How to use a power meter to your advantage in CycloCross- By Hunter Allen

Looking at anything besides the course right in front of you is nearly impossible in a cyclocross race as the intensity in a cyclocross race and technical demands of cycling force you to be present each moment. Riding and racing “in the zone” is something that many of us strive for in every race as it’s an incredible feeling along with a confirmation that you are doing your very best.  This focus means that it’s highly doubtful you’ll get more than a ½ second glance at your power meter head unit when racing, so unless you have a heads-up display, watching your power meter during a CX race will be next to impossible and most likely undesirable as watching for that next tree root takes priority. In training though, it is likely that you will be able to train using your power meter to focus on specific intervals.  Specificity is one of the keys of success in training for any cycling discipline.  Each cycling discipline has unique demands and riding for 5 hours over mountain passes climbing with a very steady wattage output is nearly the complete opposite of the demands of a CX race. 

When you examine your power file from a ’cross race, one of the first things you might notice is that it looks a lot like some of those criteriums you did earlier in the year: loads of power spikes, easily discernible laps and big “race winning” type efforts are all commonalities to criteriums. A cyclocross power file will define the power bursts needed in the race, reveal the amount of rest in each lap and show the overall training stress accumulated in the race. One thing that’s important to identify in a cyclocross power file is the number of efforts you have above your FTP and how long each of these efforts last and the height of each peak of wattage.  In figure 1, we discover that he had to ride over his threshold power 29 different times in the race, but many of these times were so close together that in reality it was more like 18 separate efforts each ranging from 30 seconds to 3 minutes with short recoveries between each.   This means that any rider doing this race will need to do a minimum of 18 efforts in order to just stay in the race. So….when was the last time you did 18 intervals in your training rides preparing for CX season?

Figure 1

In step 2, I want to see any effort over 110% of threshold power (solidly in the Vo2 Max range and above) for times over 5 seconds and up to 5 minutes.  This will tell me how many highly intense intervals my athlete will need to do in preparation for their event.   As we see in Figure 2, this race contained over 100 different efforts above 110% of the athlete’s FTP and that is pretty significant when you consider this is a CX race!  When was the last time you did over 100 hard bursts/efforts in your training?!   The highly variable nature of this race is what we call a “stochastic” race and this means that the race was so incredibly variable; the power spikes appear to be almost random.   When I see a power file with this much stochasticity, it reminds me how important the ability to quickly change cadence is to be successful as a cyclist and especially as a CX racer. 

Power meter files from ’cross races typically average about 20 to 40 watts below an athlete’s actual FTP, since there’s so much “down time” when the athlete is either coasting down a technical hill, off the bike and running or just experiencing a lack of traction. This does not mean you will be below your threshold heart rate though!  Plan on riding with your heart rate pegged at your threshold number.  The difficulty of putting the power to the ground skews the power numbers down, so don’t let those lower than FTP numbers fool you into thinking your FTP has dropped or you could have ridden harder. Because of these running and technical coasting sections, it’s hard to determine the exact muscular demands of cyclocross, but if you use a tool called Quadrant Analysis, then you can better understand those demands. When viewed in a Quadrant Analysis plot, which breaks down a ride based on time spent with different force outputs and cadences, a ’cross race contains the largest amount of amount of the effort in Quadrant II, which represents slow pedaling and higher force, but Quadrant III (slow pedaling, low force) and Quadrant IV (fast pedaling and low force) are also represented.   This changes the demands of the event dramatically as compared to a criterium.  A Criterium will have just as many bursts and efforts over FTP, but done in Quadrant IV, which is lower force and a higher cadence (easier gear, over 90rpm) is used in order to stay on the wheels and quickly accelerate out of the turns.    The result of this analysis means that you need to do a lot of “bursts” over your FTP and done with higher force and lower cadence (bigger gear, under 90rpm), to best simulate a CX race.

           After reviewing hundreds of cyclocross race and training power files, I have determined that a specific training workout good for cyclocross is one that I call the “30-30-30” workout; it’s made up of 30 seconds at 150% of FTP, 30 seconds coasting (0% of FTP) and 30 seconds of running. The “30-30-30” workout is done continuously for 10 minutes and then a rest is taken for five minutes before doing two to four more sets total.

The “30-30-30” Cyclocross workout

15 minute warm-up, level 2.

(1) – 5 minute hard effort at 110% of FTP to “open up the legs” and make sure you are ready for the intervals.

5 minutes easy- Level 2, preparing yourself mentally for the coming intervals.

3 x 10 minutes —  “30- 30 -30”- This means you nearly sprint for 30 seconds. It’s RIDING hard at a cadence under 90rpm, followed by 30 seconds coasting and not pedaling, followed by a dismount and 30 seconds of running fast…. REPEAT.

5 minutes Level 2 recovering after each of the “30-30-30” block of efforts at a cadence of 90rpm+.

4 x 2 minutes- at 150% of FTP. Anaerobic Capacity work-  This is done to further fatigue you and create training stress that is similar to what you will experience in a CX race.  Again, simulate the cadence you will see in a CX race, so ride under 90rpm.

REST 2 minutes after each at 90+ rpm and at your Level 2 wattage.

After the set of 2 minute efforts, ride for 10 minutes Level 2 at 90+ rpm.

Finish with 10 x 1minute FAST PEDALING at 110rpm+. 1 minute on, 1 minute off at 80rpm.    This is done to make sure you can quickly and easily change leg speed/cadences during your race. Don’t worry about high wattages here, it’s more important to focus on your cadence.

15 minutes cool-down at Level 1 and Level 2 wattages with your preferred cadence.

One of the most important reasons to use a power meter is in training for the demands of the event, and this reason is highly applicable in the case of cyclocross. Addressing the specific needs for a strong anaerobic capacity along with highly-tuned technical skills (dismount the bike, run with the bike and remount) creates a perfect blend of a workout in the “30-30-30,”. Along with this anaerobic capacity workout, cyclocross demands a strong FTP, so the traditional Level 4 threshold workouts done at 4 x 10, 3 x15, and 2 x 20 minutes at FTP are important for the successful ’cross racer.

Cyclocross is another discipline within cycling where using a power meter in order to train more quantitatively and also more specifically to the demands of the sport allows racers to improve their performances. A key component of this improvement hinges on the ability of the athlete to mimic the demands of upcoming ’cross races and develop training routines for them. As the popularity of cyclocross continues to gain momentum, more and more racers will be using a power meter to collect data, analyze the demands of the events and then train for them.

Check out Hunter’s Cyclo-Cross plans!!!!

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks WKO+ Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group.  You can contact Hunter directly