Winter Cross Training for Cyclists: Why time away from your bike isn’t bad

by Coach Beth Ann Orton

Winter-time training for cycling in cold climates can be challenging, but it also presents a perfect scenario for cross training, which can refresh your mind and body during the off season, and even help build fitness for your first big spring event. When winter settles in with snow and ice, seize the opportunity to take time away from your bike – it can be beneficial for your cycling fitness, help you recuperate from potential muscle imbalances or chronic injury, and maintain and improve psychological freshness and strength. Not to say that all of your winter training activities should be away from the bike – there is always a time and place for system-specific workouts on an indoor trainer – but, when winter keeps knocking at your door and you have training volume to complete, it’s time to grab your skis without regret!

There is always fear of the “off season unknown” among cyclists, and concern that the holidays and snowy months will cause fitness losses. But, if you’ve given yourself proper rest at the end of your summer and fall seasons, and are able use winter sports to help build training volume with specificity, you can see big fitness gains during winter months. Success in training for cycling is reliant upon training specific body systems. Because we have baseline information for FTP as it correlates to heart rate zones in most athletes, we can transfer these same training zones to winter sports, and train specifically in Zones 1-3, or even use a sport like skate skiing to build strength in an athlete’s zone 4, or threshold, which is essential for early and mid-season strength on the bike.

They key to effective winter cross training lies in knowing which sports work best for you to train specific body systems, or to train in your specific heart rate zones. Skate skiing is popular for cyclists because it promotes use of the same muscles required to propel a bike, plus lower extremity muscles that may need a tune up (such as your glutes!), and upper body muscles rarely used in cycling. However, skate skiing is a technique driven sport, and its aerobic demands can be very high: If you’re new to skating or lack technique (like me!), then every workout can quickly turn into an off-the-bike threshold effort if you aren’t careful. But, if you are proficient enough to skate in zones 1-3, skate skiing is a perfect training tool for building endurance during winter months. If you’re a moderate to advanced skier, skating can also be used to train reliably in zone 4 and build intensity, but be careful not to overtrain, and always consult with your coach; even if your coach is just your body and mind telling you to take it easy! If you know your limits and can control your heart rate, skate skiing is a remarkable cross training tool.  Athletes such as Lea Davison and Catharine Pendrel are well know for their love of skate skiing, and both incorporate skating as a regular part of their winter endurance and strength routines. If you need a little inspiration, check out this (now) famous clip of U.S. skiers Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning a gold medal at the 2018 winter Olympic games in PyeongChang – it’s so good!

While we can’t all be as fast as Diggins and Randall, we can all find a winter cross training tool that suits us. If skate skiing isn’t your thing, consider the benefits of classic cross-country skiing or back country ski touring: Both provide tremendous aerobic benefits at and below threshold heart rate values (training zones 1-3), without the major metabolic costs sometimes seen in skate skiing. Though alpine skiing can also elevate your heart rate and activate important lower extremity muscle groups, I’m sorry to say lift access skiing won’t give you the same training benefits as human propelled uphill activities, so you’re better off ditching the lift line for fresh snow and solitude in the backcountry, with appropriate avalanche and safety training, of course!

Finally, whether it’s to start acclimating muscle groups to pedaling, or to expand your power and training zones, some days you just need to ride a bike. If you don’t love riding indoors, your best option may be to ride a fat bike on snow: These are available for rent or purchase, and depending on weather and snow conditions, they can be used to train all body systems. But, if you’re like me and don’t have access to a fat bike, it can be nice to execute long endurance training days by splitting them between two activities. If you have four hours of non-specific endurance training on the docket, they can be difficult to endure sitting in a static position on an indoor trainer, but if you split that four hours in half by skating two of them and riding two of them, your workout will fly by. If trainer rides aren’t your favorite, I recommend using short-duration indoor riding to meet very specific training needs. Your coach may prescribe cadence drills, short threshold efforts, or V02 intervals later in the winter and fall, and all of these can be done on the trainer in a short period of time, which can be endured by even the biggest trainer curmudgeon. Indoor workouts are made more interesting and efficient on a smart trainer system like the Wahoo Kickr, paired with interactive applications such as Zwift, Trainer Road, Sufferfest or others, (see previous blog What App?) but they can just as easily be completed on rollers or a static trainer! Whatever you do, be sure to have adequate ventilation during indoor riding– there is nothing worse than overheating during an indoor training session, and you may even experience heart rate and power decoupling if your body temperature is not properly regulated during indoor rides. This means your power decreases as your heart rate increases, which can detract from the benefits of your training session.  So, go ahead and buy that box fan; it’s not quite like having the wind in your hair, but it’s a very close approximation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, winter is a fabulous time to incorporate strength work back in to your training routine. Whether you’ve been lifting weights through your season, or are new to the gym, your “off season” is in fact your “on season” when it comes to strength work.  While I personally recommend including light volume, and discipline specific core and strength work in your program throughout the year, winter is the best time to incorporate longer and more frequent strength routines. Your strength routine should be personalized to reflect individual needs and weaknesses, but all cycling strength routines should include a healthy amount of core work, and dynamic strengthening for lower extremity muscles; particularly gluteus, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps. Talk with your coach and use this time to address personal weak points – hip flexors are always my wintertime project. You may find light upper body strengthening can also be helpful when it comes time for a sprint finish, or when you need a little extra strength to survive a crash or bump along in the peloton. Upper extremity strength is extremely important for mountain bikers, who must endure lower and upper extremity fatigue, while maintaining balance at speed. I love this video from Nino Schurter’s strength and balance routine – it’s full of creative ideas: Regardless of your discipline, getting back to the gym, or utilizing a simple home gym, is an essential ingredient to any winter cross training program.

While spending time off the bike participating in aerobic sports can give you transferable gains and great physical benefits, cross training’s greatest asset may be the mental boost that it provides. Completing the same workouts day in and day out can become monotonous, and cross training is refreshing. Athletes who approach the start line feeling refreshed and motivated, usually perform at their best, and winter is great time to conjure this emotional belief. Aside from needing time off the bike to feel focused and motivated, your brain also needs focused training to be at its best during race season. Winter can be a fantastic time to practice mental gains via visualization and meditation, or simply by revisiting sports psychology literature you’ve found helpful in the past. Some favorite mental aids of mine include the Head Space app, and a book called “The Mindful Athlete: The Secret to Pure Performance”, by George Mumford.

When all is said and done, remember what matters most, is that you’ve trained at the correct intensity for an appropriate duration prescribed by your coach (or yourself!) during winter months. Sometimes this means ditching your bike for skis, the trail, or the gym. All of these activities are effective ways to train for cycling, so fit in bike rides when you can, and don’t regret the weather, instead enjoy your cross training!

References:    “A Comparison Between Alpine Skiing, Cross-Country Skiing and Indoor Cycling on Cardiorespiratory and Metabolic Response”. Thomas Stoggl, Christoph Schwarzl, Edith E. Muller, Masaru Nagasaki, Julia Stoggl, Peter Scheiber, Martin Schonfelder, Josef Niebauer, J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Mar; 15(1): 184-195. Published online 2016 Feb 23.