For cycling enthusiasts, ‘off-season’ – the season that one has to get off the saddle – can present something of an exercise crisis. It is widely acknowledged that cycling year round can be counterproductive and lead to more injuries and more wear and tear, possibly preventing the overzealous athlete from cycling properly next season. The solution, however, may lie in cross-training – throwing oneself into entirely different exercise and workout regimes between (and even within) seasons, in order to hone and enhance cycling skills and capacities.
The excellent news about cross-training is its sheer diversity. While there are some limitations to its scope (an elite cyclist is unlikely to improve his or her skills during off-season by playing darts), there is also a dizzying variety of alternative sports and exercises, all of which can contribute substantially to cycling acumen and stamina. Cross-training need not be confined to off-season – it can actively support and boost cycling capacity during peak season. For anyone who has become inured to the treadmill and the cycling machine at the gym, here are some intriguing alternative activities which will keep the cycling enthusiast in tip-top condition for next season. And this season, as it happens.
Cross Country Skiing
The undulating, forward thrusting motion of the cross country skier’s lower body is strikingly reminiscent of cycling action and provides a superb cardiovascular workout to boot. Athletes who are in the right climatic conditions might seriously consider this profoundly enjoyable sport as a significantly beneficial supplement to cycling. For those who are contemplating sun-baked (or rain-soaked) landscapes, however, similar effects can be obtained with the correct use of an elliptical cross-trainer at the gym. They are generally more enjoyable, demanding and exhilarating to use than the standard treadmill, and will reach the abdominals, hips and quads more effectively as well.
Ice Skating and Inline Skating
For the unfamiliar, inline skating involves similar hip, thigh and body movements to ice skating, which in turn are similar to cycling. The lower body movements involved in both ice skating and inline skating closely mimic those involved in cycling, but recruit other muscle groups as well – a variation which can coalesce to produce better cycling efficiency and performance. Any cyclist desiring to keep gluteal muscles (buttocks) and the quadriceps group (thigh muscles) in optimal shape should seriously consider these options. A comparable aerobic workout to running can be achieved with the most vigorous skating forms, without the pounding and jolting that striding the track imposes.
Some might preemptively dismiss running as boring and repetitive; in reality, it can more often be a jubilant and frankly addictive workout. It uses the same lower body muscle groups as cycling, but in subtly different ways. The differences become more pronounced if hill running becomes an option: this exercise recruits muscle groups that cycling and flat-surface running leave untouched, but will radically enhance athletic performance in both. It tends to be more aerobically demanding than cycling, which of course means that it will appreciably enhance cycling performance and endurance. Upper body exercise is also involved, especially those muscle groups which cycling often neglects – the shoulders, upper arm and upper back. Cyclists should note that running is an excellent adjunct to cycling.
Elite cyclist Jorel Hendershot puts his mountain bike into hibernation during the winter months. In Oceana, Michigan, where he lives, snow and ice drive the most committed cyclist into the indoor gym, no matter how powerful the peddling commitment and devotion may be. Jorel, however, has delved into an interesting alternative: the Korean martial art of Tae Kwan Do. This exercise involves intense discipline and focused attention and, practiced properly, delivers an excellent workout (900 calories per hour, to be precise). While it chiefly emphasizes powerful kicks, it also fosters agility, fast reflexes and significantly strengthens quadriceps, gluteals and hamstrings – all the muscles necessary for efficient cycling. Other martial arts, such as the many forms of Karate, or Kung Fu, Ju-Jitsu, Judo and Aikido, to name just a few, similarly foster mental focus, agility, quick reactions and core strength. One may not be able to earn a black belt in cycling, but it is possible to be a black belt who cycles.
An even more impressive calorie burn can be achieved with an hour’s squash (1080 calories, compared to 900 for Tae Kwan Do). It works shoulder muscles, all leg muscle groups, and encourages fast-responsiveness and agile hand-eye co-ordination. It is also a fantastic aerobic workout. A closely-run match, though, can be an exciting, uplifting joy, even for the ‘loser’. It is also a sport which yields satisfying skill progress with every single game – one can move from novice to passably deft proponent in a few matches.
For athletes accustomed to extreme aerobic workouts, this might seem like an anomalous choice. However, it can contribute significantly to cycling strength and efficiency. Practicing yoga poses for 15 minutes a day (or better still, attending yoga classes at least one to three times per week) will encourage strength, stamina and flexibility. The poses may not be immediately recognizable as relevant to cycling, but the physical results – greater suppleness, greater core strength, greater stamina, and a greater sense of calm – can all significantly enhance cycling performance. Yoga styles vary, from the almost sleep-inducing to the most heart-pounding. The cyclist should choose the style that fits best with personal fitness requirements during the off-season.
Cross-training: The Verdict
Cross training should not be viewed as an alternative hobby, something to fill in time while waiting for the cycling season to resume, but as a vital adjunct to optimal cycling performance. The range of sports to choose from is immense, and far exceeds the brief summaries outlined here. Other cyclists opt for soccer, surfing, baseball and ice-hockey. Cross training, in other words, should perhaps not be viewed as an off-season, second best alternative to cycling, but a valuable enhancement to the sport.