and you will probably fall a few times. The good news is that the speeds are typically lower and the surface you’re falling on tends to be softer than crashing during a road race or criterium. Even the dismount/remount skills come in handy when you transfer back to the road or mountain bike; ‘cross racers are the men and women who manage (sometimes) to land on their feet when everyone else is laying in pile.

4. Toughens You Up

Being dirty, wet, and cold is part of training for and racing cyclocross. During the spring and summer, when the skies open up during your races you will be one of the riders who isn’t fazed by the drop in temperature, the spray coming off the wheel in front of you, or the slippery pavement or trail. You’ve experienced worse, and that becomes your competitive advantage. The best competitors turn adversity into opportunity and racing ‘cross helps you see a rainy criterium as an opportunity to win.

5. Helps You Accelerate

Low-speed acceleration is one of the aspects of cycling that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. This is the high-torque, low-cadence kind of acceleration that happens when you slow down for a corner and have to get back up to speed after it. It’s a race-specific feature of almost every kind of bike racing: criteriums, track racing, mountain biking, and even road racing. When you train for and race cyclocross you experience these accelerations over and over again for 45 to 60 minutes. On top of that, the added resistance of powering through sand pits and soft grass – typically with a relatively low cadence to maintain traction – is great for developing the ability to produce high torque, not just high power. When you go back to the road, track, or trail, this translates into quicker accelerations out of tight corners and higher speeds through rough surfaces like gravel or cobblestones.

Side Note: Time-crunched Cyclists Don’t Need an Extended Fall Break

Some summertime cyclists cling to the idea they need an extended break from structured training and competition, and resist the notion that racing cyclocross is a good idea. While there might be some cyclists for whom this is true, it’s not true for the majority of time-crunched amateur cyclists who spent the summer training about 8 to 12 hours a week. At most, riders in this category need three to four weeks of light, unstructured riding to recuperate from the season.

Don’t simply go by feel, look at your data to confirm your recovery. One way to do this is by using the Performance Manager Chart. Watch the relationship between your Acute Training Load (ATL), Chronic Training Load (CTL), and Training Stress Balance (TSB). You want your CTL to gradually decline (up to about 20 to 30 percent) over a period of three to four weeks while TSB stays relatively positive. If your CTL doesn’t decline, you may be mistaking a change in training style for actual recovery.

For your TSB to stay positive or mostly positive, your training should be consistent but easy (low stress). If your training just goes from structured and high-intensity (race season) to erratic, both in terms of consistency and intensity, your ATL and TSB will fluctuate greatly, and this often keeps your CTL from declining.

Even without the benefits listed above, you should race cyclocross because it’s fun. Certainly, some riders take it very seriously, but even they can’t help but laugh with the hecklers and take the occasional beer handup. There’s a ridiculousness to ‘cross that’s inescapable; sliding around in the grass and jumping over barriers harkens back to building jumps and seeing who could skid the longest as kids. The fact it will probably make you a better bike racer for the rest of the year is just a bonus.

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About Jim Rutberg

Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS) and co-author of several books with Chris Carmichael, including “The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 2nd Ed.” and “The Time-Crunched Triathlete”. For information on personal coaching, training camps, and Endurance Bucket List events, visit

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