Life as a Bike Jockey: Off-Season XC Fitness and ‘Cross

Cross-country mountain bike race seasons are tying up for many and some cyclists are putting up their wheels and fixing for a winter off the bike. The “off-season” is a time to rest the bones and brains from the demands of training and racing all summer and get ready for…

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Cross-country mountain bike race seasons are tying up for many and some cyclists are putting up their wheels and fixing for a winter off the bike.

The “off-season” is a time to rest the bones and brains from the demands of training and racing all summer and get ready for the next year. But if you weren’t thinking of racing cyclocross this fall, you may want to consider it as part of your off-season training.

The Case for ‘Cross

2000 Atlanta mountain bike Olympian, physical therapist and my cycling coach Ann Trombley says she sees many benefits of ‘cross for cross-country riders. Trombley offers cyclocross  racing as an intensive 45-minute focus on skills and fitness as well as a great way to maintain hard-won fitness in the off season.

Because of the shorter duration, ‘cross  races generally run faster with a higher average heart rate than cross-country races. Usually, it’s about 45 minutes on full throttle versus two hours of mostly high-end endurance.

Trombley explains that pushing yourself to race at higher intensity for a full ‘cross  race can train your body to tolerate longer intensity efforts in a way you won’t likely get from a cross-country race.

“It teaches you to suffer more; to tolerate that higher level more,” says Trombley.

Elite cyclist Amy Dombroski made a recent transition from professional road to elite XC racing, saying she found that “‘cross  helped a lot going into the mountain bike season” as “mountain biking is a different animal.”

“There’s no hiding if you’re not feeling good like you can in road racing,” says Dombroski, who compares XC racing to time trials.

With 45 minutes of go-time, Trombley says that ‘cross can increase one’s capacity and inclination to suffer through instead of hide from the pain.

Don’t Give Up

Cycling coach Ann Trombley cautions devoted cross-country racers from jumping into a serious cyclocross race season – or vice versa.
It takes years of fitness to be able to tolerate two full race schedules without a considerable break. While some cyclists won’t have a problem, riders can experience decreased output or just burnout midway through the second season. Until you’ve built up the tolerance, Trombley advises to make one season your focus and the other for enjoyment.
Amy Dombroski, who raced a full ‘cross season in 2009, but only just completed her first full XC race season this summer, would agree. She admits she is still figuring out the fitness demands for her new sport.
“I don’t think I took a big enough break after ‘cross worlds [this past January]. I was kinda already fried as we started the [XC] season. So I definitely struggled fitness-wise.”
But with just having placed second at the talent-packed ‘cross Vegas race at Interbike last week, it appears she’s getting it sorted out.
There are still more benefits to get from ‘cross racing, but to sum them up, “Racing is racing practice,” as Trombley puts it.
So before you hang the wheels up this off-season, remember cyclocross racing is a good way build and maintain cycling fitness for your upcoming XC season and at the same time change it up a bit.

Moreover, Trombley says that a common mistake for athletes in the off-season is excluding higher-end efforts from their workouts. While she’ll schedule her cross-country riders time to recover from the summer race season, she’ll balance it with efforts to minimize the effects of “detraining.”

Reduced or just a complete cessation of exercising can cause “detraining” where the body loses the physiological adaptations made from training. So a winter without higher-end efforts can mean a cyclist returning to the bike “will have to spend more time rebuilding the upper-end capacity that was lost instead of honing what he or she might have maintained while working on other areas of fitness and skills,” says Trombley.

Trombley adds that while there’s no hard-and-fast rule on age and performance, on average, athletes over the age of 35 are especially susceptible to the effects of detraining. Trombley has found that older athletes can need more time adapting to new training programs.

Older athletes, she says, “have a harder time regaining what they have lost, especially for fast-twitch or speed activities.”

Incorporating ‘cross  racing into the program can help maintain the higher-end readiness.


Tight corners, barriers and short steep climbs in ‘cross racing are much like heavy-set NFL fans covered in body paint on TV — they show up often, so brace yourself.

The need for (and opportunity to develop) explosive power is typically greater in a ‘cross  race than an XC race. So when the chance comes to drop a buddy out of a corner on your next XC race, you’ll be glad you got all that practice in the fall.

Without the emphasis on building endurance, Trombley finds the ‘cross season is also a great time to add more explosive power training into the schedule, such as plyometric exercises. More time is available to put these demands on the body without overtaxing the athlete. Additionally, this mixing up the training can help round out weaknesses in a body and improve overall performance.

Mad Skills

Trombley reminds cyclists that ‘cross can also help a rider hone the technical skills. Like in XC racing, a ‘cross racer is railing corners and negotiating unfriendly terrain, like mud or sand, but now he or she is doing it on much smaller tires and tread. Throw in the fact that your position on a ‘cross bike is setup less for maneuverability than speed, and you see that you’re also refining your sense of balance in unstable conditions. Once you get back on your XC rig and 2.0s, you’ll feel like you’re riding with the Force.

Still relatively new to the ways of dirt, Dombroski points to the art of dialing in tire pressure and “how to take loose corners” as other key skills she transferred from her ‘cross-to-mountain experience. With little mountain bike experience to speak of, Dombroski transitioned from the road to become 2009 U23 MTB national champion.

And if just the thought of “More Cowbell” isn’t enough to make you smile, ‘cross may appeal to a more utilitarian sense of fun. You can bust out a solid workout in an hour, watch some races with friends from the beer garden and still be home in time to get on the house tasks you’ve been meaning to finish all summer.

Thanks to Ann Trombley and Amy Dombroski for their contributions to this post. To  contact Ann or learn more about Trailmaster Coaching, call 303.278.0291 or visit

Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2010, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2010 include TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Voler Apparel, Pearl Izumi, WickWerks, KMC, SDG, Crank Brothers, Uvex, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics and Mighty Good Coffee.

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