The Benefits of Cross-Training in Winter

Editor's Note: Coach John Hughes reports that his cross-training regime of two weeks ago included two good days XC skiing, a fun day riding with a buddy and the next day falling off a ladder and breaking his right ankle and fibula. He'll be doing a different sort of cross-training for a while. He's non-weight bearing on his right leg for 6 weeks and is in rehab learning how to gimp around on crutches. He plans to be back on his bike by summer. Toddy, we're running an updated version of a column he wrote a couple winters ago.


By Coach John Hughes

I turned 67 years old this year and rather than just riding 67 miles on my birthday I decided to climb both sides of the three paved Colorado passes that are over 12,000 ft. (I live in Boulder, Colorado.)

I reached my goal on October 10, when I climbed Independence Pass, which includes 3,240 ft. of climbing, up to 12,096 ft. By the time I reached my riding goal, and with winter looming, I was tired of riding. We can ride all winter around Boulder, but it’s riding on the plains and – to me, at least – rather boring, and often not in ideal conditions. I prefer to cross-train through the winter anyway, still riding occasionally but not exclusively, so I turned my sights to something else I enjoy.

Cross-country ski season was only six weeks or so away. I started working out on both lower and upper body strength. I did balance drills, since good skiing results from shifting my weight fully from one ski to another. I kept riding for endurance and climbing local hills for power.

I’m writing on Sunday morning, which will be day 15 of my ski season, and there’s 8” of fresh snow outside the window. We’re in the mountains all week — it’s going to be a good season!

As much as I love XC skiing, though, even during ski season I do technique drills on the trainer for no more than half an hour at a time to maintain my muscle memory.

I’ll keep skiing until sometime in March and when cycling season starts I’ll have:

  1. Had a fun ski season with my wife, who doesn’t ride.
  2. Great endurance from multi-hour skis.
  3. Strong quads and glutes, the primary cycling muscles, from skiing uphill.
  4. Great aerobic capacity from many days of skiing at altitude.
  5. Fresh excitement for riding, rather than feeling a bit worn down mentally from riding in crappy conditions or needing a break and not taking one.

Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are “cross-training” and benefit my cycling. However, Nos. 1 and 5 are the most important reasons I do something different than riding all winter.

Myriad Benefits of Cross-Training

The various exercise options listed below all include one or more of the beneficial aspects of cross-training:

Build Endurance: Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11 build general endurance that will translate well to cycling next spring.

Increase Leg Strength: Numbers 2, 7, 8, 11 and 12 are all good options.

Maintain Strong Bones: Numbers 4, 5, 6 and 9 all generate enough impact to help keep your bones strong.

Develop Good Balance: Numbers 1, 4, 8 and 9 all require more balance than riding your road bike.

Plenty of Cross-Training Options

If riding this winter is for any reason more of a chore than a pleasure (nasty conditions, desire for more family time, need for a mental or physical break, HATE the trainer), then try one or more of these activities:

  1. Mountain biking.  Because of the constantly changing terrain, this requires different physical and mental skills than riding on the road. If you pick a suitable trail or path, this can also be a family adventure.
  2. Hiking. This, too, can be a great family activity, with the distance and pace geared to the whole family. Pack a lunch, extra warm clothing and explore a different environment. Carrying your pack will also help to build leg strength and stronger bones. If you have knee trouble, get a pair of walking poles to help with your balance, particularly while descending.
  3. Walking.  No local trails? Plan a walk through new neighborhoods to a café and then take a shorter route (or the bus!) home. Walk after dinner with your significant other (and take the dog), which will give you more time to talk together than if you were grinding away on the trainer alone.
  4. Social dancing. For those of us over 50, weight-bearing activities are important for strong bones, and cycling doesn’t do it. Even at a full sprint, the load on your leg bones is less than walking! And you can have fun with your partner!
  5. Walk/jog.  If you like to measure your progress, this is the activity for you. Start by walking 5 minutes, running 1 minute, walking 5 minutes, running 1 minute, etc. Keep cutting down the walking time and increasing the running time.
  6. Run.  Already a runner? Look for new places to run, perhaps on trails instead of asphalt. Enter a few low-key events.
  7. Snowshoe.  For those of you who live in the snow belt, this is just like hiking except you strap on snowshoes, which can be rented at many sports shops. Cheap backcountry XC ski poles will help you keep your balance. Snowshoeing is hard work because you’re lifting the snowshoes with every step and may have the added resistance of fresh snow – which adds to the beauty and enjoyment! Carry a pack with more warm clothes and a hot drink for winter comfort and also to help develop leg strength.
  8. Cross-country skiing. In Colorado both roadie and MTB racers cross-country ski in the winter because it carries over so directly to cycling. When we get a good snow we ski in North Boulder Park. If it snows in your area you can ski, even if you don’t have a ski area with groomed trails. Carry a pack with more warm clothes and a hot drink for winter comfort and also to help develop leg strength.
  9. Team sports. Basketball, racquetball and other 2-person or team sports are good ways to up the enjoyment factor while getting a good workout. When you move, you move fast, so these really get your heart rate up there and build leg power; however, because the action is intermittent they don’t do as much for endurance as the activities above.
  10. Swimming.  Moving through water gets your heart rate up, improves your flexibility and can be very relaxing. However, because it doesn’t really work the primary cycling muscles, use it to complement the above.
  11. Aerobic exercise equipment. Gyms have all kinds of aerobic exercise devices besides stationary bikes (such as treadmills, elliptical machines, rowing machines, etc.). My knee was crushed years ago so I can’t even jog. To get ready for ski season I’ll get on the treadmill (another word for monotonous) and do a pyramid. Every minute I either increase the speed or the incline until I can’t go any harder, and then I’ll work my way back down the pyramid the same way. Almost all gym machines have built-in programs you can use to change the pace and avoid the boredom.
  12. Strength training. The above work on aerobic and muscular endurance, but aren’t intense enough (unless you go really hard) to develop muscle strength, the necessary precursor to building power in the spring. You don’t have to go to the gym; with the right exercises you can use primarily body weight.

My website has strength, core and stretching programs, and RBR offers numerous eArticles and eBooks on those and other cross-training topics.


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

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