Here comes the cold
By James Herrera, USA Cycling National BMX Coach
I think fall may perhaps be my favorite season for biking. The leaves are changing, the temperature is cooling, and most of us are done with the major events we took on in the summer months. Fall offers us a chance to enjoy riding simply for the sake of riding, while continuing to build upon the fitness we’ve developed all year.
While many coaches will toy with the term “off-season,” many cyclists know there’s truly no such thing. We may choose to cross train a bit, opting to shift a bit of our ride time for weight training, trail running, hiking, snowshoeing, cross country and alpine skiing, or snowboarding. But few of us plan to stay sedentary during the cold weather months. The key to carrying your bike fitness over to next spring is to blend a bit of the old with a bit of the new.
For all intents and purposes, bike fitness is gained and maintained on the bike, plain and simple. We never want to hang up our wheels, only to be dusted off when the snow thaws. Staying on your bike is the most critical element to prevent fitness loss. You may not put in the same total volume of ride time, but a few high intensity rides a week will starve off fitness loss, and most likely leave you in a better place come spring.
In order to prevent burnout or boredom with the bike, it’s essential to mix things up. Ideally, our cross training modalities should mimic the demands of cycling in order to create the most beneficial cycling-specific package. Granted, pedaling is pedaling and there’s no other way to create an identical muscular demand. However, we can tax the aerobic system quite similarly with running, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and swimming. Since cycling is a leg specific activity, cross training activities that are primarily leg driven will offer the most benefit.
For those cyclists not quite ready to halt the competitive season, cyclo-cross is an excellent way to keep up the intensity with a 100% cycling-specific form of training. Some time ago, European road racers developed the sport to keep in shape during the cold weather months. In more recent times, 'cross has taken on a life independent of road racing, with many top professionals specializing in the discipline.
While cyclo-cross bikes look a lot like their sister roadies, that’s about where it ends. The bikes have wider forks, seat and chain stays to accommodate a fatter, slightly knobby tire and sometimes top mounted brake levers. Events are run on courses that can include hard pack dirt, mud, sand, grass, hill run ups, and obstacles that necessitate a rider hop on and off the bike to navigate. If you’ve never seen it, I strongly encourage you to go watch. If you’ve never tried it, it’s one of the hardest forms of bike racing you’ll ever do. Click here to search for a cyclo-cross event near you.
While there are many things we can do to maintain or build fitness in the coming months, here’s my top 10 hit list to get you to spring in your best shape ever.
- The cold weather’s going to cut your total ride volume down, that’s a given. But DO NOT, under any circumstances, cut out the intensity of your riding. Research has shown that fitness loss is best starved off by including high intensity bouts of training in the winter months, even at the expense of cutting ride volume down by more than half.
- Find a group of friends who can tolerate riding in the cold, maybe even the dark.
- Night riding: A mountain bike, your favorite trail, the proper cold weather clothing, and a modern cycling headlamp make riding a whole new world.
- Start digging out all your cold-weather gear: balaclavas, gloves, jackets, vests, shoe covers, etc. With today’s technology, you should be able to ride outdoors plenty throughout the winter months. If the roads are too icy to ride, stick to the trails. If the trails are iced over, break out the snowshoes or Yak Trax.
- Cross train with leg driven sports. Trail running, and cross country or backcountry skiing will keep your legs and lungs in great shape for cycling.
- If you live near the mountains, enjoy the snow with alpine or tele skiing and snowboarding. However, downhill-only sports don’t do much for cycling fitness. Make certain you're spending adequate time doing aerobic work in addition to your downhill endeavors.
- Telemark, alpine touring, or split board snowboarding are great ways to both maintain fitness and enjoy the snow. Skin up a few runs at the resort or a backcountry area early in the morning so you earn your turns. Once you’ve gotten your lung-busting climbing out of the way, enjoy the downhill.
- Mountain biking is a great alternative to road cycling as the seasons change. The wind chill is much lower and the body tends to run hotter. Another mountain biking perk…no cars.
- Stay hydrated! It’s easy to forget to drink as the temperature cools. People often forget, we can dehydrate just as easily in the cold. All that vapor you see coming from your mouth as you exhale in the cold is moisture leaving your body.
- Most importantly, whether you hop on your road, mountain, or 'cross bike, ski, swim, run, lift, or hike, have fun while you’re doing it.