Cyclocross racing tips from Coach Neal Henderson: the key is to keep looking ahead

Greetings from seat 15B of Continental flight 34, Denver to Houston. It’s leg No. 1 of a two-flight journey that will deposit me in Chihuahua, Mexico, a few days ahead of next week’s seven-stage Vuelta a Chihuahua. I can’t tell you a whole lot about the race at this point, except that it has a lot of climbing (the north-central Mexican state of Chihuahua is roughly along the same latitude line as Colorado and the Rocky Mountains), Garmin-Chipotle is sending a team, and I think I’ll get to see Copper Canyon, a gap in the earth so grand it apparently dwarfs Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Coach(ed): Bumping elbows in lap #1

Coach(ed): Bumping elbows in lap #1

Photo: courtesy Jason Sumner

Greetings from seat 15B of Continental flight 34, Denver to Houston. It’s leg No. 1 of a two-flight journey that will deposit me in Chihuahua, Mexico, a few days ahead of next week’s seven-stage Vuelta a Chihuahua.

I can’t tell you a whole lot about the race at this point, except that it has a lot of climbing (the north-central Mexican state of Chihuahua is roughly along the same latitude line as Colorado and the Rocky Mountains), Garmin-Chipotle is sending a team, and I think I’ll get to see Copper Canyon, a gap in the earth so grand it apparently dwarfs Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Anyway, be sure to check back to all next week, where you’ll find daily Chihuahua race dispatches and photo galleries. Goal No. 1 is to snap a shot of a Chihuahua in Chihuahua, Chihuahua. Goal No. 2 is to score a loaner bike so I’m not too far off the back when my cyclocross season resumes in mid-October.

Indeed, my ’cross campaign got underway in earnest last weekend at stop No. 1 of the Boulder Racing Series. I can’t claim any great glory, but I did manage to avoid crashing or otherwise mangling body or bike, and finished in the upper third of a 75-rider Cat. 4 field. (On a side note high-five to VeloNews’ tech editor Matt Pacocha who won the men’s open race at the same event. Paco’ and his wife Cathy recently had their first kid, yet he still managed to tear the legs off all the local hitters. Bad ass …)

Coach(ed): Like a wounded gazelle

Coach(ed): Like a wounded gazelle

Photo: courtesy Jason Sumner

So yeah, ’cross is on in full effect in Boulder right now. The Wednesday morning group ride regularly attracts 60-70 people, and last weekend’s race fields were jammed across the board. This of course makes the start oh so important, which is one of themes Coach Neal and I recently tossed around. By his estimation, the start of a cyclocross race accounts for roughly 20 percent of success or failure in said race. He broke it down like this:

“Call the start 20 percent, overall fitness 20-30 percent, general technique — mounts and dismounts — 10-15 percent, and running, depending on how much there is, maybe 20-30 percent,” Henderson explained. “So the start is obviously key. You don’t need to be first right away, but you need to be in good position, probably top 10 if you want to make the front group and contest the podium. The other thing you can’t overlook is your ability — or inability — to refocus. That fills in the rest and is definitely another big key.”

Ah yes, refocusing, that unique capacity to forget about, and move on from, the dropped chain, blown corner, missed shift, run-up trip, dude who cut you off, dude you cut off and then yelled at you, and/or out-and-out header in the mud. Learn to press the reset button and ’cross is infinitely more fun. Get sucked into the heat of the moment and it can be a long and frustrating 45 minutes.

“Bad things are going to happen out there,” assured Henderson. “Once in a while you’re going to crash, someone will fall in front of you, or you’ll bobble a corner and lose five places. But you can’t get down on yourself and start thinking, ‘I should have done this or that.’ You have to keep looking forward and think about what’s next and what you can do better. That’s the beauty of cross: Except at the end, there’s always a next lap so you can continuously be focusing and refocusing, working on things from lap to lap, using your head to adjust for a tricky turn or a tough run-up.”

Coach(ed): The joy of being done

Coach(ed): The joy of being done

Photo: courtesy Jason Sumner

Unfortunately my refocus moment came on the last lap when my chain wouldn’t drop out of the big ring as I approached a punchy little uphill section. In the midst of the unscheduled dismount-drop F bomb-fix chain-remount, four or five guys went storming by, ending a possible top-20 run. Yes, I’m making excuses …

Coach and I also talked about the need to do proper warm-up and course reconnaissance before race start. This may sound like “no shit” advice, but I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always gotten this right — and I bet I’m not alone.

“If possible you really want to figure out where the most technical sections of the course are, and then ride them at speed,” Henderson instructed. “Doing it at speed is the only way you’re going to know for sure what the best line is or if your tires are going to hold or whether you can ride the sand section. Those aren’t things you should be figuring out during the race.”

And of course a good warm-up goes a long way in determining how things go early in the race, especially at … you guessed it … the start.

“It’s very similar to what you would do for a crit or cross-country race,” added Henderson. “You should be doing super threshold efforts, with a least a couple that are around 1-2 minutes, and also a couple short, hard accelerations — full sprint type efforts. That will leave you ready to snap off line, and that’s where you need to be because usually in ’cross it’s a mass sprint start and then whatever you can maintain after that.”

Okay, we’re about to land in Houston, so I’m going to cut it off there. Next go round I’ll have a full report (hopefully) about riding a bike in Chihuahua, Mexico. In the meantime, happy ’crossing.

Now here’s this week’s Q&A with the coach. Only a few questions, so if you’d like to ask Neal Henderson a question, please send an e-mail to Remember to include your name and hometown. Questions may be edited for content and clarity.


I’m a Cat 4 roadie who just received permission to move to Cat 3 after a pretty good season with a bunch of podium finishes. My wife and I are adopting twins from Uganda in December and I know life is going to change big time. Last winter/spring I put in huge base miles. This year may not allow me as much time on the bike. What can I do now at the end of a long season? And what can I do as I start gearing up for next year? For example can I get similar results with a little more intensity and less time on the bike during the base period? Also should I Cat up? I’ve done some 3/4 races and feel like I could have podiumed on my very best day even though it didn’t work out.
A dad-to-be,


Congrats in advance on starting a new family! It’s definitely going to have some impact on training and recovery but will also enrich your lift. If you have a solid base from this past season and do a good job maintaining fitness with less volume and slightly more intensity this fall, then you should be fine for next year. I would encourage you to initially back off the intensity and get in whatever volume is reasonable along with a weekly, or possibly even twice weekly, day of threshold and/or sprint intervals through the fall until your twins arrive.

You can also do more cross training now before building up for the 2009 season. Once your focused training starts for 2009, then going with a lower volume and higher intensity of training is likely to allow you to continue to improve if done effectively. Be sure to focus on recovery, though, as higher intensity training typically requires more recovery time than does low intensity training.

Also, keep in mind that improving your race results are not solely based on your fitness. Yes, you have to be fit, but tactics such as where you ride in the pack, how you corner, gear selection and timing for a sprint will also have a big impact on your race results. You might also consider focusing on shorter events with a lower training volume — short TTs and criteriums being good choices, or even track racing if you have a local velodrome!
Good luck with everything,

Hello Coach,

I recently came across an on-line article snippet where you made a comment on periodized training for endurance sports. Here’s the quote:

“There’s not a great deal of scientific evidence out there showing that a periodized training schedule for endurance competitions yields superior results.”

When running in the past, I used a Lydiard 26-week program straight from “Running To the Top” with the only change being the use of a heart rate monitor and three runs with 30 minutes at 87 percent of max heart rate each week during the base period, combined with pose running mechanics. This yielded great results for me and the high school kids training with me. They went from 5-minutes miles to 4:15 miles in 6 months.

But when I tried to translate this to triathlon, I have not been successful. The 26-plus week season when training alone is too long to be as consistent as I would like, and I feel like the track work and shorter 5- to 20-minute cycling intervals, while hard, have not translated into power on the bike. I recently rewrote my training plan taking these things into account: shortening the season to 14 weeks with the intention of completing 2-3 seasons each year, cutting out the track work, and doing more threshold and super-threshold training work and moving away from doing “Swim To The Top” type swim workouts back to the interval training I grew up with, but not the year round daily anaerobic work dished out in my USS practices, but rather to push me for pace improvements while swimming alone.

All this said, I would like to find out what you are doing with feedback training and what Mike Doane is doing. After racing with his pupil, Andy Potts, this year and watching him blow apart the course and doing so consistently, I realized that I need to change something and figure out how they are training, because I am missing something. I am seriously questioning periodized training for triathlon. Yes, I would like a coach and I’d love a training partner. But some advice would be swell, too.
Thanks for your time,

Hi Nick,

First off, the most important part of using a periodization scheme in developing training is that you need to include rest into your training schedule. Recovery from the training is the only way to ensure that training is worth doing. The most potentially effective training schedule will be ineffective if you don’t recover properly. That being said, the schedule that you laid out doesn’t show any weeks or even any days of recovery.

Another problem I see is that the training schedule that you sent also includes more volume overall than I think is necessary depending on which race distance you are focusing on.

The next difficulty with the schedule you sent is that using a straight percentage of max heart rate assumes that all athletes respond the same way and that their threshold effort occurs at the same percentage of max heart rate, which unfortunately isn’t true. I would recommend that you talk with a USA Triathlon certified coach to at least help you put together a more individual training schedule based on your personal strengths and weaknesses.

You also need to consider combo workouts such as swim/bike and bike/run workouts. For me, coaching — especially for multisport athletes — is about identifying where the greatest improvements can be made while not sacrificing that athlete’s individual strengths. Depending on the person there are a number of different tools that I use — video camera for swimming technique, power meter for a cycling, GPS and heart rate monitor for running, in addition to the periodized training schedule. I can’t say anything about Mike Doane’s training methods specifically, though I know that Andy Potts has been very successful under Mike’s tutelage.
Hope this helps,

Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 37-year-old, 170-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach — and training with power — for the first time. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He is documenting his experiences for is this twice-monthly column.

His coach, Neal Henderson, is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include Garmin-Chipotle’s Taylor Phinney, Jelly Belly’s Scott Tietzel and Trish Downing, a nationally ranked paraplegic athlete. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and this year was named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. Henderson is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis.

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