Cardio vs. Endurance Training

Let me ask you a question – Do you want better cardio? Or do you want to be able to ride harder, faster and longer on the trail? Think these two goals are the same thing? Perhaps not…

The problem lies in the confusion caused by the terms “cardio training” and “endurance training” being used interchangeably. The truth is that they mean entirely different things. Understanding this difference is important in order to know what you really need to get to the next level.

Cardio training is any exercise that increases your heart rate, gets you breathing heavier and directly increases the strength of your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, blood vessels). This type of training can consist of a variety of things, from riding your bike to indoor trainer sessions. Cardio training focuses specifically on improving your measurable markers of cardio capacity. While it is an important part of endurance training, it is only part of the picture.

Endurance training refers specifically to things that allows you to “endure” longer on the trail. In other words, any type of training that results in you riding harder, faster and longer on your bike is endurance training. Endurance is also very specific to what and how you ride – technical east coast cross country riding requires different specific endurance than bombing some SoCal downhill runs.

At the heart of it all is what I call the MTB Performance Wheel. The MTB Performance Wheel shows us the different areas that can affect how we perform on the bike. Each spoke represents a component that we can manipulate in order to “tighten” that spoke. And just like a bike’s wheel, each spoke affects the others. The rim represents our performance – the truer and rounder the rim is the better you perform on the trail.

Here is a brief summary of each “spoke”:

1.Strength – your ability to generate tension in the right muscles in the right sequence to efficiently create strong, effective movement. Getting stronger will make hard pedaling efforts and rough, rocky trails feel easier. Some good exercises to concentrate on are the Deadlift, Bulgarian Split Squats, Chin Ups and Turkish Get Up.

2.Power – your ability to quickly apply your strength while maintaining the proper position and muscle recruitment sequence. Power is strength applied quickly and therefore requires a good strength base to continually progress. Two good exercises to concentrate on are the Swing and the Single Arm DB Snatch.

3.Mobility – your ability to move smoothly and pain free through a good range of motion while easily getting into proper body position for exercises and bike skills. Increasing your mobility will help you get into stronger, more efficient positions on the bike and increase your ability to maintain balance and flow on the trail. You want to integrate Foam Rolling, stretching (Quads & Hip Flexors are two important areas) and dynamic mobility.

4.Nutrition/ Supplements – the types and amounts of fuel that you put into your body to help drive your training and riding efforts. Concentrate on these 4 Habits:
1. Eat protein with each meal
2. Eat fruits & veggies with each meal
3. Avoid refined carbs
4. No calorie containing drinks

5.Technical Skill – your ability to properly and effectively execute skills on your bike. The better your skills the less energy you waste getting back up to speed after losing momentum in a corner or technical section. Two of the most important skills to learn are track stands and cornering.

6.Recovery – the forgotten side of the results equation (training + recovery = results) that usually holds us back from getting the best results possible. While things like nutrition and mobility overlap this area, you can still do some things specifically to speed your recovery. Two of the most important things are getting enough sleep and taking days off from to training to concentrate on recovery.

7.Mindset – your ability to focus on the right things at the right time while training and riding. This also encompasses your ability to keep your head straight when things either don’t go well and your ability to maintain perspective when things go great. Aaron Gwin has one of the best mental approaches I’ve seen in a rider and he highly recommends the book Mind Gym for help in this area.

8.Cardio/ Endurance – your ability to consistently display your strength, power and skills throughout the duration of your ride/ race. Interval training delivers better trail specific endurance than long, slow cardio sessions. I recommend trying the Tabata protocol (20 seconds HARD! and 10 seconds rest repeated 6-8 times) if you want to experience the pain and power of interval training.

9.Bike & Equipment Set Up – having the right bike and the right equipment set up for the type of riding/ racing you do. The 3 areas that make the biggest direct impact on your ride are the brakes, suspension and wheels.

Here is a video of me going over these 9 spokes on the MTB Performance Wheel in more detail and how they relate to helping you ride faster and/ or longer on the trail:

If you want to ride faster and longer then start working on all the components of “trail endurance” and not just one over-emphasized aspect of it. . If you can’t touch your toes then I’d say you need to work on your mobility. If 5 bodyweight squats make your legs sore the next day you might want to hit the gym.

There is an ancient Chinese saying – “To be different from what you are you must first know what you are”. Armed with this new understanding of endurance training and how it relates to the MTB Performance Wheel you can gain a better understanding of exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are as a rider. This will help you know what to work on to see the fastest, most dramatic impact on your overall endurance.

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. Chris Cowan says:

    AWESOME POST!!!! After doing the DBCombos, changing my diet and working on bike skills I’ve seen a dramatic improvement of how I feel on the bike. My current program consists of this:

    Sunday – Gental Yoga
    Monday – Ride
    Tuesday – DB Combos A
    Wednesday – Ride
    Thursday – DB Combos B
    Friday – Work on specific bike skills like bunny hoping, manuals, track stands, cornering in an empty dirt lot or going for a short ride and then hitting the pump track.
    Saturday – Rest with some foam rollers and stretching.

    On the DB Combo days I’ve also added in push ups (because I really suck at them) during the strength portion and some wrist exercises to help with a injury I had a month or so ago. I’m loving this program!

    Reply • June 16 at 4:52 pm
  2. Bill Blomquist says:

    Been there…Done that…Got the T-shirt

    I got into MT biking 2 years ago.
    Dropped 60 pounds…decided I want to be a good rider
    So I put in over 1500 miles over the winter with long slow rides on my road bike.
    Also worked out at the local gym with weight machines…did some planks
    Sure did develop a nice high cadence spin with clipless pedals (the good riders instructed me to use em)
    I did all this to try and develop better fitness for MT biking.

    Then spring finally came…Time to reap all the cardio and workout benefits!
    Imagine my surprise when climbing a very steep hill requiring strong out of the saddle pedaling with balance…to find myself stalling, toppling over backwards still clipped into my super efficient pedals.
    Immediately retried same hill with many different gear combos, crank spin speeds…with same result…on my butt trying to un-clip out of them pedals.
    Then my buddy in sneakers, hops on my bike and makes the hill with powerful balanced strokes of the crank…turns and grins at me.

    Whoops…back to the drawing board!
    After browsing many sites I find MTB strength training systems.
    Sign up for the DB combos workout, got some platform pedals and Five/Ten shoes.
    Currently only in my third week of the workout program and I am turning in faster times at my local MTB trail.
    I can catch my buddy on the hills now…but he still rides away from me on the downhill’s and curves. (His previous BMX riding time is apparent)
    And it’s so nice to easily bail of the bike when something goes wrong now…thanks to flat pedals.

    I have completely changed my training approach.
    When I do ride my road bike I stand up and blast out intervals and rest standing.
    I believe all the things James talks about in this post matter for MTB riding.
    To me the hardest part is being patient with the needed recovery time and the time it takes to learning a new skill (like track standing)

    I like the quote “A generality never fixed a thing”
    MT biking is specific…you need specific training to be good

    Sorry for the long ramble

    Thank you James

    Reply • June 17 at 11:41 am
  3. Justin says:

    Who is the author of ‘Mind Gym’ as there are a number of books under this title?

    Reply • June 19 at 10:33 am
  4. The Real Rob says:

    Mind Gym is an awesome book which will help your riding. Go to Amazon and buy it. My favorite quote: “fear lives in the future.”

    Reply • June 19 at 12:16 pm
  5. jeffB says:

    @ The Real Rob: A friend of mine, a guy named Greg Hill (the most successful BMX racer in the history of the sport) once told me “don`t focus on the negative side of “what if?”…you already know what`s going to happen if you don`t make it. You`ll crash and it`ll suck. No need to wonder about it. Instead wonder about the potential that lies in MAKING it. Do not let fear stop you from doing what you want to do.”

    Your quote reminded me of that.

    Reply • June 19 at 7:16 pm
  6. jack hicks says:

    Just found your website, by far the best I have seen. I am a Cat 2 mtb competetor making top 3 finishes with very little time to train. Almost all my riding is done with flat pedals on singlespeed. I enjoy riding more like this and have avoided injury and go just as fast! I only clip in and use my race bike for events or if I get a chance to do bigger tech or fast rides. Looking forward to your tips to advance to cat 1!

    Reply • July 29 at 7:14 pm
  7. Chris says:

    The “Mind Gym” that I Have is by Gary Mack & David Casstevens

    Reply • February 10 at 9:57 am
  8. francis fino says:

    do you think tabata in elliptical cardio machine helps us for endurance in trail?

    Reply • August 28 at 7:33 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Its better than nothing but sprints on the bike, running sprints or front squats would be better. Not a big fan of the elliptical machine in general.

      Reply • August 29 at 1:06 pm
  9. Dennis says:

    AWESOME article!!! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I am just getting started implementing you advice / suggestions and already noticing my skills / endurance improving. I look forward to the road (dirt) ahead!

    Reply • January 27 at 8:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks, glad you liked it!

      Reply • January 27 at 5:12 pm
  10. Kevin says:

    Hello James, Thanks for the great article. After finishing a year from a set of goals I made earlier on.. (Cat 1, Leadville finisher with a qualifier barn burner, Vision Quest etc.) I have found myself now coaching some High Schoolers for the upcoming season in Cross Country. With people like Ned Overend and my personal Pro friend MTB’rs that say get in the mountains and just ride, I find myself arguing with people that are mostly roadies. Saying Endurance is 70% of your heart rate etc… Saying you need to do intervals bla bla bla, dont do this dont do that… Speaking from personal experience and being backed up by articles like this, this is the real deal. All I did this year was climb like a motha.. and on the track I felt great and excelled. Thanks James.

    Reply • December 23 at 12:06 am

Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Follow MTB Strength Training Systems:
James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson