Cross-training for cyclists: should you try running, swimming, pilates or cross-country skiing?

Cross-training provides an injection of fun and variety – and will make you a stronger cyclist without turning the pedals

Runner on a misty day

Greg LeMond enjoyed cross-country skiing. Richie Porte likes to swim. For pros and amateurs alike, after a long season of cycling, the winter months are a chance to do something different. It doesn’t all have to be about muddy miles in the saddle, indoor cycling or the turbo trainer.

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But this idea – cross-training – needn’t be the preserve of the off-season. You could be at the end of a hard spell of training, recovering from an injury, or want to improve your all-round conditioning throughout the season. It’s just that winter is the most opportune moment to do so, with few events on the horizon and weather conditions lacking appeal.

It’s not about doing something that will magically enhance your cycling. It’s about having the opportunity to recover from the rigours of a tough sport and trying an activity that is similar but not the same. It’s the differences that make the difference.

Doing nothing but riding your bike will create body imbalances, which can lead to over-use injuries in the long-term.

“Cross-training can be helpful by allowing body and mind to recover following a long, hard block of training and racing, while preventing a big decline in general fitness,” explains Simon Jobson, professor of sport and exercise physiology at the University of Winchester.

Cross-training can be fun and challenging. LeMond, the three-time Tour de France champion, wasn’t exactly coasting with cross-country (XC) skiing, a sport that vies with cycling for where the highest V02 max values are found. If you think a bike sprint is hard, check out the race finishes from the Mark Cavendish of the XC skiing world, Petter Northug.

It was a break from the grind of LeMond’s season, so in that respect it was regenerative. In XC skiing, similar muscle groups are worked but in different ways, allowing you to retain a level of fitness but resting from your bread and butter, building motivation for the new season.

As well as being recuperative, cross-training can be transformative. Doing nothing but riding your bike will create body imbalances, which can lead to over-use injuries in the long-term.

“Most riders will benefit from a psychological rest at one or two points in the year, but most will also be keen to limit the fitness losses that result from inactivity,” says Jobson.

“The old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ comes into play, with cross-training removing the relentless focus and, in many cases, stress required for regular, structured bike training.”

Running

Group running in park
Running is a popular cross-training activity but carries a risk of injury.
Vitranc / Getty Images

Running is perhaps the most popular cross-training activity for cyclists, but is also the riskiest.

If you have a weak core, poor flexibility or muscle imbalances – all common traits of cyclists who only ride their bike – then running, with its impact forces, might not initially be for you as a cross-training option, and certainly not in large quantities.

Even experienced runners, returning to it after time away, have to be careful not to throw themselves in too hard, too quickly.

Seasoned triathlete Spencer Smith used to compete professionally, and for one season rode for the Linda McCartney cycling team: “I’d decided to turn pro in cycling in September the year before, and in December I went out for a run as a bit of cross-training – for about an hour, which, if I’m honest, should have been shorter. I woke up the next day and felt like I’d been hit by a truck. The key is not to overdo it, you don’t want to hurt your cycling.”

Why running?

Male runner in London
The impact forces of running can be a good thing for cyclists.
Simon Winnall / Getty Images

The impact forces of running are a good thing, if you let your body adapt slowly, and can improve bone health.

“Because of the lack of impact forces, cyclists are at risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis,” says Simon Jobson. “Adding some walking and/or running to the routine will likely offset some of this risk.”

Being a competent runner also opens up the opportunity for other cross-training sports that require it, such as tennis. And with all your cash tied up in the money-eating world of cycling, running makes a refreshing change. You need a pair of trainers and, er, that’s it.

Why not?

Running might prove a refreshing addition to your training schedule, but the physiological benefits are limited, according to Jobson.

“Experience tells me that there is only limited fitness cross-over. If you’re just going for general endurance conditioning, a more ‘whole body’ exercise will provide a bit more bang for your buck”.

Getting started…

“I’d suggest 20 to 30 minutes, but broken down” says Spencer Smith. “Do 3 minutes on, 2 minutes walking. The ‘on’ minutes shouldn’t be too hard, around 60 to 70 per cent effort.”

Swimming

Young female competitive swimmers racing in outdoor pool overhead view
Swimming is a whole-body workout ideal for cyclists in search of change.
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Swimming is recommended as a whole-body exercise that will maintain the endurance needed for cycling, while providing a refreshing change from pedalling.

“I usually recommend activities like swimming as they feel, psychologically, a million miles away from cycling,” says Simon Jobson. “These activities provide the best chance of a full cycling mental detox.

“It’s very difficult to find non-cycling activities that stimulate the body in a way that maintains cycling-specific fitness. Therefore, I usually suggest activities that will maintain the physiological foundation of most cycling: endurance, aka V02 max.”

Despite an increase in the number of pools in the UK over the past decade, there was a drop of almost 520,000 swimming activities to 4.2m in 2019 compared to the year before, according to Sport England.

For cycling enthusiasts, it needn’t be one or the other because swimming is one of the best off-the-bike activities we can do.

It’s low impact, improves flexibility, works as a cycling-substitute cardio workout and offers light resistance in every plane of movement. It’s also a good means of off-bike rehab; Tour de France podium finisher Richie Porte swims to improve his recovery.

Why swimming?

Richie Porte
Richie Porte was a swimmer before turning pro and still regularly returns to the pool.
Zac Williams / SWPix.com

“Swimming is the best sport you can do as a cyclist,” says Spencer Smith. “It just doesn’t beat you up like, say, running does. It engages the core and makes you work, but you can do it for half an hour and not feel like you’ve done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson.”

Why not?

A warning, though: not all swimming strokes will suit everyone.

“If you have neck problems, the hyperextended position of breaststroke with your head out of the water can worsen your problem,” writes Jo McRae in Ridestrong: Essential Conditioning for Cyclists (Bloomsbury).

“If you have instability in your lower back, or knee problems, you might find the hyperextension of the lower back with the breaststroke kick problematic.”

Getting started…

John Wood, of Tri-Coaching, says: “If you can’t swim these distances comfortably, shorten the distances to fit your swimming ability – try 25, 50 or 75m swim intervals instead.”

  • 10 minutes easy swim
  • 3 x 100m (usually 4 lengths), with 30 secs recovery, at steady pace
  • 3 x 100m with 20 secs recovery
  • 3 x 100m with 10 secs recovery
  • 10 minutes easy swim

Recharging Porte

Tour de France podium finisher Richie Porte talks about his swimming habits

“Before I turned pro, I was a swimmer. I’ve swum my whole career in the off-season and, when I can, during the season. I’m not doing anything structured; it’s really as a release and a change from the norm.

“I’m into freestyle and bashing out a few hundred metres for recovery with a pull buoy [a foam swimming aid]. It’s good when the weather’s not so great and still works the cardio for an hour. I can just dip straight back into it, but for guys who’ve just been riding bikes their whole lives it will take a bit more perseverance.

“I’ve been lucky that the teams I’ve ridden for have encouraged me to swim. Cycling has so much tradition and they worry it’s going to build muscle up, but I’ve always had guys like Tim Kerrison [from Team Ineos] and David Bailey [from BMC] who both came from swimming backgrounds and who understand you have to do a lot for that to happen.

“I’ve known plenty of cyclists who aren’t keen on anything but cycling. Mentioning no names, but there are guys here in Monaco who, for a 200m walk to the cafe, are still taking their scooters. Some think that if you’re not training, you should be resting. I’m from a different background; triathletes are notorious over-trainers!

“For amateur cyclists, especially those facing the UK’s weather, swimming is an activity they can really benefit from. I just think it’s something different to riding the home trainer or doing a cold, rainy ride. There really are very few downsides to it.”

Pilates

Pilates class at the gym
Pilates can improve your flexibility, strength and control.
andresr / Getty Images

Anyone who’s ever tried pilates – this writer being one of them – might initially wonder where the benefit for cycling is, such is its often passive, gentle nature, particularly at the novice stage.

Developed in the early 20th century by a German physical trainer by the name of Joseph Pilates, it involves stretching and manipulating your body into positions that can improve flexibility, strength and control through the body, particularly the core, with a big focus on breathing.

It can be done in either a fitness setting or a clinical one as part of physiotherapy rehab. You’ll practice repetitive exercises, standing or on the mat, with pilates aids including elastic bands and foam pads.

Why pilates?

Man practising yoga at home
You can try pilates with online classes at home or in the gym.
Justin Paget / Getty Images

It’s almost as beneficial as a form of mindfulness than a tool for physical improvement, which as a break from chasing cycling goals makes for a nice change.

“The isolated, focused exercises where movement is slow and deliberate can be easier to follow for cyclists whose overall movement skill can be low,” says Jo McRae.

Why not?

That positive could also be a negative for cyclists, who might find the slow, calm progress a turn-off. It can also be expensive to join a class, which is essential to be able to follow an instructor’s movements.

Getting started…

Join a class. Gyms (fitness) and physios (clinical) offer classes.

In the former, you’ll sit in front of an instructor who will guide you through movements and breathing. With the latter, you might get prescribed exercises specific to your needs.

Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiier in Sun Valley, Idaho
XC skiing could be the perfect cross-training activity for cyclists… but you need snow.
Karl Weatherly / Getty Images

For many cyclists enduring snowy winters, this is the sport to maintain – and enhance – off-season bike fitness.

A fusion of aerobic conditioning, core strength, power, balance and coordination, it’s the ultimate alt-sport for cyclists, with famous practitioners including current pro Edvald Boasson Hagen and Classics legend Fabian Cancellara.

It uses the same muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, glutes, back and core) in fresh ways, requires good but not brilliant upper-body strength, is low impact and asks for similar balance and awareness as on fast descents.

There are two different types: ‘classic’ sees skiers glide in groomed, parallel tracks, with a grip wax on the centre of the ski used for propulsion. According to Ed Nicoll, a cycling enthusiast and former British professional XC skier, this is the “easiest and most accessible introduction to the sport. Anyone who can hike in the hills for a few hours could do it”.

‘Skating’ is a relatively newer development and involves shorter skis but longer poles, with more support for the ankles in the shoes. Technically, it’s more difficult, being devoid of classic’s parallel lines of movement, involving a synchronised movement of arms and legs, and requiring more upper-body strength.

The surfaces are groomed, except on the downhills, and give you more freedom to change direction. Wax is again used, this time on the whole ski. At the highest level, choosing the right wax for the conditions is a ‘dark art’, according to Nicoll, and often determines the winner.

Why cross-country skiing?

Edvald Boasson Hagen at the World Championships in Norway
Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen is a fan of cross-country skiing.
Alex Whitehead / SWPx.com

Like cycling, cross-country skiing will stress your aerobic system, but works the whole body like no other sport. It’s pretty low risk, too. Cancellara’s teams allowed him to do it, even though downhill skiing and many other sports were banned.

Why not?

It’s not exactly accessible in the UK, and there’s a lot to learn to become competent. Roller skiing (rollerski.co.uk) is a good substitute to learn the basics before you head onto the snow.

Getting started…

Try XC skiing out for a morning on your next ski holiday. It’s cheaper than downhill skiing.

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In Gstaad, where I tried it out it cost 33 Swiss Francs compared to 51 for a day lift pass. It’s also worth paying for an instructor to show you the ropes. Be patient – skating on skis, in particular, is a hard skill and might not come quickly.

Escape to the (cross) country

Cycling Plus features editor John Whitney dips his toes into cross-country skiing in Gstaad

This was bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of cross-training. I wasn’t just cross, either. Rattled, frustrated, you name it. My naïve assumption that, because I’d downhill skied in the past, I would take to cross-country skiing without much fuss, was in tatters. It was going to take longer than the single day I had to get close to picking up the technique.

My teacher, Claude Frautschi, was an expert; our photographer Henry wasn’t bad either, having finished the 54km Birkebeiner XC race in Lillehammer two years ago. I, meanwhile, was moving with all the grace of an inebriated daddy long legs.

We were in Saanenmöser, just up the valley from Gstaad, on prime cross-country track. I’d opted for skate skiing, the most popular with cyclists.

The key to skating is coordination: Claude made the action – pushing the ski behind you at an angle and using both hand poles to propel forward (either with each ski movement or after every two) – look totally effortless.

Unlike downhill skis, XC skis don’t have an edge to them that allows you to grip the snow, so controlling them is harder. Balance is also crucial, and you need to keep your body weight centred.

Claude insisted it was a very safe sport to practice, once you’re up to speed. “Torn hamstrings are the most common injury, particularly with cyclists who suffer from tight muscles,” he said.

My short experience of the sport barely scratched the surface, but it left me hungry for more as I’d have to learn the fluent motion before I got any aerobic benefit for cycling out of it.

Cross-country skiing doesn’t have the exhilaration of downhill, but it makes you work for the endorphin rush that old hands get from it. And if that doesn’t sound like road cycling, I’m not sure what does.