By the time I reached my riding goals for the year, and with winter looming, I was tired of riding. We can ride all winter around Boulder, but it’s riding on the plains and – to me, at least – rather boring, and often not in ideal conditions. I prefer to cross-train through the winter anyway, still riding occasionally but not exclusively, so I turned my sights to something else I enjoy.
Cross-country ski season was only six weeks or so away. I started working on both lower and upper body strength. I did balance drills, since good skiing results from shifting my weight fully from one ski to another. I kept riding for endurance and climbing local hills for power.
As much as I love XC skiing, though, even during ski season I do technique drills on the trainer for no more than half an hour at a time to maintain my muscle memory.
No matter which of the numerous non-cycling activities you like to do to round out your off-season workout regimen, cross-training in the winter delivers myriad benefits to your cycling and overall health. Even if you live in a climate that allows you to ride year-round, taking a break from full-time riding and working some other activities into your routine is still a good idea.
Myriad Benefits of Cross-Training
Build Endurance: Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11 in the list of options below build general endurance that will translate well to cycling next spring.
Increase Leg Strength: Numbers 2, 7, 8, 11 and 12 are all good options for building leg strength.
Maintain Strong Bones: Numbers 4, 5, 6 and 9 all generate enough impact to help keep your bones strong.
Develop Good Balance: Numbers 1, 4, 8 and 9 all require more balance than riding your road bike.
Mental, Psychological 'Refreshment': Finally, don't discount the benefits of taking some time off the bike and doing something different in terms of rejuvenating your mental and psychological well-being. Spending more time with your family, spouse, friends – and rebuilding your excitement and desire to ride in the new season – are absolutely worthy goals. In fact (keep reading) they're primary goals in my own off-season regimen.
Why I Cross-Train
I’ll keep skiing until sometime in March and when cycling season starts I’ll have:
1. Had a fun ski season with my wife, who doesn’t ride.
2. Great endurance from multi-hour skis.
3. Strong quads and glutes, the primary cycling muscles, from skiing uphill.
4. Great aerobic capacity from many days of skiing at altitude.
5. Fresh excitement for riding, rather than feeling a bit worn down mentally from riding in crappy conditions or needing a break and not taking one.
Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are “cross-training” and benefit my cycling. However, Nos. 1 and 5 are the most important reasons I do something different than riding all winter.
Plenty of Cross-Training Options
If riding this winter is for any reason more of a chore than a pleasure (nasty conditions, desire for more family time, need for a mental or physical break, HATE the trainer), then try one or more of these activities:
1. Mountain biking. Because of the constantly changing terrain, this requires different physical and mental skills than riding on the road. If you pick a suitable trail or path, this can also be a family adventure.
2. Hiking. This, too, can be a great family activity, with the distance and pace geared to the whole family. Pack a lunch, extra warm clothing and explore a different environment. Carrying your pack will also help to build leg strength and stronger bones. If you have knee trouble, get a pair of walking poles to help with your balance, particularly while descending.
3. Walking. No local trails? Plan a walk through new neighborhoods to a café and then take a shorter route (or the bus!) home. Walk after dinner with your significant other (and take the dog), which will give you more time to talk together than if you were grinding away on the trainer alone.
4. Social dancing. For those of us over 50, weight-bearing activities are important for strong bones, and cycling doesn’t do it. Even at a full sprint, the load on your leg bones is less than walking! And you can have fun with your partner!
5. Walk/jog. If you like to measure your progress, this is the activity for you. Start by walking 5 minutes, running 1 minute, walking 5 minutes, running 1 minute, etc. Keep cutting down the walking time and increasing the running time.
6. Running. Already a runner? Look for new places to run, perhaps on trails instead of asphalt. Enter a few low-key events.
7. Snowshoeing. For those of you who live in the snowbelt, this is just like hiking except you strap on snowshoes, which can be rented at many sports shops. Cheap backcountry XC ski poles will help you keep your balance. Snowshoeing is hard work because you’re lifting the snowshoes with every step and may have the added resistance of fresh snow – which adds to the beauty and enjoyment! Carry a pack with more warm clothes and a hot drink for winter comfort and also to help develop leg strength.
8. Cross-country skiing. In Colorado both roadie and MTB racers cross-country ski in the winter because it carries over so directly to cycling. When we get a good snow we ski in North Boulder Park. If it snows in your area you can ski, even if you don’t have a ski area with groomed trails. Carry a pack with more warm clothes and a hot drink for winter comfort and also to help develop leg strength.
9. Team sports. Basketball, racquetball and other 2-person or team sports are good ways to up the enjoyment factor while getting a good workout. When you move, you move fast, so these really get your heart rate up there and build leg power; however, because the action is intermittent they don’t do as much for endurance as the activities above.
10. Swimming. Moving through water gets your heart rate up, improves your flexibility and can be very relaxing. However, because it doesn’t really work the primary cycling muscles, use it to complement the above.
11. Aerobic exercise equipment. Gyms have all kinds of aerobic exercise devices besides stationary bikes (such as treadmills, elliptical machines, rowing machines, etc.). My knee was crushed years ago so I can’t even jog. To get ready for ski season I’ll get on the treadmill (another word for monotonous) and do a pyramid. Every minute I either increase the speed or the incline until I can’t go any harder, and then I’ll work my way back down the pyramid the same way. Almost all gym machines have built-in programs you can use to change the pace and avoid the boredom.
12. Strength training. The above work on aerobic and muscular endurance, but aren’t intense enough (unless you go really hard) to develop muscle strength, the necessary precursor to building power in the spring. You don’t have to go to the gym; with the right exercises you can use primarily body weight. My website has a two-part Strength Training Program for both lower and upper body, written with Coach Dan Kehlenbach, and a two-part Core Strength Program. To complement these I recommend a Stretching Program, which is also on my website.
Additional Resources: See our New WINTER CYCLING BUNDLE, which includes 12-week plans based on rider goals; how to extend your "riding season" outdoors by learning how to properly dress, eat, ride safely and stay motivated throughout the off-season; and how to use sports psychology to improve your cycling (even long after you've plateaued physically) by focusing on the often-overlooked mental side of the sport. Just $13.50; $11.48 for Premium Members!
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.