How To

Five essential training sessions for the cyclo-cross season

Want to work on your cyclo-cross form? Here are five key training sessions

The arrival autumn means one thing – it’s cyclo-cross season.

Whether you’re embarking on a full season of cyclo-cross racing or planning to enter your first event (and why wouldn’t you? Cyclo-cross is a great way to get into bike racing), then now is the time to incorporate some ‘cross-specific sessions into your training.

– Beginner’s guide: how to get started in cyclo-cross –

Chances are, you’ll have done plenty of riding over the summer months and will have a solid fitness base behind you, so now you want to make your training more specific to the efforts you’ll be making in a cyclo-cross race.

Here are five key cyclo-cross training sessions for riders of all abilities. These sessions will refer to your training zones but don’t let put you off – you can read more about how to set and use your training zones here.

Don’t mourn the end of summer – celebrate the start of the cyclo-cross season (Pic: Trek)

Cyclo-cross bursts

You may already be familiar with training sessions where you do a 15-second sprint followed by 15 seconds of recovery? This session works on the same basis but adjusts it slightly to be more specific to cyclo-cross.

The idea is to work on putting out your power in short, sharp bursts to replicate the efforts in a ‘cross race, where you might sprint out of a corner and along a short straight before braking and not pedaling as you take on the next corner.

This on/off power output is what we want to replicate in this session. However, where it differs from a traditional 15s sprint/15s recovery session is that the length of the sprints and the recovery isn’t fixed.

– Buyer’s guide: five cyclo-cross essentials –

The sprints can range between five seconds and 30 seconds, as can the recovery. The amount of recovery also doesn’t have to be the same as the length of the preceding sprint – mixing up the length of the sprints and recovery segments keeps your body guessing.

On top of this, it’s actually quite rare in a cyclo-cross race that you will have 15 seconds of recovery, so it’s good to train yourself to be able to consistently put out power with less recovery than that. Once you get used to these efforts, a good opportunity for progression is to try and do all the efforts at a lower cadence – this replicates how you will need to put out power in a cyclo-cross race.

The session

Ten minutes warm-up in zone two
3×10 minutes of cyclo-cross bursts

  • Try and mix up the lengths of the sprints and the recovery (between 5s and 30s) as much as possible

Ten minutes easy pedaling between each ten-minute block
Cool down

Two minutes on, two minutes off

Cyclo-cross is a sport which requires a great deal of muscular endurance. This essentially means you are required to put out a lot of power in short bursts for up to an hour – a very different skill to riding at a set wattage in a time trial, for example.

This session is designed to introduce your body and leg muscles to the sort of fatigue they will encounter in a cyclo-cross race. You will notice that this session – just like the cyclo-cross bursts – is very variable in terms of power output. Again, this is to replicate the spiking efforts you will need to make in a ‘cross race.

Cyclo-cross raced are packed with short, intense efforts, and little chance for recovery (Pic: Balint Hamvas)

Whereas the cyclo-cross bursts session is designed to increase the amount of power you can put out in short bursts, this session is aimed more at your ability to hold that kind of effort for a longer period of time.

Just as with the short bursts, once you are used to this session you can make it harder by doing the efforts slightly over-geared, aiming for a cadence of between 65-75rpm.

The session

Ten minutes warm-up in zone two
2×22 minutes

  • Start with two minutes in zone five, then two minutes in upper zone three. Repeat in this fashion until the 22 minutes are up. Why 22 minutes? Because that means you start and finish with a zone five effort.

Ten minutes easy pedaling between blocks
Cool down

Cyclo-cross skills

Cyclo-cross is a challenging discipline not only because of the intense effort required, but also the skills needed to negotiate technical courses. As a result, this session is really important regardless of your skill level, but it’s also one often forgotten by riders. The goal can be either to stay sharp if you feel you have already got a good skill level, or to work on specific skills if you feel that there are areas you need to improve on.

I find the best way of doing this session is to pick three different skills, whether that be clipping in at the start of a race for a standing start sprint, dismounting and remounting, run-ups (running with your bike uphill) or cornering.

– Buyer’s guide: cyclo-cross bikes –

After a warm-up, practice the first skill ten times, then work on the second ten times and finally the third – again, ten times. Then give yourself five minutes to think about what improvements you need to make, what you might need to change and what you are doing well. Then return to the first skill to put those points into practice, before repeating this with the second and third skill.

How many times you go through this process is limited by how much time you have, but I would always recommend you run through each skill at least twice to reinforce the muscle memory you are building up.

I always do this session on my race setup, if that’s applicable to you. That means my race wheels, the most applicable tyre profile for those luckily enough to have a choice, and race tyre pressure. This ensures that as well as honing your skills, you are also becoming more accustomed to riding your race bike. Come race day, everything will feel natural.

The session

Before you go out decide upon three skills to practice

Ten minutes warm-up in zone two (I would normally ride a few laps around the park and adjust my tyre pressures according to the conditions)
10 x skill one
10 x skill two
10 x skill three
Five minutes easy riding to reflect on what you are doing well and what you can improve on with each skill
Repeat the above
Cool down

30-second sprints

The start of a cyclo-cross race is often crucial. If you get off to a good start and into a strong position it can often make the difference between a good and a bad race.

The start of a ‘cross race is a very hard effort that you need to specifically train for, not only to be able to put the power down on the start straight, but also so you’re then able to continue that for the rest of the race. There’s no point leaving it all out there in the first 20 seconds if you need to spend the next five minutes recovering as everyone rides away from you.

This 30-second sprint session will help your body adapt to the effort needed at the start of a cyclo-cross race. Not only this, but it will also help you to improve what coaches refer to as your ‘anaerobic capacity’ – in basic terms, how much energy you have in reserve for sprints and short efforts.

This is a very hard session and if you do it properly you should feel pretty tired afterwards. Please remember, if you are sprinting up a section of road and then turning around to go back to your start point please be careful of traffic when sprinting or doing a u-turn on the open road.

The session

Ten minutes warm-up in zone two
5x30s sprint efforts (I typically use a hill that isn’t too steep to sprint up)
Six minutes of soft pedaling to recover between each effort

  • It’s important this is very easy so you can adequately recover and are able to reproduce the same power when it comes to the fifth effort

Cool down

The start of cyclo-cross race is a frantic affair. The race may not be won there, but it can certainly be lost (Pic: Balint Hamvas)

Standing start sprints

The sprints you will typically need to do in a cyclo-cross race are typically from very slow speeds or from a standing start (as is the case with the start of the race).

Sprinting from a standing start requires a different kind of effort from a sprint when you are already moving, where your cadence typically tends to be higher. As a cyclo-cross rider, sprinting from a slow speed or standing start, at a low cadence, is something you definitely need to work on in training alongside the regular sprints in the session above.

You can do this session either as a standalone session within your training plan or you can incorporate it into a skills ride. If it’s the latter then you can replicate a real ‘cross start by having one foot on the floor to begin with.

One of the key things you can also get out of this session is to learn which gear you need to be in when you start a race. I recommend being in the big chainring and somewhere near the top of the cassette, though you might need to experiment with the gear you use the first time you do this session.

Once you have found a gear that works then make a note of it for next time. As you get stronger you will find that you will be able to get the bike going in an increasingly harder gear.

The session

Ten minutes warm-up in zone two
5x15s standing start efforts

  • Find a quiet piece of road or park, roll almost to a stop in your selected gear, then sprint away as hard as you can for 15 seconds

Three minutes recovery between each sprint
20 minutes easy pedaling in zone one or two
Repeat the five sprints
Cool down


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