Watch a video of a cyclocross race, and – even from the comfort of your home or workplace – you may feel a little muddy. You may instinctively ache for your calves, quads and hamstrings and send a silent "thank you" to bike helmet manufacturers everywhere. The race starts off looking normal enough, with a swarm of large-legged athletes riding bikes. But then the race will get a little wacky. There will be dramatic hills. There will be sets of knee-high hurdles that force cyclists to dismount from their bikes, hurl them over their shoulders and continue on foot. And there will be mud – enough mud to transform even the slickest of cyclists into exhausted swamp monsters by the end of the race, a few 1.5 to 2.5 mile-laps and about an hour later.
These races are how Tim Johnson makes a living. Although he has a background in mountain biking and road racing, Johnson has been specializing in cyclocross for more than a decade and is still having fun. "I'm still shocked that this has been a career for me," he says. And it's no mediocre career. Johnson has racked up six national cyclocross championships, taken home a silver medal from the 1999 Union Cycliste Internationale World Championship and gathered a slew of sponsors, including Red Bull and Cannondale.
Johnson, 36, of Tops Field, Mass., talked to U.S. News about what it takes to train for this grueling sport. His responses have been edited.
What is a typical day like for you during cyclocross season?
Today, I'm going to be doing two rides. In the morning, I'll do a really intense interval session where I go to a local hill, warm up, and then go up and down the hill as hard as I can go. And you do that over and over again with rests in between. Interval training can be explained as a big effort split up into bite-sized pieces, and that's what helps you handle the intensity of a race.
When I get back from interval training, I'll eat right away, usually like rice and eggs – something really simple and clean with a lot of calories, which will help repair the muscles that I had just spent the last two hours ripping apart. It's not a pretty sight sometimes. The best kind of training sessions are the ones where you don't think you can finish, or you don't think you can do one more, but then you do, and when you get back you're absolutely shattered.
Imagine you're a pitcher finishing up seven innings of baseball with an ice pack on his shoulder. Luckily, our sport is in the fall and winter, so I do full body icing without even asking for it. And if it's a really good day and I have the opportunity, I'll get some sort of body work – physical therapy or massage – because cross is really asymmetrical. We're always getting off the bike on the same side and then always jumping back on using the same side. So you become lopsided – one side hurts more than the other, and your hips might get out of alignment.
What do you do after your bike ride, meal and possible physical therapy or massage?
I'll usually ride a second time – a very light one-hour ride, where I'll never push that hard. In cycling, we call that a coffee shop ride. You're sort of resetting yourself. If you hurt yourself in the morning with the intervals, your legs are in pain, and a nice, simple, short ride will make you feel better. And because we do so much in the fall and winter, I do a lot of training inside. So I'll probably do that second ride while sitting on a stationary trainer. It's nice and warm and relaxed, and my muscles are happy. Mentally, it's a lot easier to do that than to get dressed in 40 different layers and go outside again. Then, I usually don't need a huge dinner after that.
What kind of diet do you follow while you're training?
The thing that affects me the most is clean, whole food – either fresh vegetables or really nice, quality meat. I'll eat a beet salad with really nice steak, and it'll set me up to feel good that night or the next day. I think a lot of people kind of take nutrition as secondary or tertiary, and they're missing an important part of their life.