Substituting Cycling for Skiing During Training and Competition

I used to compete in a few mountain biking, triathlon and trail running race events in the summer months when I was a ski competitor. Each competitor will find balance between competition and training. Competition is an opportunity to test how well training is progressing as well as provide opportunities to test our tactical strategies in a real race setting. I found through experience that there is a balance that one must find between competition and training. Maintaining peak race fitness unfortunately can not be done all year long, so preparation, pre-competition and competition phases are necessary to develop, identify and plan out in your training.

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Bryan Fish, U.S. Cross Country Ski Team Development Coach

My primary sport was always skiing and hence the summer events (namely mountain races and trail running races) were means of breaking up the standard mode of ski training to keep things fresh both mentally and physically.

First, it’s critical to set priorities. Is cyclo-cross going to become your primary sport in that period or is cyclo-cross a means of training for cross country skiing? The difference here will be the number of work outs that will be substituted from ski training to cycling. There are not right or wrong priorities here, but it is important to set what your priorities are for the upcoming year.

Secondly, timeline is also important. What are the dates cyclo-cross competitions will take place? Cyclo-cross is September through mid-December here in the US and Cyclo-Cross World Cup is Sept-early February.

It is important to understand what systems of the body are trained similar and different when evaluating cycling and skiing. There are a few key ideas to keep in mind as you substitute cycling for skiing during some of your training and competition.

The cardio-respiratory system is the mechanism that transports blood, oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. This system is a pump and is increased and decreased with effort. This system is not sport specific and hence going hard on the bike and hard on skis is not recognized by the cardio-respiratory system. Hard is hard regardless of the sport. This is important as it relates to substitution of training modality.

The peripheral skeletal system does recognize differences in modality of training. The movements and muscles (motor units) recruited for cycling versus skiing are different. It is also important to understand how motor units are recruited. The body recruits slow twitch (aerobic) at low intensity and an additional contribution of fast twitch (anaerobic) motor units are added as intensity increases. The percentage of fast twitch to slow twitch motor unit recruitment continuously increases as intensity increases. Therefore we need to train both low intensity and high intensity for both sports. The priority will go to the sport you are presently participating in.

Following the lines of point number 2, cycling is generally non-weight bearing while skiing is a weight-bearing activity. This means that a majority of the time is spent in the bike saddle. The core and particularly lower abdominals and hips are worked differently in the saddle versus activities that are weight-bearing (standing up) like running and skiing. Cyclo-cross has more weight-bearing activities due to the dismounting, running and pedaling out of the saddle. In short, the movements and muscles (motor units) recruited are somewhat different.

Competition duration. Race time is a critical aspect to look at as well. 5km running races are like max VO2 efforts while most cycling races are over an hour (and often 1.5 to 3 hours) long. Bike racing requires a strong emphasis on threshold while a 5 km running race places the emphasis on max VO2. Substituting threshold training with cycling efforts is important.

Two efforts that are critical to substitute skiing for cycling is the threshold training and over distance training. Cycling events require a high demand on the aerobic system and threshold. It is important to get in continuous hours both at low and high intensity on the bike.

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Bryan Fish, U.S. Cross Country Ski Team Development Coach


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