Get off your bike: Cross training for cyclists

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Tiffany Cromwell runs. Chloe Hosking lifts weights. Tayler Wiles practises yoga daily. The elite peloton is not going crazy. These women, and many like them, are simply tapping into the benefits of adding different movement forms to their primary training load. Cross training is an often advised, rarely followed aspect of a cyclist’s training schedule. Given that pros are gaining longevity and a vital extra edge from the method, it might be worth a second look for your own programme.

I spoke with sport director Gene Bates (Orica-AIS) and professional cyclist Amanda Spratt (Orica AIS) about how cross training works for cyclists. While Bates coaches Spratt, and he includes cross-training as part of her programme, Spratt has been a proponent of incorporating cross training into her training scheduled long before Bates became her coach. Together they share their take on the benefits of cross training and the ways to maximise your off-the-bike efforts.

FACTS FIRST

Cross training refers to undertaking any physical activity different to an athlete’s primary sport. Popular and effective choices for cyclists include running, Pilates, gym work and yoga. Bates explains: “Within the elite cycling group, cross training is definitely a big part of what people do, however, it wasn’t so long ago that cyclists had no idea what ‘core strength’ was nor gave a hoot about it. Most road cyclists were scared to look in the gym, having the attitude that they couldn’t afford to put on any weight.”

Now he talks about how impressed he is by the number of athletes doing core sessions during training camps and stage races. Most readers will be familiar with concepts of cross training from an injury prevention standpoint, and while cross training offers obvious benefits when sidelined, more and more athletes integrate other physical activity even when healthy in order to enhance performance and provide a mental refresher.

THE TUNE-UP

Like many cyclists, Spratt first realised the potential of cross training after an injury. In 2008, Spratt underwent surgery for Piriformis syndrome, resulting in a lengthy rehabilitation process and nearly 18 months of the bike.

“During this time I couldn’t ride but there were a lot of other activities that I could do to get my fitness and my strength back,” Spratt explained. “This is where cross training became a big part of my training, and I really started to see the benefits. I firmly believe that it created such a good base for my body that once I could start riding again it didn’t take long to get my fitness back.”

Now Spratt swears by cross training to keep herself fit during her off season. She continues to cross train during the race season, although not quite as frequently, with gym and core work. Spratt’s current form is speaking for itself. She recently took third overall at the Ladies Tour of Norway and earned The Suffer Prize at the Vårgårda Road World Cup.

Cross training can provide a great way to maintain condition while injured, allowing aerobic and muscular systems to be challenged before riding is permitted. Beyond recovery, consistent exercise like yoga can provide an easy, stimulating way to incorporate maintenance exercises to prevent re-injury.

THE BENEFITS OF VARIETY

For those without injuries, cross training provides an easy way to break up movement patterns and prevent injuries. This is an effective strategy for cyclists, who are predisposed to overuse injuries due to long training durations, highly repetitious activity and fixed postures. Combine this with a sedentary job and time spent in front of the TV or computer, and it all adds up to postural overload and contributes to poor biomechanical form.

By introducing different activities, stabilising and opposing muscles can be stimulated, joints are moved through different ranges of movement and tight muscles stretched. Posture can be corrected and bones and tendons loaded and strengthened. Preventing little niggles or accumulative injury is a smart priority for any cyclist aiming to stay in top form.

PERFORMANCE GAINS

The other half of the equation is performance enhancement benefits. Bates is an advocate for gym work. He says: “I think the gym work has direct benefits on performance, especially when coupled with some specific on bike work and planned into the programme at the right phase.”

Spratt agrees, adding: “After a solid block of gym or Pilates, I can always notice how much stronger and stable I feel on the bike, which results in greater transfer of power.”

Cross training can improve on bike performance by building new fitness components such as strength, power and improved core stability. Far from bulking you up or weighing you down, appropriate gym and strength work can help increase lean muscle mass, build explosive power and reduce body fat.

HAPPY AND FRESH

Taking time away from the bike while still working on fitness allows you to come back to your next session refreshed and focused. Bates says: “If a swim or nice walk instead of a ride once a week makes the athlete happier and fresher or more prepared for the main sessions of the week, then you could argue it definitely has performance benefits. At the end of the day, if the athlete is happy and in a better head space, they will perform better.”

This perspective underscores Bates’ understanding that even the most die-hard cyclists need downtime and mental breaks from training. Spratt talks about being able to indulge her love of the mountains when hiking, as well as have a laugh and suffer with friends during off season group classes at her local gym.

FIT FOR LIFE

At the end of the day, even podium winners spend more time off the bike than on the bike. Being globally fit and strong means less barriers to daily life – whether that be preventing a sore back at work, running for the bus, or being able to carry a squirming three-year-old in one arm and the groceries in the other. And it might even lead to on-bike gains and an athletic longevity you may not have realised you had.

CROSS-TRAINING TIPS

If you are considering adding something into your programme, Bates and Spratt shared some insight on how to get started.

  1. Get professional help

Starting a new exercise with a qualified instructor will lessen your chances of injury and set you on the right track in terms of volume, intensity, technique and goals. Bates says: “A great start would be to go and find a good gym, and someone who knows what they are talking about, and discuss what you are trying to achieve.”

  1. Start slowly

You may be a monster on the bike, but recognise that a new sport will challenge your body in a completely different way. You are back to novice level. Bates adds cross training to his athletes programs like this: “At the start of each season, I prescribe some aerobic cross training activities to do, slowly merging into a good block of gym work and finally on bike strength work. I have found that this is a good progression, and although it’s difficult to prove, I believe that by going through each step, it prepares the body for a greater workload and ultimately prevents small injuries, as you might get from jumping straight into a big workload.”

  1. Pick something you like

While you may have a well-developed tolerance for suffering on the bike, picking an activity you dread will mean it becomes a chore.

“I think the most difficulties I have had over the years is trying to do activities or training that I didn’t really enjoy or that made me so sore in muscles that it took days to recover,” Spratt says. “A lot of cyclists start running in their off season but for me that just ended up causing more problems for my body than benefits so that’s something I steer clear of now.”

  1. Count the workload

Recognise that new sessions add to your overall training load. Consider swapping a bike session or two until you are adjusted to cross training and won’t be pushing yourself into fatigue.

OPTIONS ABOUND

Not sure where to start? I’ve come up with four sports that will target both injury prevention and performance improvement. Best of all, they’re fun!

  1. Resistance training

In a gym or outside or at home, with weights or without, resistance training is a fast and versatile way to tick all the boxes. There are hundreds of exercises to choose from, and routines can be adapted to target any goal.

  1. Rock Climbing

Feeling a bit more adventurous? Rock climbing provides an amazing core workout, as well as challenging strength and flexibility.

  1. Yoga

Far from just Omm’ing about, yoga offers different types of workouts depending on your aim. It promotes flexibility, helps build strength and balance, and provides time out for mental focus.

  1. Pilates

Pilates is a rehabilitation favourite of physiotherapists all over the world due to its highly specific focus on core control and condition. Frequent Pilates practice leads to fantastic posture and core control and can go a long way towards injury prevention.

As Spratt says, “Think outside the box as well, there are many activities out there that can benefit the body that you might not necessarily think of. For example near where I live there is a set of 200 stairs where people can go and do reps up and down at their own leisure.”

I might not be running up 200 stairs any time soon, but if you’ve got a good suggestion for a cross training workout or how this works in your schedule let us know in the comments!


Alana Crimeen is a qualified physiotherapist and Australian Physiotherapy Association member. Her professional background involves working in the public system including as an independent practitioner in an emergency department and in outpatient injury rehabilitation. She was introduced to riding in a velodrome, fell in love with riding on the road and learnt healthy fear for riding on the mountain. She likes to keep up with recent research relating to athletes in order to hassle her training partners about cross-training from a more educated point of view.