Cardio vs. Endurance Training – Addition by Subtraction

In my last article I wrote about the differences between “mountain bike cardio training” and “mountain bike endurance training” and how riders everywhere had been unduly influenced by the idea that they are the same thing. As I illustrated with my MTB Performance Wheel, though, cardio training is only one of eight training components that really influence how fast and long you can endure on your bike, making endurance training a different concept entirely. Now I want to get into how this information should influence your paradigm on training.


The cardio training paradigm says that the only way to get better is to add to your cardio capacity. Increasing VO2Max, lactate threshold and other markers used by science to measure cardio capacity is the central focus of this paradigm. Base miles, heart rate zones, weekly mileage and other cardio training tactics are pretty much the only tools used for getting faster on your bike. However, as my examples using Lance Armstrong and Mark Wier illustrate, there is far more to being the fastest rider possible than just cardio capacity.


The endurance training paradigm tells us that not only do we need to add to our cardio capacity but we also need to subtract from the negatives that keep us from effectively using our cardio capacity. Without recognizing this “addition by subtraction” effect you end up having to work twice as hard for half the results.


Since this is such a new concept for most I’ll go over the other elements of training and how “addition by subtraction” can influence your overall endurance –


1)Mobility – without good mobility in the hips and upper back you will end up in inefficient positions on your bike. You must have a straight lower back in order to create the best platform possible to create leg drive. If your lower back is rounded then your platform is compromised and you waste a lot of energy as you try to lay down strength and power with each stroke. Add in the fact that poor mobility is usually caused by excessive muscle tension and that tight muscles fatigue faster than usual and you have a recipe for a lot of wasted energy that no amount of cardio training can address.


2)Strength – poor strength levels mean that you have to tap into more energy reserves to create strong movements. Think of it his way – you hit a hill that requires you to use 70% of your leg strength with each stroke to power up. Let’s say that you increase your strength levels and now that hill only requires 60% of your leg strength with each stroke. You now use less energy to get up that hill and will have more for later stages of your ride/ race. Again, increased endurance without an increase in cardio capacity.


3)Power – power levels will help you better create quick, powerful movements on your bike. Quick bursts that take less than 10 seconds to complete, like passing someone on narrow single track when a small window opens up, can expend large amounts of energy if your power levels are poor. Improved power will keep those quick bursts from fatiguing you prematurely.


4)Technical Skills – this is a huge one that few riders appreciate. The key to going faster is to not only increase your speed but to scrub less speed in corners and in technical trail sections. Learning how to corner, how to get into proper position on your bike to set up for trail obstacles and myriad of other things will again result in less wasted energy.


5)Nutrition – this one should be a no brainer but bears mentioning. If you do not give your body the proper fuel to recover from training, power through rides and basically live your life then you will always feel that you lack the energy you want.


6)Mindset – if you are timid on your bike, deal with negative self-talk or otherwise do not how to mentally approach the challenges you face on your bike you will always be disappointed in your performance levels.


7)Recovery – drill this equation into your brain and you’ll be smarter than most “coaches” – Training + Recovery = Results. How well you recover from your training will dictate what kind of results you get. Simply adding to the training side of the equation with no regard to things like massage, stretching, sleep, ice, heat and a whole slew of other tactics to speed your recovery will result in less than optimal gains from your program. Learning how to monitor your recovery to make decisions on if you are doing enough or if you need to do more is also an important part of endurance training.


So there you have it, seven ways that you can increase endurance without increasing your cardio capacity. Just to drive this point home, I’ll give you one more analogy –


The cardio training paradigm is like always trying to add to the size of your gas tank. The endurance training paradigm not only looks at the size of your gas tank but also makes sure your alignment is good, you are firing on all cylinders and that you don’t have your parking brake on. Simply adding to the size of your gas tank while ignoring all of the things that are causing your gas mileage to suffer is pretty silly and no one would take their car to a mechanic that would suggest that, yet mountain bikers are taking that same approach with their training everyday.


From this perspective, your off season training should be spent looking at and addressing the loosest spokes on your MTB Performance Wheel, not just arbitrarily working on building your cardio capacity. You also need to make sure that your training is not making any of your negatives worse, which is where true cardio cross training comes in.


In my next article in this series I’ll explain why I do not think that using a road bike for any off season cardio training qualifies as real cross training and how it may in fact make it harder to address mobility issues while creating a competing neural blueprint in the process.


-James Wilson-

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  1. […] MTB Strength Coach » Cardio vs. Endurance Training – Addition by … […]

    Reply • February 21 at 8:58 am
  2. Brad says:

    Hey James, you always talking about the recovery aspect can you do a video on youtube talking about that subject?

    Reply • March 11 at 6:26 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Look for it soon. Thanks for the suggestion.


      Reply • March 12 at 10:05 am
  3. BEN MURPHY says:

    Really great synopsis! You’re totally right; how long and far you can ride (especially off road) is driven by far more than just your legs and lungs… You captured that really well! -B

    Reply • July 18 at 8:35 am

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James Wilson