Toolbox: Analyzing Cyclocross Demands
Face it: cross hurts! Not only does it require strong mental and physical toughness, it also requires a rider to be able to implement both skills and tactics while going full gas. This means we need some highly specific training with lots of time spent focused in the high intensity range.
Welcome to Cowbell Season! As with any cycling discipline, historical and current data go a long way to guiding your training strategy, implementation, and tracking, and this will improve your results. But with such an intense discipline, you also need a very specific approach to training with data.
Understand the Cyclocross Hour
A lot of riders compare a cyclocross race to a 40 km time trial or a criterium because of its similar duration. This is a good starting point, but while there are lot of similarities, there are also some key differences. Let’s compare these “hour events.”
All three of these events typically result in average heart rate and power at threshold, but how that power is achieved is significantly different for each event. The Variability Index® (VI) of the crit and cyclocross race is much higher than the time trial due to the variable nature of the power required.
When comparing cyclocross to the crit, the demands are similar but different; the VI is generally higher in cyclocross than in the crit because it is driven by longer periods of time over Functional Threshold Power (FTP). The VI “pulse” compares how the VI is created. Cyclocross tends to generate longer but not quite as intense “surges” over FTP when compared to a crit (extended vs. extensive), which requires some specific training.
The Demands of the Event and the Ability of the Rider
This is key starting point in preparing properly for any type of racing. In order to know what training needs, we have to spend some time analyzing the demands of the event and the ability or the rider. A lot of riders don’t think this is necessary for cyclocross, but it’s actually extra important due to the short season and low training hours that most of us typically dedicate to training.
Let’s review the general fitness demands of the event. Cyclocross is a shorter, more intense season typically focused on high-intensity, low-duration training sessions. This means having a good understanding of the general demands of the event(s) is a very important starting point for designing training plans. For me this general focus is divided into Primary, Secondary, Supportive and Less Effective areas of focus as follows:
• High Functional Reserve Capacity (FRC) is a key to success. FRC is a model-driven metric in WKO4 that allows us to track our anaerobic work capacity development. In cyclocross, focusing on your Functional Threshold Power level (FRC/FTP) gives you the best “bang for your buck.” FRC is part of the new Power Duration Curve and iLevels training levels system developed by Dr. Andy Coggan and found in WKO4; it’s similar to the classic VO2max training level but more specific to the individual.
• Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is also crucial to success in cyclocross, but it’s often underrepresented in cyclocross training in the name of doing a lot of high-intensity intervals. Increasing your FTP in conjunction with FRC will significantly improve your results.
• Building muscular endurance and fatigue resistance is crucial to cyclocross success. Think about the typical race: the lead pack starts together, and eventually more and more riders drop off the pace. The ability to maintain power output for the full length of the race will be a difference maker for you. A related, secondary factor is low-cadence, high-force pedaling (Quadrant 2); the pedaling style of cyclocross is different from that of a crit or TT because the terrain and traction often force lower cadence and higher force demands. This needs to be trained.
Measuring the specific demands of your events
Once we understand the general focus, lets utilize our data to get more specific. Take a look at the chart below of a cyclocross race. This rider is in high intensity mode (above 105% of FTP) over 32% of the time, while spending a whopping 42% in low intensity mode (below 65% of FTP). This gives us insight into the specific demands being placed on this rider to compete. Reviewing a series of historical races will help you develop a pattern or an average.
This type of analysis gives us insight into the demand that the typical race places on a rider. If your races are typically 45 minutes long and you spend 33% of the race in high intensity mode, you need to target your training to handle at least 15 minutes of hard anaerobic work. This is a typical average, but if you have historical power files for races, I recommend that you complete the same type of analysis on each event to determine your specific needs.
We can use power files from previous events to determine the specific intensity demands for cyclocross events. The distribution shown here is reasonably typical. Understanding specific demands of your events should be a significant part of your training strategy.
Ability of the rider
When you design your training strategy, it is important to understand the ability of the rider and the individual strengths and limiters. When I do a quick initial review of such abilities, I highlight areas based on the event’s demands. As stated above, FRC and FTP are important to success, so I focus on these areas, as well as five-minute and forty-minute power. Take a look at the summary report below; it focuses on the rider’s model-derived VO2max, FRC, and mFTP, and it provides some insight into his fatigue resistance.
What does this chart tell me? Area #1 gives me insights into the key areas of review. At the top left we can see the athlete metrics, focusing on FRC and mFTP, and in the top right we get a deep look at model-derived VO2max and muscle fiber type. In the lower area we have a unique way of analyzing fatigue resistance. I chose the relationship between five and forty minutes, but this can be customized to your needs (some might choose sixty minutes). This analytic chart simply reviews this athlete’s power against the “world class” profile found in TrainingPeaks, WKO+3, and WKO4 and highlights five and forty minutes.
Notice the steeper decline starting around five minutes and continuing through the hour. In the lower left and right corners are the athlete’s specific power numbers and % below “world class.” At five minutes this athlete is only 3.1% off from “world class” numbers, but these numbers significantly drop off by forty minutes, coming in at almost 27% below “world class.” This combination of numbers gives some amazing insight into the training needs of this athlete. The athlete demonstrates high VO2max and five-minute power (strengths) and low fatigue resistance and lower than expected mFTP (limiters). Significant work should be done focusing on fatigue resistance and raising mFTP before focusing on just high intensity training.
This gives us some immediate insight into the training strategy and basis for tracking throughout the cyclocross season. Once we have the goals and training strategy in place, time to start thinking about designing the actual training. We will do exactly that next week.
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is a USAC coach with over 10 years experience working with both road and mountain bike professionals around the world. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] [email protected] To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.