The Best Forms of Cross Training to Help You Reach Your Cycling Goals
Without a specific goal, such as going faster, going further, or making hill climbing easier, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge if your cycling skills are improving. But setting a specific ride goal allows you to track your progress and celebrate each little boost in performance.
To accomplish those goals, it’s not always just about riding. Cross training can also help you reach new heights in your cycling by improving cardiovascular fitness, helping you develop all-around strength, and preventing injury. Cross-training activities can also prevent boredom and keep you motivated.
To make the most of those cross-training sessions, it’s important to pick activities that will support your specific goals. To that end, these cross-training recommendations from experts offer key payoffs that help you progress performance and accomplish all your cycling goals.
Goal: Go (Beyond) The Distance
Cross training with running, hiking, and rowing can help you build aerobic capacity and muscular endurance, and all of these activities support your goal to ride farther with less fatigue, Pam Semanik, a coach at Stelleri Performance Training tells Bicycling. “Essentially, you’re mimicking your long rides with other longer-duration aerobic exercise,” she says.
At the same time, she adds, you’re giving yourself some time out of the saddle to strengthen muscles and decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries.
Trainers and exercise physiologists use the term “time to exhaustion” (TTE) to measure how long you can ride (or do another activity) at a specific intensity. Of course, just like with cycling, you’ll need to do these cross-training activities at an increased duration to lengthen your time to exhaustion, Semanik explains.
Trail running is great to build muscular endurance in your legs.
Your goal with this type of cross training is to increase your aerobic capacity—basically upping the ante on how well your heart and lungs can supply you with oxygen—to help with your endurance and ultimately your ability to ride for longer distances.
For even more specific training, Semanik suggests trying trail running. “It’s more aerobically taxing than other types of running because you’re going up and down hills, and it’s great to build muscular endurance in your legs,” she says.
Goal: Pain-Free Riding
Assuming you’ve had a bike fit, cycling shouldn’t cause any pain. If you do feel pain in your neck, shoulder, back, or knees, you may not be hinging forward from the pelvis correctly, Leslee Schenk-Trzcinski, a certified Cycling coach, personal trainer, and yoga teacher, tells Bicycling. To help with that, she suggests yoga and resistance training to strengthen the core, including the back muscles, and hamstrings.
“When you ride, you’re fighting the gravitational pull as you lean forward over the top tube—at any angle, but especially the more aerodynamic your position,” Schenk-Trzcinski says. “Hinging from the sit bones at the top of the leg and not at the top of the pelvis makes all the difference.” In other words, don’t bend at the waist, instead, lean forward from your hips.
To help you maintain a strong posture while you ride so you don’t slump onto the bike, focus on strengthening the entire back of your body a.k.a. your posterior chain, and your core. To do that with cross-training, try yoga, Pilates, and barre classes. “They are great additions to your exercise routine because they’re strategically designed to help train people to move from the deepest core,” Schenk-Trzcinski explains.
Some classic yoga and Pilates moves that strengthen the core include planks (and its variations). “Glute bridges are another great way to involve and activate the upper, middle and lower back all while liberating the front of the body, countering hours gripping the handlebars,” says Schenk-Trzcinksi.
If you have knee pain, Schenk-Trzcinski suggests an isometric move with a yoga strap looped around the thighs just above the knees. Stand tall, with a slight bend in the knees, and actively and consistently push out against the strap. This builds strength in the outer hip, particularly the gluteus medius muscles on both sides of butt. Hold for a minimum of 60 seconds and do this several times a week.
Goal: Speed Up Your Rides
Riding faster means combining power to the pedals with quicker leg turnover, Semanik says. To get there, you need to build explosive power. “You can do a high cadence workout on the bike, but off the bike, running, strength training, and plyometrics can help build leg power,” she says.
As for plyometric moves, Semanik suggests exercises like box, squat, or tuck jumps and burpees.
Schenk-Trzcinski says cross-country skiing can also help you build the strength, power, and aerobic capacity you need to ride faster. “The sport demands you use a whole-body combination of upper and lower strength—very different from and complementary to riding the bike. And it’s fun, refreshing, and a nice (albeit hard!) change of pace from riding,” she says.
Of course, if you don’t live in a snowbelt, fear not. “You can use a cross-country ski machine at the gym,” says Semanik. “Your goal is to just build your aerobic engine—anything that gets your heart rate up.”
Finally, stair climbing offers another solid option for building speed. The key is moving the legs quickly so you mimic that quick turnover you need to ride fast on the bike, Semanik says. This will build your aerobic capacity and leg strength.
Goal: Climb Better
To gain the core strength required to climb hills and be strong for an entire ride, Schenk-Trzcinski suggests rowing two or three times a week. “It’s the perfect complement to cycling as it is leg intensive but in a new and different way for the body,” she says. For example, pushing into the footplate on a rower will help to enhance the force and pressure you exert to bike pedals to power a climb.
Be sure your hip-hinging form is correct, though, because like cycling, it’s easy to have bad posture that leads to discomfort when you row. There are four important row postures: catch, drive, finish, and recover. Hit each one through the entire stroke, making sure to drive through your legs (not just pulling through the upper body). Also, keep your chest tall, shoulders down, and core engaged.
Lifting weights can also help you on climbs, specifically doing hamstring curls on a machine for the added weight. “In cycling we tend to be quad dominant,” Schenk-Trzcinski explains. Strengthening the hamstrings—the quads’ opposing muscles—builds balanced strength in the lower body, which allows for a more efficient pedal stroke.
Schenk-Trzcinski also suggests adding single-leg Romanian deadlifts with a dumbbell or kettlebell to your strength-training routine, as well as other weighted leg exercises, like lunges and squats.
Research backs up the benefits of strength training for cyclists, too. A 2021 study, published in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, found that both male and female cyclists gain advantages from strength training. Lifting weights did not compromise riding in any way, but instead improved power and efficiency in participants, according to the study.
Goal: Better Balance
To better prepare your body for unfortunate (and unlikely) accidents, Schenk-Trzcinski suggests strengthening the smaller stabilizing core muscles by swimming, lifting free weights, TRX workouts, and practicing dynamic balancing moves in yoga.
A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis published in Age and Aging found that yoga improves balance and mobility, particularly in people aged 60 and over.
More specifically, Schenk-Trzcinski suggests practicing vinyasa or flow yoga, during which you move from pose to pose in all three planes of movement. This pushes the body in ways being on the bike doesn’t, but will boost your confidence about remaining steady.