Running for Cyclocross

I’ve always said, “Why run when you have a perfectly good bike”. The best answer to that question is cyclocross.

Here we will cover why and how to include running in your training plan if you want to be in tip-top form at your next cyclocross race.

It’s a bike race, not a foot race

Unless the course designers are a team of marathon runners, you can count on most of a cyclocross course to be rideable with minimal run time. In fact, if you’ve mastered hopping the barriers, then you’ll be able to complete a fair amount of race courses without your feet ever touching the ground.

Even if you’re bunny-hopping skills are the best this side of the Missouri, and an old roadie designed the course with nothing but pavement and perfectly manicured grass, there will eventually be a time when you need to run.

How about the common “flat tire in the worst location away from the pit”?

The well-trained cyclocross racer will act quickly, shouldering their bike and making the 3-4 minute run (hopefully no longer…) to the pit and get back into the race without missing a beat.

The ill-prepared cyclocross racer would fumble trying to shoulder their bike, start running with the grace of a baby giraffe, feel every back muscle seize, start walking, and finally hop on your pit bike feeling totally zapped for the rest of the race.

My point is this – you need not be a great runner, but you will need to handle the occasional run or hill scramble without having your body shut down in retaliation or, even worse, get injured.

Proper training for a cyclocross racer includes enough running to handle these situations without doing so much that it takes away from your training on the bike, which is where the real magic happens.

A proper dose of running

There are two important rules to keep in mind when planning your run training.

  1. Minimum effective dose
  2. Progressive overload

When introducing new training into a program, it won’t take much to see improvement. Remember how insanely sore you were from lifting weights for the first time after a long layoff? That pain is a good indicator that your body was not accustomed to that type of stress and is now trying to repair the damage. This is all a good thing, but too much stress can slow progress and lead to injury.

What we want to find is the minimum amount of running required to achieve a positive result. For somebody totally new to running, I recommend 5-minutes or less for the first run. Sure, you could probably get away with a 15-minute run on your first outing, but you’re also probably only getting benefits from that first 5-minutes anyways and the final 10-minutes are about stroking your ego.

Even a top-level bike racer’s muscles and ligaments are not accustomed to the new stresses of running and need to be gradually phased in. Cyclist are used to banging out 60+ minute rides as a minimum, so you’re likely going to scoff at the durations I recommend for running.

For an athlete who’s new to running, I recommend 3-5 minutes of total run time.

  • 5-minute walking warm-up
  • 3-5 minutes easy running
  • 5-minute cool-down.

Keep in mind that running is similar to strength training in terms of muscle damage. Remember how sore you got after lifting weights that one time back in college? You probably did something like 3 sets of 10 squats with what most gym rats would consider a warm-up weight and could barely sit on the toilet the next morning. The cumulative time under load from those squats is probably 90-120 seconds of total work. Trust me on this one, start conservative.

Weeks 1-3: 3-5-minutes 2-3x/week

I recommend performing the first handful of runs in running shoes so you can ease your joints into the new activity.

These runs should be at a self-selected pace that allows you to finish the 5-minutes comfortably. We’re trying to get your body adapted to running, not breaking speed records.

After completing a few runs in running shoes, it’s time to start easing into some runs with your bike. These runs should be completed in your cycling shoes while either shouldering or pushing your bike (start with a combo). You don’t have to complete all of your run time as one consistent effort either. Throw a 1-minute run with your bike shouldered 3-5 times throughout a training ride at a local park. There are no rules besides sticking to a maximum of 5-minutes and having fun.

Week 4 and on: Sprints + Long Run

After the initial 3-week adaptation phase, you can start incorporating some progressions into your running.

The best way to incorporate sprints is to design a practice course that forces you to run short distances. A steep hill, stairs, or a sandpit are all great options. If you’re training for an event that’s known to include a lot of running (such as Jingle CX), I recommend including some run efforts that will match the demands of your event.

If you’re performing running drills during your cyclocross training, then I still recommend including a “long run” once per week with running shoes.

Start by increasing the duration of your 5-minute run by 10% each week. Gradually build the duration until you feel solid running 10-15 minutes with minimal breakdown in form or fatigue. Running longer than 15 minutes will probably have diminishing returns on your cyclocross specific running abilities, so instead of running longer at that point, I would put focus towards improving form and running a little faster at times.

If you’re going to run, you might as well do it well in a cyclocross race

A cyclocross race is 95% on the bike, and occasionally 5% running. This tells me that 95% percent of your effort should be focused on improving your bike fitness and skills, and 5% of your time should be spent making sure your running skills are adequate enough get through the run portions so you can get back to crushing on the bike.

Focus on mastering the basics with running and put the rest of your energy into crushing your workouts on the bike!