What Is The Best Cross Training for Cyclists?

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Cyclists love nothing more than getting on their bikes and smashing through the miles. 

What’s better than a long ride on the road with the wind blowing through the vents of your helmet on a beautiful spring day, or a good ride on the trails where you can put the hustle and bustle of work behind you?

However, if your training plan includes only cycling workouts, you may be compromising your fitness, limiting your potential performance as a cyclist, and setting yourself up for injury.

Cross-training is one of the most effective ways to make yourself a more well-rounded athlete and prevent overuse injuries from cycling.

But what is the best cross-training for cyclists? Should cyclists run? Do yoga? Swim?

In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits and practicalities of cross-training for cyclists, covering:

  • What Is Cross Training?
  • 5 Benefits of Cross-Training for Cyclists
  • What Are The Best Cross Training Exercises For Cyclists?

Let’s dive in!

Cross Training For Cyclists: Title Image

What Is Cross Training?

Cross training for cyclists essentially involves performing any form of exercise other than cycling.

Cross training should be a regular component of your cycling training program because it enables you to develop your aerobic fitness base and endurance without placing more of the exact same forces and stresses on your muscles, joints, and connective tissues. 

5 Benefits of Cross Training for Cyclists

If you’re a cyclist who really just wants to ride your bike, you’re not alone. However, adding cross-training activities to your workout plan doesn’t detract from your training; it adds to it.

Even world champion cyclists have relied heavily on cross-training. Greg LeMond enjoyed cross-country skiing during the off-season, and Richie Porte is known to love swimming to augment his time on the bike.

If the pros are doing it (and tons of amateurs, too!), there’s clearly some merit to cross-training!

#1: Cross Training Provides an Aerobic Workout

Cross training for cyclists provides the cardiovascular benefits of cycling, such as strengthening the heart and lungs, improving lung function and tidal volume, and reducing blood pressure. This reduces the risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and atherosclerosis, and improves the elasticity and capacity of blood vessels.

Studies also show that low-impact cross-training activities reduce blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity, reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, and strengthen the immune system. 

#2: Cross Training Can Reduce Your Risk of Overuse Injuries

Even though cycling is a low-impact exercise compared to something like running (which, therefore, has a higher risk of injury), it’s still very repetitive.

You use the same muscles and perform the same motion pedal stroke after pedal stroke.

Most cross-training activities use somewhat different muscles and motions than cycling, so cross-training can reduce muscle overuse and soreness and prevent the development of muscle imbalances from cycling only.

#3: Cross Training Can Add Variety During the Off-Season

Cross training is a great way to stay fit during the winter or off-season.

It adds variety to your workout routine so you’re not just stuck on the trainer for hour after hour, day after day, or trying to navigate the muddy trails or slippery roads on your wet bike.

#4: Cross Training Can Help You Recover from Workouts

Cross training is an effective way to recover after a hard workout such as hill sprints, an FTP test, a race, or a long ride.

Instead of hopping on the bike again the next day, you can give your legs a break by choosing a cross-training exercise that uses different muscles than cycling.

If you’re really sore and tired from your cycling workouts, choose a cross-training activity that’s particularly gentle on your joints and muscles, such as swimming, walking, or yoga

#5: Cross Training Can Keep You Fit While You’re Injured

If you do end up with an injury that prevents you from getting out on the roads or trails or even getting time in on your indoor trainer, you can use cross training to maintain your fitness while you heal.

For example, if you have a stubborn bout of Achilles tendonitis or some gnarly saddle sores after a long ride in the rain, you can take a break from cycling and do cross-training exercises such as swimming or the elliptical trainer.

Close-up shot of someone running on a dirt track in blue running shoes.

What Are The Best Cross Training Exercises For Cyclists?

There is no single best type of cross training for cyclists, as different activities provide different benefits based on the muscles and movements they involve. 

Moreover, the best type of cross training for you depends on your goals and preferences as a cyclist.

For example, if you want to build your bone density, a high-impact activity such as running will be ideal. If you are looking to improve your flexibility and balance, you might be well served by yoga or Pilates. 

If you live in an area with a long snowy winter, you can make use of your environment with cross-country skiing, and if you hate the water, choose something other than swimming or deep-water running.

The good news is that you can’t really go wrong when it comes to choosing a valid type of cross-training for cycling. Variety is great, both from a mental and physical standpoint, so mix up your workouts and have fun!

Although not an exhaustive list, the following are some of the best forms of cross training for cyclists:

#1. Swimming

A man swims front crawl in a swimming pool.

Swimming builds your cardiovascular strength, so it can improve your lung capacity and breathing mechanics and rhythm. This can translate to better fitness on the bike for long climbs and faster speeds.

Swimming also helps develop your upper body strength and your core strength, while increasing the mobility in your shoulders and hip flexors. 

These are often weak muscles and tight joints if you spend a lot of time on your bike, which is why swimming is one of the best cross-training workouts for cyclists.

Finally, swimming is a zero-impact activity so if you’re injured or really sore, it’s a great way to exercise while reducing the stress on your body.

#2. Running

Two joggers are silhouetted against the sunset.

In much the same way that runners use cycling for cross training, cyclists can use running for cross training. Running is one of the best ways to boost your cardiovascular fitness, build muscular strength, and increase your bone density.

Running and cycling are good sister activities because they complement one another in terms of the muscles and movements used.

#3. Rowing

Two people cross training on rowing machines at the gym.

Rowing is an often overlooked form of cross training for cyclists.

While most people think of it as an upper-body workout, rowing is said to use 86% of the muscles in your body.

It’s actually a leg-dominant sport, which is why it’s one of the best types of cross training for cyclists.

Use your glutes and quads to really push away at the start of each stroke rather than trying to pull with your upper body. You can develop tremendous power that translates well to cycling.

Though most of us don’t have easy access to a boathouse on a lake or river, you can get an excellent cardio workout on a rowing machine or erg.

#4. Stair Climbing

Close-up of a woman in blue running gear climbing a flight of stairs.

Stair climbing is a fantastic workout to supplement your cycling or to replace time in the saddle (when you’re traveling, for example).

Climbing stairs uses a lot of the same muscles as cycling, such as your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, so it’s a great way to stay in shape for cycling during the off-season or when you can’t get on the bike.

You’ll also get a fantastic cardiovascular workout and torch a ton of calories.

You can hop on a stair climber exercise machine at your gym or head to a local stadium or skyscraper to hoof it up real stairs. 

#5. Cross-Country Skiing

A cross country skier in a red coat passes a snow-covered church.

Also referred to as Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing is a low-impact, total-body workout since you also rely heavily on your upper body to propel you forward with your ski poles. 

You’ll also use many of the same lower-body muscles used for cycling, such as your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, with additional activation of your calves and core.

Cross-country skiing can also work wonders for developing your cardiovascular system, giving you better aerobic fitness when the winter is over and you’re back on the bike.

#6. Yoga and Pilates

Close-up of a woman rolling out a grey yoga mat.

Although not necessarily much of a cardio workout (depending on the style of yoga you do), yoga can be a good form of cross training for cyclists.

Yoga can improve your flexibility, balance, core strength, and mind-body connection, all of which are important counterparts to spending time on the bike in the same exact position.

#7. Strength Training

Soft-focus photo of a row of dumbells.

Cross training for cyclists doesn’t only have to involve cardio exercise!

Strength training builds muscular strength and endurance, helps prevent muscle imbalances, and can reduce the risk of cycling injuries by making your muscles and connective tissues stronger and more balanced. 

Strength training also increases lean body mass, which increases your metabolic rate, allowing your body to burn more calories throughout the day, even at rest. 

Strength training also increases bone density, which isn’t really improved significantly by cycling, since it’s a low-impact activity.

Found this guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Amber is a fitness and nutrition writer and editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and cycling websites and publications. She holds two Masters's degrees - one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a certified personal trainer for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well.

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