When athletes tell me they don't have many cross training options, I usually tell them that they're not looking hard enough. In truth, there are so many options and there is so little time before cycling once again becomes the focus of training. There's no way I can list everything, but I've tried to cover most of the ones that I have either tried myself or had athletes try. So here they are:
Running: Running is probably the most common cross training for cyclists because it is very easy to do. All you need is a pair of running shoes, which most people already own. Running can be done on almost any terrain and it's not dependant on daylight or weather. Since it is a weight bearing/impact sport, running also does a lot to improve bone density. The downside of running is that it's incredibly easy to get injured, especially for someone who is aerobically fit but whose muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments are not used to running. Tip: Spend the extra money and get your running shoes at a good running store. Have an expert recommend shoe options based on your running style. Start of with short and slow runs, gradually and patiently building up the time and pace. Stay on the trails, soft ground, a treadmill or track when possible if the pounding on hard ground bothers you.
Swimming: Though mastering swimming form is very difficult, even an inexperienced swimmer can get a good workout in. Swimming is also a great way to work on breathing, since breathing is directly tied to form. Indoor swimming is not dependent on daylight or weather, so it's easy to do before work or in the depths of winter. However, not everyone has access to a pool and some pools can be expensive or have limited availability. Tip: Sign up for a swim class or group/masters session. New swimmers can get tips on their form from a qualified instructor and experienced swimmers may benefit from the structure and social aspect.
Cross Country (Nordic) Skiing (Traditional): Cross-country skiing can be a fun way to get outside in the winter when snow does not permit cycling. Also, since impact is minimal, it's easy for even a novice to get a great workout. Unfortunately, cross country skiing is extremely dependent on weather, equipment and access to trails. Also, since traditional cross country skiing is done mostly one plane (forward-backward), it won't improve lateral/stabilizing muscle strength as much as skate skiing. Tip: Check out nearby ski resorts for cross country ski trails and rentals. Even if it's not your primary cross training, it's fun to try out once or twice in the winter time when you don't feel like bundling up for a cold ride.
In Line Skating/Speed Skating/Skate Skiing: These 3 are grouped together because they all involve a similar motion, which is a fantastic exercise for cyclists that works lateral and supporting muscles in the legs and hips. Not everyone will have access to speed skating or skate skiing facilities, but most have smooth bike paths or rinks to skate. Tip: If you are skating outdoors, wear knee pads, arm pads and a helmet. It will save you some skin and help you feel more confident so you can go faster.
Mountain Biking: Mountain biking is not only a great way for road cyclists to keep riding, but also a way for them to enjoy the change of scenery and the seclusion of the woods (which can be a pleasant change from battling traffic on the roads). It can help with bike handling and it's a good alternative to a long road ride when the mercury falls since the slower speeds and greater tree-cover mean less severe wind-chills. Though it's still a non-weight-bearing sport, the bouncing and jostling of mountain biking on rough and rocky trails can also improve bone density. Unfortunately, if you ride or race mountain bikes regularly the rest of the year, this doesn't count as cross training and if you don't already own a mountain bike, it might be tough to justify the cost of another bike that you only use a couple months a year. Tip: If you don't plan to race mountain bikes, you just want to try it for cross training and winter riding, check out a "Fat bike". Since the fat tires, rather than shocks, provide the suspension, the bikes are simple and $250 will buy you a lot of bike. Though they can be ridden on any terrain, fat bikes make the ideal bikes for riding on snow.
Cyclocross Racing: Although cyclocross has continued to grow in popularity in it's own right over the last 20 years, it started off as a way to stay in shape and keep top end fitness in the fall and winter. Much is made of the running/bike carrying aspect of cyclocross, but running is usually a very small part of any given cross race. Since cross bikes are similar in geometry to road bikes, racing cross can do a lot to improve cornering and general bike handling. Although cyclocross is still racing, it is a very fun, laid back and social racing environment, which of course, is in no small part a reason why it's so popular. Tip: If you've never been to a cross race before, come check one out. They are 30-60 minutes long and typically you can stand in one place and see 80% of the race. For the real action, stand near the barriers or run ups and heckle the racers (tastefully, of course!). You might decide that you want to try it out yourself, or you might decide that cross is best left to the crazies. Either way, you'll have a good time!
Weight Lifting (General): Lifting weights is a huge and controversial topic that I have written entire articles on in the past, so obviously I will only be scratching the surface here. Almost everyone has a gym close by and even if not, some simple, basic home equipment can be purchased for relatively little money. Many cyclists worry (and rightfully so) that they will spend many hours in the gym and see little if any direct benefit to their cycling. Worse yet, putting on a lot of extra bulk, especially in the upper body can actually hurt your cycling (climbing in particular). Tip: Make an appointment with a personal trainer at least once. Many gyms offer a free session as a bonus for new members. Make sure they understand that your goal is to become a faster cyclist, gain general strength without bulking up, and help prevent overuse injuries when riding.
Weight Lifting (Cycling Specific): I made this distinction because a weight training program that is specifically designed for cyclists looks very very different from one designed for bodybuilding or general fitness. A good cycling specific program should focus on core strength and correcting muscle imbalances. It should also include some exercises designed to improve explosive force. Most of all, strength training sessions should not require you to spend a massive amount of time in the gym, leave you feeling too sore to ride the next day or gain a lot of weight, especially in your upper body. Tip: Check out "Weight Training for Cyclists" (2nd edition) by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz. In my opinion, it's the best book out there on the subject and it outlines an excellent sample lifting program. Even with a good program though, it's still a good idea to spend a session or two with a personal trainer who can show you proper technique and give you some ideas for alternative exercises to mix it up a little.
Plyometrics: Plyometrics or "jump training" can be as simple as jumping rope or running stairs and as complex as following a specific set of jumps on and off of various plyo boxes or stands. This training can be incorporated into weight training workouts to add an explosive element or it can be done on it's own. Unlike squats, leg presses, step ups and other strength training exercises that target the primary cycling muscles but may not provide direct benefit when cycling, plyometric exercises have been shown to lead to direct improvement in sprinting and attacking ability. Tip: Impact is a double edged sword. On one hand, impact helps improve bone density. On the other hand, when there is impact, there is risk of injury, especially for those with back and joint issues. Make sure you wear supportive shoes and try to do these exercises at the beginning of a strength workout before your legs are overly fatigued.
CrossFit: CrossFit is a competitive fitness sport that borrows from elements of many forms of strength training including olympic lifting, calisthenics and high intensity interval training. Athletes use relatively simple equipment such as barbells, kettlebells, jump rope, medicine balls, resistance bands, gymnastics rings and plyo boxes to perform a range of exercises, usually with body weight or relatively low weight/resistance, but with an emphasis on explosive movement, number of repetitions and quick transitions between exercises. CrossFit is usually performed in special CrossFit facilities or certified gyms and because of it's popularity, most athletes won't have to travel far. For cyclists looking for a single form of cross training to do it all, CrossFit can be ideal. Two warnings however: 1. Since CrossFit is not cycling specific, cyclists may find that they put on extra muscle mass in places where it won't be particularly beneficial (e.g. biceps, shoulders) and 2. Many CrossFit workouts emphasize quantity over quality, which can lead to improper form, injury and possibly rhabdomyolysis. Tip: Always perform CrossFit under the supervision of a certified instructor. Before you sign up, talk to people that have been there and read the reviews. Not all instructors are equal.
TRX/Redcord/Suspension Training: Suspension training systems, the most popular of which is TRX, allow you to use your own body weight as resistance in various strength training exercises. Because movements are not stabilized, these workouts do an excellent job of working the lateral and stabilizing muscles that are used indirectly when cycling. However, as the makers of the RedCord system emphasize, suspension can also be used to isolate specific smaller or weaker muscles by taking load off of the larger and stronger muscles. Because of this, these systems have been used for the purpose of physical therapy and to correct muscular imbalances. While many gyms offer suspension training classes, these systems can also be purchased for home use. Tip: Check out the RedCord site for some really good cycling specific exercises.
Group Training Classes
Aerobics Classes: I have generalized a large and diverse number of group training classes here and I don't mean to imply that they are all the same, but each is a cardio-focused group training session that includes coordinated or choreographed movements and music. A look at my gym class schedule revealed "Aerobics Basics", "Calorie Crusher", "HipHop", "Zumba", "Latin Heat", "Cardio Jam", and "Step". These workouts will burn calories and help work many of the small and supporting muscles used in cycling with little risk of injury. They can also be a fun way to step outside your comfort zone, meet new people and try something different without spending a lot of money or making much commitment. Tip: If you are like me and you aren't a very coordinated dancer, find a friend to go with, preferably one who is a worse dancer. It might take the edge off your embarrassment!
Spinning Class: Spinning classes were first popularized in the 90s and there is a reason why they still enjoy great popularity today. In addition to burning a lot of calories, they may help improve certain cycling-specific movements and skills. Spin bikes use a heavy fixed flywheel, which means that, like a fixed gear bike, they can be very good for improving leg speed because you have to teach your legs to get out of their own way at high rpms. Of course, since it is basically cycling on a different bike, Spinning won't do much to help you work those lateral and supporting cycling muscles. Tip: Like many group workouts, the instructor makes all the difference. Unless you love doing push-ups on your handlebars and other ridiculous moves, try to find an instructor who has some experience riding an actual bike.
Body Sculpting/Cardio-Strength: This category includes a range of classes that combine weight lifting and calisthenics with cardio, balance and sometimes dance and yoga. Many of these focus on core strength and general muscle strength so they can be a good way to improve all-around strength if you are worried about weight gain or injury. Tip: If you like the idea of a group aerobics class but you don't love the idea of choreographed dancing, some of these classes might fit the bill.
Yoga: Perhaps the most popular group training in the world, yoga is everywhere. Yoga requires almost no special equipment and you can try a yoga class at a studio, a gym, at the park or in the privacy of your own home following along with a DVD or one of the many OnDemand yoga sessions most Cable TV providers offer. There are countless varieties of Yoga out there including Vinyasa (flow), Bikram (hot yoga) and Power Yoga. Though you probably won't burn a lot of calories doing yoga (with the possible exception of Bikram, which may have an unwanted side-effect of dehydration, there are few activities better for improving flexibility, focus and breathing. Tip: Learn a few basic yoga poses such as Down Dog, Cobra, Warrior pose, Cat-Cow and Child's pose. You can do them when you wake up in the morning, before you go to sleep, during the day on your lunch break or while watching TV.
Pilates: Though similar to yoga, pilates focuses on precisely controlled movements and poses that build core strength. There are two main categories of pilates: Mat Pilates, where participants use only their body weight and Board Pilates, where a special apparatus with bars and straps is used. Pilates classes are offered in many yoga studios and gyms. As with yoga, a number of pilates routines can be found on DVDs or OnDemand through most cable providers. Tip: If you like the emphasis on focus and breathing that yoga provides, but you want a little bit more of an ab workout, try pilates.
Hiking: Going out into the woods and taking a long walk can be a great way to get away from everything, work some of the supporting muscles (particularly in the feet and ankles), and it can be a surprisingly good workout, especially if you are hiking at high altitude or on reasonably technical trails. If you are really ambitious, plan a weekend or week-long backpacking trip. Just make sure that you have appropriate footwear, don't carry too much weight and be careful about twisting your ankle, which is surprisingly common with cyclists because they tend to lack lateral stability (which, ironically, is exactly what makes hiking a great cross training option). Tip: Before you decide to do that week long backpacking trip along the Continental Divide, take a few 3 hour hikes in the woods with all your gear on in order to help yourself adapt.
Downhill (Alpine) Skiing/Snowboarding: Though not the greatest aerobic workout, skiing or snowboarding can be a really fun way to improve lateral strength and it can do quite a bit to improve descending skills. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in an area that has the appropriate weather and terrain, and though rental equipment is readily available, a day on the slopes is not cheap, even at smaller resorts. Tip: Really good descenders don't simply drop their outside legs, they actively push down. This can seem counter-intuitive for some. In my opinion, the best way to master this concept of "carving a turn" is by doing a little downhill skiing in the winter.
Indoor Soccer: Soccer is the world's most popular sport, so there are soccer leagues everywhere and appropriate for just about every ability level. You may even be able to join a league with your co-workers. Admittedly, it might not be the greatest idea to jump into a soccer league if you have never played before, but it is a fun way to get a great workout, improve lateral and supporting muscle strength and there is a great social element too (in truth, many teams spend more time at the bar afterwards than actually playing). Tip: Be careful not to sprain your ankle. It's frighteningly easy, especially indoors where the surface doesn't give at all like it does outdoors on real grass. Taking a tumble on an indoor playing field can also be quite painful.
Boxing/Kick Boxing: To clarify, I am not suggesting that you actually become enter the ring in a boxing match, ultimate fighting or MMA competition (although to each his own). I am talking about taking a boxing or kickboxing class. There are a centers that specialize entirely on boxing and kickboxing, such as Joltin Jabs, near where I live in Philadelphia. For most people though, the easiest way to try it would be through your gym. In truth, I could have placed these in the category of cardio/strength group training, but I chose to put it under it's own heading because there is also an explosive element, which could help with sprinting and attacking as well as a self-defense element, which can help your confidence, especially when walking the streets alone at night. Tip: Few activities provide better stress relief than punching and kicking someone (or even a punching bag for that matter). It can also serve as couples therapy!
As I said at the beginning, there's no way I can cover every cross training option, but I would love to hear from you if you feel like there is something else I didn't list that works particularly well as cross training for cyclists. With so many options, you certainly don't have to choose only one, but it's equally true that you can't do them all. In the next (and final!) part of this series, I will talk about how to determine your specific needs and choose what is best for you.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!