For the uninitiated, “cross training” is typically defined as “any activity that you dislike, but that you do to be better at another activity, in lieu of actually doing that activity.” Phew. Strangely, though, there are definitely schools of thought that abhor the idea of engaging in any activity that doesn’t have your legs spinning around in circles. It leads me to assume that, in the dead of winter, this logic calls for you to lie on your back, to put your legs in the air, and to do the egg-beater—just avoid social media posting while doing so. However, if that Pro contract continues to elude you, or you simply want to prove to your paleolithic, rock-is-heavy friends that you can do something other than ride a bike, cross training is quite effective.
The argument that cross training helps cyclists avoid both physical and psychological burnout is compelling. Most of us have thrown around the term “burnout” at one point or another, but what is it? Believe it or not, it’s not just a made-up term that’s used to cover-up for a lack of physical fitness. It’s actually listed in the ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems). Defined as a syndrome of physical and emotional exhaustion that leads to sport devaluation and reduced athletic performance, burnout has been diagnosed in everyone from small children to elite athletes.
Think of exercise and training as a continuum where negative physical and psychological effects appear at both ends of the spectrum—from no exercise to overtraining. The paradox is that many of the performance markers in well-trained athletes are reversed once they reach a state of overtraining. And whether or not they readily admit it, at some point, many have sat on the precipice of physical burnout.
Most cyclists’ seasons end with their “A” race, which required a period of over-reaching during training. Different than over-training, it’s a scheduled time during which intensity is increased and recovery intervals decrease. This creates both fitness and fatigue effects, and for a well-trained athlete that’s been on a periodized training schedule, the fatigue after-effect doesn’t last as long as the fitness after-effect. Adequate recovery/rest after a period of over-reaching allows fitness to remain high. However, to an athlete reaping the gains of the training, the effects are misleading, and lead you to think that maintaining that level of intensity will lead to even greater gains. Conversely, continuing to push yourself beyond physical capabilities for long periods of time won’t lead to performance enhancement. Instead, it’ll lead to a reduction in both your power and your sense of accomplishment.
I’m not saying that riding through your off-season equates to overtraining, but by nature, cyclists are competitive. When faced with the markers of over-training, can you take a day off and not feel overwhelmed by guilt? Can you legitimately just ride your bike for fun? Are you okay with being passed by another rider? If you find yourself cringing at any of the above, cross training is the perfect way to back away from the pressures of filling out the training log.
Picking up a complementary sport for a few months will also help you to avoid the psychological effects of burnout. Less obvious than physical markers, these range from mood disturbances to self-esteem issues. Staring at your powermeter for hours on end is a myopic view of life. Do you even remember the last time you noticed the leaves changing? If not, it’s time to dismount.
A cyclist’s power is generated by non-lateral movement. Even if you’re standing to climb, the natural rocking motion of the bike facilitates your legs driving the bike forward. For this reason, many cyclists are imbalanced from months of riding without other physical activity. By “imbalanced” I’m referring to those whose non-cycling muscles have become so atrophied that the simple act of jogging results in injury. Cross training activities that strengthen non-cycling-specific muscles, while working the larger cycling-specific muscles, provide the greatest benefit to a cyclist. Developing smaller muscle groups means that they won’t rely upon stronger muscles to compensate for inadequacy. And in the long run, a wholly developed muscular system will increase power output and decrease muscular fatigue.
And though you’ll want to chase down every skate skier that you see in the distance, remember that doing so will result in your cross training season becoming an off-season. Any activity that has enough duration and intensity to generate a training effect also generates fatigue. How fast one recovers from fatigue is an in-season factor that dictates how much training an athlete is actually able to endure. In the off-season, it’s best to maximize training while minimizing fatigue. With that in mind, trying to match your long saddle hours with equal amounts of another sport will head you straight down the path of burnout. Instead, look at cross training as an opportunity to strengthen your body, while giving your mind a breather.