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.