Cross-training: 50 Ways to Leave your Lover

It’s November, and chances are you’re watching the snow, rain, or both put the freeze on your motivaton to get out there and ride. Stephen Cheung, our resident physiology expert, offers some warm advice on keeping your fitness high, reworking the attitude, and even adding some enjoyment to the winter training program.

– By Stephen S. Cheung, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dalhousie University

If you are like most bike racers, it’s not just the thrill of competition that drives your passion for the sport, but also the mere glory of propelling ourselves on two wheels under your own steam. Therefore, it’s a scary proposition to be told to keep away from your bikes in the name of greater fitness, and most of us just file such advice in our mental junk bin.

I admit that I have been as guilty as anybody. Being a sport scientist, I am familiar with all the scientific rationale behind cross-training during the off-season. Yet, for many of my cycling off-seasons, I blithely biked out my passion, and routinely pounded out hour after hour on the trainer or roller, with the odd weight training here and there only because it was supposed to make me a better cyclist. Hey, I’m a cyclist, and I simply didn’t like any other sport! Last winter, though, my students finally dragged me out to the swimming pool and the squash court. As a result, I put in the least bike time of any season since I started cycling but still ended up with my best racing results ever.

So why does cross-training work? First the facts: it doesn’t work! Physiologically, if you want to be the absolute best cyclist, cross-training will NOT work for you. The training principle of specificity is clear that the biggest gains come from training in that particular activity. However, the above only applies to brain-dead robots who can handle the tedium of the same thing day after day, year after year. Hey, I like tiramisu as much as anybody, but I don’t think I can handle it every day for a year!

Cross-training works because humans thrive on variety. Road cycling is an aerobic sport where the main limiter is our cardiovascular fitness. That means that a major off-season objective is to maintain and improve our aerobic capacity while giving our minds a mental break and our muscular system a chance to recover from the repetitive strain of cycling. Our heart muscle is pretty dumb in that it doesn’t care whether you are biking, skating, swimming, or playing a wicked game of tiddly-winks; it only cares that it is getting exercise. And since most activities involve using our legs, our cycling muscles are getting enough stimulus to ensure that they are not wasting away.

Sounds like a fair trade? Willing to let go of that death grip from your handlebars but still Type A enough to demand justification that a cross-training activity will be beneficial to your cycling? Try these activities then:
– Speed Skating. I did this for five years and got ridiculously fit. Think of the skating motion as continuous power squats. Add to that honing your cornering and crit tactics on the short track.
– XC Skiing. Next to speed skating, probably the most similar motion and muscles used as during cycling.
– Squash or any racquet sport is all about power from your legs from repeatedly lunging.
– Swimming works your whole body, especially the overlooked but critical core muscles. Also teaches you controlled breathing for those hill attacks when your lungs threaten to implode.
– Snowshoeing. A heck of an aerobic workout, plus it gets you outside!

I hope the point is obvious by now. There’s a whole wide world out there away from the bike. So keep from becoming a slavering bike nut, make a resolution to try a new activity each year, and just get away from the kitchen where the tiramisu is hiding!

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at

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