General fitness and training for cyclocross

You’ve done your first couple of races and the bug of cross is beginning to grip you, but now you’re starting to think how you are going to get faster and move up the field.

How do you go about it?

Before you start looking at Sven Nys’ training programme you need to consider a number of things :-

  1. How much time you can set aside to train?
  2. What do you need to work on?
  3. Realistically where you are in terms of fitness?
  4. Where you can train?
  5. Are there any other people you can train with?
  6. Diet


Time is critical for most of us, juggling work, family and all the things in life that need our attention. Identify those times in your weekly schedule that you can devote to training. When looking at the time you have, spread it out over the week allowing yourself time to recover and remember a 20 min slot is better than nothing. And two 20 minute slots are better still! However, don’t make the mistake of jumping from little or no training to hours and hours of training or fatigue and injury may quickly be with you.

Now is a good time to get a training diary, begin to log your sessions, how you felt and the results of your races once the season starts.

Plan your sessions

Now you have your time organised you need to determine what your training needs to consist of. In ‘cross, the basic physical attributes can be summarised thus:

  • Stamina – are you able to last the length of race? And continue to make efforts when fatigued?
  • Speed – off the line, out of corners, finishing straight. Is your speed letting you down?
  • Skills – 1 hour a week will pay dividends come race day.
  • Ability to run – if you are going to improve your race position in races deep into the season as the winter weather bites, you are probably going to need to do some running. Yep, you heard it here first… We’ll cover this in the ‘Cross Specific training section.


Cross is a pretty short high intensity event, but you need to build a good base of fitness to allow your body to last the hour’s duration of your race (or 40 mins plus a lap if you’re a Vet or Woman racer). July and August are good months to get some long steady rides in, on the road but importantly also on your cross bike, off road. This will condition your body for the rigours of cross and help to develop and hone your skills. Find trails, woods, tracks across moorland – anywhere where the surface is rougher and hopefully muddier.

A good investment would be a heart rate monitor, ideally a Garmin or similar, that can record your ride as well as your heart rate. Base miles should be steady, at 60% max heart rate as this brings the added bonus of burning fat too. The high octane fast stuff can wait until the season is nearer and the need for intervals becomes important.

Of course if you are racing road or mountainbike during the summer, you will have a good level of fitness already, but don’t neglect that time to slow things down a bit and build your base. If you are training for the 4-5-6 hour 3 Peaks Cyclocross at the end of September it should be a given that you will be putting in some longer, tougher rides and should arrive in the main winter cx season with superb fitness. Just watch out for that 1st 1 hour ‘cross race after the 3 Peaks – it can be a bit of a shock to the system…


Off the start line, out of corners and the finish line speed, or the ability to generate speed is critical. Working some short high intensity sessions into your training is crucial, include some speed work once a week even in a base building phase. Turbo trainers are ideal for short sprint training an example session good for ‘cross might cover 10 mins warm up then five repetitons of a 20 second sprint with 40 seconds easy after, followed by 3 mins rest & repeated for 3 sets in total. Cool down for ten minutes and you’re done. Over a period of weeks you can increase the length of the sprints to 30 seconds with 30 seconds rest then 40 seconds sprints 20 seconds rest.


See our skills pages for techniques – an hour’s practice on these skills will improve your performance dramatically. Decide which needs the most work and prioritise this in your training. Skills training is also surprisingly tough, physically. Wear a heart rate monitor whilst you are repeatedly jumping on and off the bike and you’ll notice how high your heart rate goes. Getting these techniques nailed in training will mean that when you are physically at your limit in a race, you can perform the necessary skills under pressure.

Somewhere to train

It’s perfectly possible to get fit for and race ‘cross on a diet of road and turbo trainer, often done in the hours of darkness. But, if you have the opportunity and space in your schedule, a little time spent training in the great outdoors, even in the depths of winter, can be very useful. As our partner Greg May from Stoic Focus Coaching says – ‘if you want to race in the suck, you have to train in the suck’. To this end, it is well worth scoping out an early morning/pre-work or lunchtime venue, however small, where you can do a weekly skills and interval session, outdoors, in the mud and rain, in the suck… Over the years, we’ve seen some awesomely strong, turbo-trained riders who have struggled miserably when things got slippy in the corners. Straight-line speed wasn’t an issue for them, staying upright at speed was. Which takes us onto..

The Wednesday Worlds ‘Cross Sessions

It doesn’t have to be a Wednesday (though it is a good day for it), it doesn’t have to be a big group, organised or even vaguely structured but it does need to contain you, a friend or two and some competition. For eons, especially in Belgium, Holland and America, the concept of a group skills and interval ‘cross session has become the cornerstone of many riders training. When it’s chucking it down,  prior arrangement to meet a friend or two to train outside is harder to break and the element of competition, hard to replicate on your own. See if you have a local Wednesday World’s session you can join. Or better still, start your own and get everybody to come to your little ‘cross training area.


We’re not even going to begin to lecture you on your diet – there’s a million websites and books out there for that. The only rules for a ‘cross diet are don’t swallow too much mud or puddle water, wash your muddy face after a race but before eating post race junk food and make sure you know your Dubbel from your Triple. Assuming you drink Belgian beer, which is largely non-negotiable if you really want to be a cyclocross rider.

Fluent in Cross can offer you sample training sessions as well as bespoke coaching programmes. Please contact us for further details…