Every rider I’ve ever talked to wants better cardio and endurance on the trail. It seems like one of those things that you can never have enough of – the more cardio and endurance you have the faster you can push the pace and the longer you can ride.
Improving your cardio and endurance takes far more than just working on your cardio and endurance.
And who doesn’t want that?
But despite it being the most popular answer to the “what do you want to improve question” it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of training. The reason for this is that we tend to look at things backwards and start with cardio training. We act like the cardiovascular system is the engine that drives our movement when it isn’t.
The Energy Systems (which include the cardiovascular and metabolic systems) do not directly create movement in any way. What they do instead is support and fuel the movement.
The only system that can directly create movement in the body is the muscular system. It does this by creating tension, which is accomplished through using the fuel provided by the Energy Systems. So while you need fuel to move the fuel itself isn’t creating the movement.
The Energy Systems respond to the tension demands in the muscles. This means that it is those tension demands that we need to look at when designing a program to help us ride faster and longer on the trail. We don’t want to improve the fitness of the Energy Systems for their own sake, we want to improve our body’s ability to create specific movements, create an appropriate amount of tension within those movements and be able to fuel those specific tension production capacities.
As an example let’s look at standing and seated pedaling. A lot of riders who are pretty fit while sitting down and pedaling feel that they lack the stamina to stand and pedal for very long. It is assumed that the fitness from one position should transfer over to the other position since they both are essentially pedaling a bike. However, if we look at it from a tension standpoint (which is how your body sees it) we get a much different picture.
When you stand up, all of the tension demands in the body change – your core tension increases to hold you up, the tension patterns in the lower body change as your hips shift forward and you get more hip extension at the bottom of the pedal stroke and your upper body tension increases as you hold yourself up on handlebars and use them for leverage.
All of these different tension demands require your Energy Systems to respond in a very different way than when you are sitting down to pedal. In fact, looking at it from your body’s point of view, those two pedaling positions have very little in common.
This means that a training plan to improve your Energy Systems in relation to the tension demands of standing pedaling will be different than a training plan for seated pedaling. If you are looking at it from a strictly Energy Systems viewpoint you can easily miss this and dive into a program that addresses your Aerobic and Anaerobic Energy Systems but doesn’t do it in a way that improves the body’s ability to fuel the different tension demands needed on the trail.
This is also one of the reasons I am not a big fan of road riding based programs for mountain bikers – the tension demands of road cycling in no way resemble those of mountain biking and don’t address a lot of the higher tension elements we face on the trail.
A program designed for a rider who needs to sit and spin a high cadence for long periods of time simply cannot optimally address the tension demands of a rider who needs to stand up more, grind through lower RPMs and execute technical skills multiple times each ride. Again, from a tension demands standpoint the two sports look nothing alike and require a different approach.
For you, though, this means that it is actually much easier to target your weaknesses on the trail. Whatever you want to improve can be improved dramatically by following this simple three step process…
Step #1: Can you efficiently create the movement in the first place? No matter what you want to improve on your bike, there is a basic movement pattern behind it. If it is out of whack, that will interfere with your ability to improve the desired skill on the bike.
Sticking with the standing pedaling example, if you want to improve your power and endurance with it you first need to make sure you can create a basic lunging movement pattern off your bike. As a fan of the Functional Movement Screen, I use the Hurdle Step and the Inline Lunge screens to look at the basic movements patterns behind the standing pedaling stroke and tell me if a rider needs to fix them before moving on to the next step.
If you find that a fundamental movement pattern behind what you want to improve needs some work then you will want to use some basic flexibility exercises to address the problem. This means that you need to start stretching a lot more.
If you are tight and lack basic flexibility then you won’t be able to consistently move better no matter how many other things you try. In fact, just improving your flexibility will often result in noticeable gains in performance since you are wasting as much energy having to overcome the restrictions caused by the tight muscles.
Step #2: Can you create enough tension in the movement? Once we know that you are moving efficiently we need to make sure that you can create enough strength and power within that movement to bring about some change on the bike. Using the standing pedal stroke as an example, if you tire out after 15 Stagger Stance Squats then odds are you are too weak to significantly improve your ability to stand and pedal.
This is where strength training comes in and, when done right, it is simply a way for you to practice creating more tension within targeted movement pattern. I have several exercises I like to use to improve the strength and power of the standing pedal stroke including the Stagger Stance Squat and Airborne Lunge you can check them out in the video I did HERE.
Step #3: Can you fuel and sustain the tension demands of the movement? This is where your “cardio training” or “Energy Systems Training” stuff comes in. Unfortunately, this is also where most riders start when looking to improve. They know they want to ride faster and longer but don’t know that they need to make sure that they can move efficiently and produce enough tension in the first place.
The goal at this point is to simply improve your ability to fuel tension in the desired movement patterns and intensity levels, which means you have to address the previous two steps before this step can be truly effective.
You also have to design your workouts around those tension demands, in this case doing workouts that specifically target standing pedaling or the movements behind it. Doing a workout on your bike that has you out of the saddle or a doing a workout using kettlebell swings are two ways to specifically address those tension demands within a workout.
Understanding this sequence also puts the importance placed on Energy Systems/ Cardio Training at the highest levels into perspective. World Cup Pro riders usually have taken care of Steps #1 and #2 through the process of training for and competing in the highest levels of competition. At that point Step #3, which is essentially training to improve their ability to fuel their already good movement and tension production, does become the most important thing.
However, this does not mean that it is the most important factor in success, simply that it can be prioritized at that point in their careers.
If one of them broke their leg they wouldn’t give a poop about their “cardio” – their main goal would go back to be able to walk and ride again (Step #1) and then to regain their strength (Step #2) before re-focusing on their “cardio” (Step #3). This means that whether you realize it or not movement is always most important and you must always check your progress with Steps #2 and #3 against it.
This means that for the vast majority of riders, focusing too soon on Step #3 because that is what the pros do isn’t the best approach.
Most need to move better (Step #1) and improve their ability to create tension (Step #2) before focusing so heavily on their ability to sustain that tension (Step #3). It is only by approaching your training program like this that you can create sustained progress year after year while also avoiding most – if not all – overuse injuries.
So as you go into the off season make sure you think about this and plan accordingly. I’ll be doing some more posts going over some off-season training tactics and periodization models for you to use but the most important message is this – create the movement and strength base that you need to support your endurance training and you’ll see far better results.
BTW, this is the exact approach I use with the Ultimate MTB Workout Program. The reason is the best mountain bike specific workout program on the planet is because I’ve refined it over 14+ years of working with mountain bikers. From World Cup pros to weekend warriors, I’ve helped them all through this exact approach and I know it will help you too.
So stay tuned for more great off-season training posts and be sure to check out the Ultimate MTB Workout Program if you’re looking for a proven workout program to use this off-season.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems