It used to be that a rider could sprinkle in a few 'cross races without a blip on the training radar but things are different now, with the 'cross season starting at the end of summer. What's a roadie or mountain biker to do when the cyclocross sirens begin to call?
First, figure out your approach. How important is the cyclocross season to you? Will you be treating it as a season with nearly the same importance as your road or mountain bike season or will you just be "'crossing through," training just specifically enough for 'cross to be able to enjoy a number of races?
Cyclocross as a second season means training specifically for it and implies expectations. 'Crossing through means racing but without the pressure of performance and otherwise focusing on your off-season preparation, potentially including weights and other "winter training" that may not be conducive to concurrent performance.
Another approach would be to go straight into 'cross with good end-of-summer season form and then stopping midway into the 'cross season as your form and the weather both fade. Regardless of your approach, here are a few reminders as you tackle your 'cross season.
The Break Dance
Heading straight into the 'cross season from a road or mountain bike season with no sort of break and expecting to excel through its entirety would mean an eight- to nine-month season. No rider can ride at the top of his or her game that long. So, whether you are gunning for 'cross or just taking it for a spin, you will need some kind of break near or at the end of your main season.
At least a week or preferably longer is recommended. And by break, I don't mean a string of three-hour easy rides; I mean a real break from the bike that allows you a solid chance of recovery from all the miles and intensity you've piled on so far, both on your body and your brain.
If you're planning to race and potentially perform by September, you should have had this break by now. If you are taking 'cross more lightly, this break can occur as late as the second half of September or even into early October.
Once you've had your break, the transition to 'cross training can begin. Cyclocross means several repetitive motions uncommon to road racing and (hopefully) not encountered much in mountain biking: namely running and frequent dismounts and remounts at speed.
Start with the running. If you haven't run consistently since last winter, you'll need to start slow. Yes, your body could do a 15 or 20-minute run right off the bat, but your legs and feet will remind you by the next day that you shouldn't have. Beginning runs should start with walks including a small amount of running. For instance, your first week of running might look like:
Monday: Walk 8 min, Run 4 min, Walk 8 min
Wednesday: Walk 10 min, Run 6 min, Walk 10 min
Saturday: Walk 10 min, Run 8 min, Walk 10 min
The running portion should be at easy or endurance pace, not pushing the speed too soon. You'll thank yourself later and avoid risking an "impatience" injury that could set back your running and dismount capability, delaying your season start.
Over several weeks, you should reach the ability to run 20 minutes consistently without pain or soreness. Once you can do this, it's time to start adding speed. Running in cyclocross usually happens in short bursts fewer than 20 seconds, so to specifically prepare for this you need to do short bursts in your training.