How to Train for Cyclocross

Fiona Morris
Various Contributors
Whether you are a seasoned cyclocross racer that eats ruts for breakfast, stepped up to the line a few times and want to get to the next level, or thinking about entering your first race ever, it’s time to get down and dirty and start training.

Get Started with Skills and Drills

Unlike road racing, exceptional fitness doesn’t always lead to a top place finish. With cross, it also comes down to your technical ability on the bike and capacity to maintain composure during the final laps when you’re totally gassed. On any given week in the lead up to and during the cyclocross season, you will find the best racers in the world incorporating these skills sessions into their weekly training. 

Regardless of your level or ability, you should always be incorporating skills sessions into your training program. If you’re just getting started, there are some fundamental skills you’ll need to practice to get comfortable on your bike in tricky terrain. Once a proper foundation has been established, you’ll confidently start progressing to more technical skills that bring a wider understanding of how far you can push your bike. Wherever you’re at, you should always touch up on the basics at the beginning of every season to make sure you’re dialled.


Five Key Skills to Master for Cyclocross

01. Cornering

A crucial skill to learn, but one that takes a lot of practice. To learn the basics of going “tape-to-tape” and “apexing” the corner, be prepared to push yourself and your comfort zone to new levels. Once you have the basic concept, you’ll be able to apply those building blocks to different corner types as well as cornering on variable surfaces.

02. Dismount and Remount

This is one of the fundamentals of cyclocross. You’ll be hard pressed to find a course where you don’t have to get off and on your bike. As a beginner to the sport, this will be your bread and butter in technical sections. At an advanced level, this should feel as natural as breathing when racing.

03. Bunnyhopping

Potentially the most difficult skill to learn but one that will make a massive difference over barriers, stairs, logs and other obstacles caused by uneven surfaces across the course. If you have grown up riding bikes, especially starting on a BMX bike, you may already have this as a little trick up your sleeve. For those a little newer to cycling, it’s something that can seem mind-bendingly impossible. But don’t despair; it’s totally possible to break it down step-by-step and progress from the basics of the skill right through to mastering it.

04. Shouldering or Lifting your bike

Mastering this skill will not only save you time and energy during a race, but it will save your body from a whole lot of aches, pains and potential bruises post-race. The technique can feel quite unnatural at first, but once you have it dialled you will wonder how you ever managed to get through a race without it.

05. Start Sprints

Unlike road racing where the bunch “rolls out”, cyclocross starts are an all out sprint for the first corner. In a big field of riders, the start can make or break your race. If you miss a pedal on the line, start in the wrong gear, or are just not naturally a “good” starter, you can find yourself at the back of the pack struggling to move forward while the front of the race literally rides away from you.


3 Training Programs for the CX Season

As the CX season kicks off in autumn, you’ve more than likely been enjoying plenty of riding in the summer sunshine and for those a little more advanced perhaps even a few criterium races too. Now, it’s time to make your training more specific to cyclocross’ short sharp bursts of high intensity. Here are three training sessions and a selection of tips to make sure you're ready to perform at your best regardless of your category or grade.

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Training Session 1

20/40 Speed Intervals

20 seconds on, 40 seconds off x 8

5 minute recovery of just spinning the legs

Repeat 2 times for beginners, 3 times for intermediate and 4 times for advanced

20-30 minute cool down

Speed Intervals are high cadence VO2's at 110rpms or greater.

Starting with a hard acceleration, settle into a high cadence, focusing on your form and breathing. You should feel this as a cardio workout initially and as you progress through the session you will feel fatigue in your legs. That’s when you know you’re doing it right.

This session is best performed on a flat looped circuit of uninterrupted piece of road.

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Training Session 2

VO2-Zone 4-VO2

30 minute warm up

4 minutes, perform as 30 seconds max effort (VO2), back off to your Zone 4 for 3 minutes then finish with another 30 seconds max effort (VO2) x 4

3 minute recovery of just spinning the legs

Repeat 1 times for beginners, 2 times for intermediate and 2-3 times for advanced

30 minute cool down

VO2 is not a sprint. It’s a maximal and repeatable sustained effort for the time specified.

Your Zone 4 is a sustained effort that is moderately fatiguing and mentally taxing. When you’re in this zone, you’ll find it difficult to hold a continuous conversation and your breathing will be deep and rhythmic.

This session is best performed on a 3-5% gradient hill, make sure it is at least as long as the prescribed effort.

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Training Session 3

Fast Pedals & Hill Attacks

20-30 minute warm up

2 minute fast pedals

Recover 2 minutes

Repeat 4 times for beginners and 6 times for intermediate and advanced

Recover for 10 minutes before starting the second half of the session (or longer if you need to change locations for the second session)

35 second hill attacks x 4, recovering 2 minutes between each interval

5 minute recovery of just spinning the legs

Repeat 1 time for beginners, 2 times for intermediate and 3 times for advanced

40 minute cool down

Fast pedals are a high cadence at 100rpm or greater performed seated in an easy-mid gear. This is for you to work on peddling mechanics rather than power output, so focus on a clean cadence over brute force.

Hill attacks are performed in a higher gear, starting out of the saddle for 10-15 seconds and then settling into the saddle and continuing with a high power output for the remainder. These will fatigue your legs and have you breathing heavily. You might not thank me in the moment, but you’ll be better because of it.

The fast pedals session is best performed on a flat piece of road, grass, or gravel. And the hill attacks are best on a 3-6% gradient. You want to make sure both are at least as long at the prescribed effort.


Cyclocross Training in the Bag

You should now have a fairly thorough understanding of how to train for cyclocross. Your next steps are to put together a plan that works for you, and most importantly stick to it!

If you have any questions, or are stuck on any of the training sessions feel free to DM me on Instagram @__blonde___. The spirit of cross is all about community and the more people racing cross and getting muddy the better!

Good luck at your next race!