What’s 'cross duathlon'? Well, it’s not angry. But you might be when you find out what you’ve been missing out on! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist...)
It’s basically off-road duathlon (run-bike-run).
Because of the testing, technical and often muddy nature of this predominantly winter sport the race distances tend to be shorter, with most averaging out at around 7k-20k-4k. The biggest and best-known series is the Human Race Series in the South and South East. These tend to be longer and take in large forested courses and steep climbs with lots of technical features. As you travel further North, cross duathlons are more spread-out but the courses are just as exciting and technically demanding with well-respected races being hosted by Mud and Mayhem at Thetford and the Bolesworth Centre in Chester. Even further North there are great off road kicks to be had at the Bowhill Duathlon on the Scottish Borders. There are plenty to experience and the joy of off-road racing means that no two races are the same. One thing you will never hear cross duathletes discussing is race splits. It’s never about time and always about the terrain, or surface, or mud, or roots, or rocks, or water crossings or some other feature that by the finish line all competitors have been unified by though conquering. It’s an adventure within a race. It’s about so much more than time.
Okay, so enough with the hard sell. You’ll have grasped that I am a fully converted off-roader myself having spent years racing road-based duathlons. The rapid expansion of the whole off-road multisport scene has meant that along with me there is an ever growing crew of dedicated mud lovers who no longer have to touch the tarmac in a race at all. With that new found specialism have come new elements to focus on in training and here are a series of key areas to address if you are contemplating a cross duathlon or two this winter:
Hit the road on your off-roader
Let’s face it, having to clean mud off your bike and kit after every ride is a drain so when going for a road ride, simply take your mountain bike. As long as you don’t hold people up, heading out for a long steady ride on the road with a group who are all on road bikes means that you will have a work out which is not only specific to your mountain biking position on the bike but also that you will have a session out with all of your ride buddies. By all means expect them to try to ‘drop you’ in the hope that they can say “told you not to come on your mountain bike” and therein lies your session’s goal: Don’t get dropped!
It means that you will need to ride conservatively and shelter from the wind more but by hanging in there and riding your MTB when all others are on their thin tyred race machines it will you who’s laughing when you see how much stronger you become. Make sure you put extra air in your tyres so they roll faster and, where possible, lock out any suspension.
Up your training when it snows
As soon as it snows, pack in plenty of MTB rides and cross country runs in the deepest snow you can find. Try to get off the beaten track to where the snow has not been compacted as that’s where it is safer. It will provide you with a uniquely hard strength training session and riding in the snow immediately accelerates your bike handling skills with a soft landing waiting for you when you get it wrong.
Running in the white stuff will also encourage optimal off-road run form with a high knee lift and a classic forefoot style which is necessary in order to get some purchase in the snow. The great thing is, you don’t actually need to think about any of this. Just get out there and keep moving. The snow will create the training session for you. Stay away from ice and compacted snow and make sure you are confident about what is beneath the snow. Also, don’t expect to go far. Find an open area that you are confident with and just keep moving. Suddenly, those ‘snow days’ where you just happen to be stuck at home (oh dear...) become a unique and massively beneficial training session.
Learn to run down hill (fast)
Finding a steep off-road hill to practice running down as fast as your legs will carry you has benefits for all areas of your training. Firstly, it’s a skill thing: by doing it you will be able to make up more time in the bumpy downhill sections where you’ll find many backing off but it’s more than that. The action of ‘letting go’ and allowing your legs to ‘roll through’ underneath you while you keep your upper body leaning in (but always at 90 degrees to the ground) gives you a really effective dynamic stretch of your hip flexors and this will, over time, convert into a free-er feeling running action. The angle of your foot strike and the subsequent toe-off when doing this will also pay dividends for your flat running. 10 to 15 reps running down the hill is more than enough and the hidden bonus is that in that time you will have also done 15 uphill reps without even thinking about it. Learn to relax, let go and drop like a stone and you’ll be amazed how many places you can make up in races once the trail tilts down.
Mud is your friend
Even with all the road based MTB’ing I’ve been suggesting and rosy-cheeked snow runs (followed by hot mince pies), invariably, come race day, with the number of other competitors out there, you’re going to hit the mud in races and trust me, the mud will hit back.
So, rather than running and riding off-road all the time and trying to avoid the mud you’re better off doing more training on the road for practical reasons and then actively seeking out the muddiest routes when you do head off-road. In terms of the training benefits, the resistance generated by going straight through the brown stuff is not quite as effective (or pleasant) as snow but it doesn’t half speed up your improvements in bike handling as you learn to stay seated and ‘steer with your bum’. Added to that, the seemingly annoying clumping of mud around your running shoes is actually the mud fairies clinging on to give you a helping hand by making you stronger and more supple as your running style adapts to cope with the gloopy conditions. (Just to be clear, it’s not really them but go with me on this okay?)
You will soon learn new ways of seeking out ‘bonus grip’ on both the bike and the run in the muddiest sections but it will require you to commit to it and resolve to dissect those puddles and mud patches while your friends gingerly poottle round them. Aside from feeling like a big kid again you’ll be relying on the same skills and mud-plugging ability that will see you leaving your road loving friends behind when they do eventually give in to the lure of cross duathlon. What’s more, come Spring it will convert into extra road speed and efficiency.
The beauty is of course that training and racing off-road does most of this for you. It’s not a complex set of carefully timed intervals or number-crunched coach-devised controlled pain exertion. It is instead the terrain and conditions setting the session for you. Eventually you will find that a muddy trail lit by a head torch on an evening run or a pristine snow covered field on a crisp weekend morning says, “come on then, let’s see what you’ve got..” far more powerfully that your grim-faced turbo trainer sat waiting in the corner of the room or that same old pavement route that you’ve run for years.
On paper, hitting the trails is play but play enough and eventually that play will pay.