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


Summer Training – The Build Up

Cross-country skiing is a primarily aerobic sport. The best way to develop your aerobic system, and even your higher end fitness (V02 max and lactate threshold) is with easy to moderate (60 to 80% of max heart-rate) intensity distance (45min to 2hr) sessions. This type of training comprise about 80% of the training load, even for elite ski racers.

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This being true, it is also the case that the training week should be built around one to three harder training sessions. A harder training session is either a short hard session or a long easy session.

For instance many programs are built around two interval sessions and one long (3hr) easy (heart rate around 70% of max) session. Your body adapts to a certain stress after 4 to 6 weeks and so if you don’t change that stress, doing what you have already been doing will only serve to maintain what you have built.

It can be helpful to look toward your racing season and plan backward. You should end up with a plan that builds toward the racing season. The basic idea is to build your aerobic base over the summer, work on more race like aerobic and anaerobic fitness in the fall and early winter, and race fast in the winter.

In the summer then you would consider doing mostly easy to moderate intensity workouts with one session a week of harder training, and some strength training. As the summer/fall/early winter goes on you extend the duration of the workouts gradually, making sure you get lots of rest so that you are getting stronger and feeling better rather then getting more and more tired as the summer goes on.

There is a lot of training material out there, but this is the basic idea: training breaks the body down, rest builds it back to a level higher than before training. Remember REST builds the body up.



Correlate Training Intensity to Consistent Race Intensities

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 2.04.55 PMTo preface, it is important to note that everyone is different and any “correlation” have deviation. Some athletes have a narrow heart rate range (130-170bpm) while others have a very broad range (100-200bpm). Using a percentage scale on these two extreme situations makes it challenging for both the coach and the athlete. This is why we test blood lactate and/or VO2/CO2 kinematics. We are ample to achieve thresholds and estimated break points to set training zones. We encourage you to do the following in the mean time to set your training zones:

  • VO2 max training is approximately equivalent to a steady state max effort for a race lasting 12 minutes.
  • Determine your heart rate/ effort for a steady state for a 30minute event. This is a good level 4 pace for this time of the year and the really hard VO2 max efforts can be added in October or November to dial things up a notch.
  • Determine your heart rate/effort for a steady state 45-90min time trial. This effort is approximately equivalent to your lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold. This is your level 3 pace.
  • Finding MAX Heart Rate – This is painful, but do a couple L4 intervals to work up and then find a steep hill of about 60-90 seconds long and sprint up it as hard as you can. This will get your max HR. Personally, I don’t think finding one’s max HR is that important if you have a good understanding of HR at the 3 previous paces above.

Bryan Fish / CXC Academy Advisor, U.S. Ski Team Continental Cup Coach



Having Hard Time Running in Level 1 for Long Distances

Q: I am having a hard time running in Level 1 for long distances. Just feels too easy. Do I need to stay in this level for 70-90 percent or can I jump to Level 3?

A: I am familiar with your hesitance with HR levels. As a skier, I was trained to always follow my heart rate. As a runner in college, there was a much higher focus on distance and time (speed). There seems to be a conflict between these two philosophies.

As I have never coached a running team, I will explain the philosophy behind the HR based training that we use on the skiing side of things. In an ideal situation, an athlete will go through physiological testing at the beginning of a season. These tests usually include a VO2 Max test and a Blood Lactate test. There are a lot of data that you can glean from these tests, but perhaps the most important are the specific heart rates associated with our training levels (1-5). These values can very greatly from athlete to athlete due to differences in anatomy, previous training experience, etc. My level 1 is especially high, topping out at 151bpm. If I were to follow a traditional “guideline” hr for level 1, I would barely be moving!

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 1.09.12 PMOnce those values are established, it is very important to stick within those training zones. We keep easy days very easy in order to push ourselves harder on the intensity days. There is a very simple truth that if you constantly train at a moderately fast speed, you will only ever achieve a moderately fast speed. An easy workout is designed to allow for recovery while still building an aerobic base. If we are running or skiing at a slightly faster speed you enter a “no-mans land” of sorts, where you are not recovering from a previous day’s hard work out, but you are also not working hard enough to challenge and push your anaerobic threshold.

In short, if you are basing level one workouts off of a general HR prediction, it very well could be too easy for you. If it is within your zone, we do want to keep our easy workouts in that heart rate range.

Hope this helps!



Shouldn’t all levels be based on the training heart rate ranges instead of the simple maximum of heart rate?

Q: The description of the different levels of intensity L1 to L5 seem to be based on percent of maximum heart rate and not on training heart rate ranges (using HRR). Is this correct? Shouldn’t all levels be based on the training heart rate ranges instead of the simple maximum of heart rate?

A: Different coaches have different philosophy on it. Most of the time intensity levels come out very similar regardless of what method is used to determine them. Some coaches like to use HHR, some lactate, some VO2, and some just a simple % of the max HR. In other words, they all work.