FF5: Cross-Training for Cyclotouring  (Summer 2011)


A Daunting Task

    Training for cyclotouring is tough ‘cause nobody can dedicate the same number of hours per day to their preparation for a week long or multi-month long cycling trip as they will be riding during the event. Compromises must be made like when I trained for a marathon in the 1980’s: I was instructed to only train to 20 miles and on event day to crank-out the extra 6.2 miles on grit. It worked, but it was tough and cyclists also resort to doing the extra miles on will power and determination.

    Touring as we did for 9-10 months at a time, we didn’t worry too much about conditioning because we had enough time to strengthen en route and we weren’t concerned with riding speed. We learned that there were 3 components to our success on the road: good bikes, lots of experience, and good training. And we quickly became convinced that the first 2 of the 3 were enough for us to head out after 2-3 months of minimal urban cycling at home and still cope.

    If we were doing a pass in the first days of the season, we would have to break the climb into several short days, but we could do it.  The beginning of our riding season in 2005 was just such a year: we summited in the Pyrenees of Andorra our first week in the saddle but broke the short, steep ride into 3 manageable days.  We didn’t mind going slowly or riding shorter distances as long as we didn’t hurt ourselves and the good bikes and experience were ample insurance against injury.

    The summer of 2011 was different however. Our touring season was cut to less than 3 months and we’d be riding in the mountains on the first days. Normally by the time we arrived in the Alps we would have been touring for months and so would reach our peak fitness as we were entering the mountains. But this year we’d almost begin our tour in the Alps and we did worry about injuring our most vulnerable areas, our knees and our backs.

In addition, our early riding would be interrupted with a string of hiking days, making de-conditioning a recurring problem.

Surprise, Surprise!

    But rather than fret once on the road, we were stunned with our performance every riding day of our first week on the loaded bikes once back in Europe:  every day we did so much better than ever before.  There were no start-up wobbles the first hours; our average speed was immediately higher than our usual; and we felt strong.  We were baffled because we hadn’t been on loaded bikes for 6 months and still had jet lag.    

    Still scratching our heads and trying to understand what was going on, we were really blown away when on Day 5 we rode from the little town of Sillian, Austria to Brunico, Italy--a 30 mile, mostly grit-surfaced route with 1000’ elevation gain we’d done last October and a couple of times before. There were 2 difficult pitches on the last half of that route that we both vividly remembered as we approached them and yet this time we were over them before they became hard. We arrived in Brunico exhilarated early in the afternoon instead of exhausted in the late afternoon, which was our usual pattern. We were dumbfounded.


So That’s What It Was

    We knew we’d ridden more miles per week when at home in 2011 than previous years (except for a 2 month hiking break in the US SW) and a change in routine had demanded a bigger long ride each week of 2½ hours.  But we finally concluded it was the change in our cross-training, not the change in our cycling, that had given us an unprecedented performance boost. 

    Our greater power and ease on the loaded bikes when we picked them up in Vienna in late June had to be due to the 2 months of daily use of our new “P90X Extreme Home Fitness” DVD set.  I never thought I’d stand in front of a TV to exercise but the training diversity in this program had me immediately hooked. I was noticeably stronger in the saddle before the end of the first week of daily workouts, primarily from improved core strength, and after a week in Europe, we became convinced it was what also made the difference for us on loaded bikes.

Learning to love what exercise bands can do for us.

Darn It Anyway   

    We were stunned: we had clearly missed the boat on cross-training our entire lives. What a shame that it took us until we were 60 years old to recognize an effective cross-training routine for our sports endeavors. We thought yoga and walking were sufficient adjuncts to our cycling, but they were not. We finally understood that our cross-training should have had a similar intensity to our cycling but should have been achieved off the bikes.  And how bizarre: I was doing the P90X routine to check “resistance training” off the ‘should’ list, not to cross-train for cyclotouring.

A Near-Perfect Fit

    Impressively, the P90X program provided the right mix to support our cycling, both in its intensity and its variety of activities. The Plyometrics day is about an hour of exercises springing from the forefoot or balls of the feet. We presumed that this routine was dynamite for our medial quads, which tend to be underdeveloped in cyclists and that resulting imbalance in the thigh muscles can cause knee problems. Nearly all of the routines enhanced core strength and the program has a strong bias towards building upper body strength, both of which are needed for loaded touring. And even the extra-long yoga segment pushes one’s CV fitness for about half of the set.

    The P90X routines added about 8 hours of moderate fitness activity to our week, which about doubled our workout time for the week when at home. But we knew from our touring experience that doubling our time on the bikes doesn’t deliver the kind of strength and power gains we received from the DVD workouts.

    I’d always wondered how other cyclists did so well on their short loaded tours and well-targeted cross-training must be the answer. Of course we ride with more weight than most and consider ourselves at the low end when it comes to athletic talent but their superior cross-training likely explained almost all of the rest of the performance differences.

A relative-rest stretch of a via ferrata.

    The all-round nature of the enhanced fitness we enjoyed from the P90X program was also immediately evident on our first training hike in the Dolomites. I have a favorite hike in Selva that I use for our relative-rest day workouts. When I’m conditioned for hiking, I can charge up the rocky trail on the 2,000’ face in about an hour. On our first hiking day in 2011 we matched that time and felt stronger while doing it than in the past. (My heart rate averaged 143 beats/minute over the 1 hour effort, including 11 minutes on the relatively flat approach.) In prior years it would take several re-training outings to achieve the speed and ease we enjoyed on the first assault this year. We also were dazzled by our significantly better upper and lower body strength when climbing up the sheer faces of one of the more difficult Via Ferrata routes we do from the same village.

Making It Even Better

    Unfortunately for me, the P90X routines hadn’t addressed the arm adduction strength that I needed for top performance on my loaded bike. “Adduction” is pulling the limbs in towards your midline. Your thigh muscles adduct or squeeze inwards to keep you on a bike saddle when turning or when riding a horse. Adduction with the arm occurs when you squeeze to hold an object under your arm to free your hands.

    I discovered how important arm adduction was on our first low pass on our third riding day of the 2011 season. The P90X workouts tuned up my arm strength nicely for the same amount of gain on the first full riding day--a little over 1000’--but that day hadn’t required as much endurance in those muscles because the route was up and down. The pass on the 3rd day however was all up and demanded an hour of sustained arm adduction to keep my bike steady on the near-constant incline in traffic. There was no road shoulder at all and there were plenty of trucks out so I had to be precise with my bike handling. I became anxious from wondering if my arms could sustain the effort or if I’d suddenly veer off my line from fatigue. My arms hung in there to get me to the top of the pass but ached the rest of the day even when on flat bike path out of traffic because of the sustained isometric effort on the pass.

    So, next time in addition to cross-training with P90X, I’ll add band work to strengthen my arm adductors to prepare for loaded touring. We are guessing that wrapping an exercise band across my upper back and holding both ends in the hands with my arms in riding position would do the trick.  Pulling the bands in from a position away from the body until the arms are in line with the shoulder should strengthen the adductors. Doing rep’s with a several second hold when my arms are closest to my torso would probably help build the needed muscles. Performing rep’s to train muscles for isometric holding isn’t ideal but it’s a start and it should be enough to drop my terror on the first passes to a tolerable level.

    This first pass of the season also highlighted for me that more hand strength would have been welcome. Ideally one loosely holds, rather than grips, the handle bars when riding but steep ascends and descends with a load can demand gripping. It’s easy to feel like I’m steering a run-away truck when flying down a pass and the constant braking is wearing on the hands, even with disc brakes. Using a hand grip exerciser a few weeks before touring would likely be a sufficient tune-up to prevent my first-week hand fatigue.

Other Options

   It only took doing the P90X workouts at home for a few days for us to consider ourselves extremely lucky to have stumbled upon them. They immediately met our expectation of adding serious resistance training to our lives and the variety of activities made it something we knew we could stick with.  What was totally unexpected however was how well the program prepared us for cyclotouring.

   We are thrilled that the P90X workouts give us an excellent cross-training program but are totally lacking in confidence that we can judge the effectiveness of other cross-training regimes in the future.  We feel like the cross-training beginners that we are. And we aren’t even sure which of the workouts in the P90X series are the most critical for us in maintaining our touring form.  We are resigned to relying on trial and error to select the most important workouts for us and for finding other workout options down the road.

The Next Challenge

    Now that we have learned what it feels like to cross-train effectively for cyclotouring, our current challenge is to sprinkle in some cross-training while we are touring. Clearly we benefit while on the bikes from conditioning we can only get off the bikes but we need to do that extra conditioning in a way that doesn’t hinder our power on hard riding days.  For example: I’m convinced that off-bike strengthening of my arm adductors will help me be more stable when pedaling up a long pass, but if I do the strength work the day before the pass, those fatigued muscles will be weaker instead of stronger when I’m on the road.

    Cross-training while touring will put more pressure on Bill’s route planning too because we’ll need to know 1-2 days in advance how close each day’s ride will take us to our edge. A string of city or museum days will be obvious choices for do the hardest cross-training workouts, whereas we’ll skip the extra workouts altogether on hard days and the prior day. More than likely we’ll best know in hindsight what we should have done.

    The 1 to 1½ hour P90X workouts will be great for the hard workout days and we’ve started experimenting with “10 Minute Trainer” workouts by the same personal trainer. The sets have snappy 2 minute warm-ups and 2 minute cool-downs and the 5 different 10 minute routines can be done individually or “stacked” for 20 or more minutes of CV and strength training. It will take experimenting and making mistakes to learn how much is enough and how much is too much, but we are delighted to have new tools in 2011 for maintaining the depth and breadth of our fitness.