One of the reasons that I have a different view on how to approach mountain biking training is because I do not come from a typical cycling background. While I rode bikes as a kid, I didn’t pick up mountain biking until I was 24 and I luckily never had any formal training in “this is how we do it in cycling”.

Instead, I came from a track background. I ran the 800 meters and 1600 meters on the track and dabbled in cross country running, doing well enough to get some interest from a few D1 colleges.

I’ve always known that my track background gave me a different paradigm when it came to training but recently I’ve realized what some of those specific things are. I think that once you look at mountain bike training through this lens it might change some things for you as well.

You can’t constantly train at paces slower than you actually want to race or ride at and then wonder why you blow up when you try to push the pace when it counts.

Who knows, maybe some of the crazy stuff I’ve been talking about will make more sense.

So, here are 2 of the 3 ways that I think my track background has influenced my programs for the better…

1 – You have to have practice and tune-up races sprinkled into your schedule. On the track we don’t show up to every race expecting to perform at the top of our game. Some races are tune-ups for bigger races and some races are low stress B level races that we don’t care as much about.

At the heart of this is the realization that you can’t be in peak shape all of the time. There is just no way you can perform at the top of your game all from the first race to the last race of the season.

What this means on a practical level for us as mountain bikers is 2 things.

First, you need to have a tune-up race (or two) before you first major race of the season. Don’t show up to you first important race and also have it be your first race. Only racing can prepare you for the physical and mental intensities of racing and you need one or two to put the edge on your fitness built from training.

Second, you can’t expect to be able to perform at a high level for weeks on end. Trying to add in rest weeks when you can and have a few B level races where you aren’t pushing yourself as hard mentally and physically. What this means for each rider is individual but the general idea of pushing harder and backing off over the course of the riding season is true for every rider.

2 – Understand the use of over- and under-distance training. On the track you don’t just run a bunch of repeats of the distance you run. For example, when I was training for the 800 meters I didn’t just run 800 meters.

I would run shorter distances at slightly faster paces than I wanted to race at and I would run longer distances at slightly slower paces than I wanted to race at. I needed to expose my body to both speed (under-distance training) and endurance (over-distance training) in order to sharpen my ability to run the 800 meters.

However, in track you also understand that there is a limit to how far you can push over- and under-distance training before you start to get away from what you want to train. In other words, if you got too far away from the actual distance you were training for you started to train something else entirely.

While I’m not sure if there is an exact number, my experience tells me that once you start to get more than 20-50% away from what you are training for you aren’t really training for that distance anymore. The shorter the distance you are talking about the more you can get away with the 50% side, the longer the distance and the more you should stick to the 20% end.

And, as always, the closer you are to the paces and distances you want to train for the better.

What this means for us on a practical level is, again, 2 things.

First, filter your training rides and cardio program (which are really part of the same thing) through the distances you actually ride or race. The misuse of over-distance training is rampant in mountain biking as most riders fail to do this.

If you’re average ride or race is 2 hours or less then following a training approach geared for someone who rides for 3 hours or more isn’t really training what you need to get stronger at riding for 2 hours.

For you Enduro racers out there, this means that if your average stage is 10 minutes long then you should be focused on pinning it for 5-15 minutes on the trail and resting so you can do it again over the course of your trail rides – you know, kind of like you race – instead of just going out for 2-3+ hour long rides where you ride continuously for 30+ minutes at a time.

The second lesson is to make better use of under-distance training. This is something that is not used very effectively by most riders. In a world where “riding longer is better” the idea of purposefully going out and riding for shorter distances seems crazy. But when you realize that you have to feel mentally and physically comfortable with your race pace you start to see why.

If you never push a pace slightly faster than race pace then you’ll never get the chance to truly get your body used to the next level of speed. And since you can’t go faster for longer right off the bat you need to have some opportunities to faster for shorter distances.

You can’t constantly train at paces slower than you actually want to race or ride at and then wonder why you blow up when you try to push the pace when it counts.

Filtering your training rides and cardio program through the actual distances/ length of time we ride and making smart use of both under- and over-distance training will make your “cardio” program 100 times more effective overnight. A mountain bike training program designed this way will give your body the chance to adapt to the actual energy systems and muscular demands of the paces you need when you race or ride, giving you much better results.

That’s it for now, I know that I said that I have 3 things but I think that these 2 will give you plenty to think about for now. Plus the last point is the most important and I want to address it by itself.

I will give you a hint, though. If you think that track runners are running to improve their cardio then you would be wrong. And what they actually look at as the goal of their workouts holds the key to helping you understand why the all-mighty quest for more cardio could be holding back your actual performance on the trail.

If you have any questions or thoughts about this article just leave a comment below, I always like to hear what you think.

And if you like this article be sure to click one of the Like or Share buttons to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

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