Do you need to cycle the intensity of your trail rides?

One of the hardest things for a mountain biker to admit is that they can’t just go out and ride as hard as they want every time they hit the trail. In fact, this is probably the #1 reason that riders invest in one of my programs – they feel like they are being physically held back from riding like they want. While this is a great reason to start training, this mindset can also backfire on you once you achieve a better level of fitness.

The reason for this is that as your ability to produce tension in the body (strength and power are a result of muscular tension) improves, the amount of stress you put on your body increases. While your first few rides as a mountain biker may have felt impossibly difficult, the truth us that your strength and fitness weren’t high enough to place as much stress on the body as you can now. After a while on the trail – and a good MTB strength & conditioning program – you reach the point where you have to be conscious of this fact and cycle your ride intensity levels.

While most people can appreciate the need to cycle Hard, Moderate and Light efforts with their workouts few think about their trail rides in the same terms. If you ignore this fact and continue to hammer hard rides every time you hit the trail you will start to overtrain and burn out – your body needs lighter, easier rides cycled in to keep you fresh and fit. You also need to think about how your rides fit in with your workouts and try not to schedule hard rides and training sessions on the same day or on back to back days.

Just so we are on the same page, here is a rough idea of what I mean by Hard, Moderate and Light…

– A Hard Ride or Training Session is something that would be very tough to repeat the following day.

– A Moderate Ride or Training Session is something that you could probably repeat a couple days in a row but you’d have to dig down a bit the next day.

– A Light Ride or Training Session is something you could easily repeat several days in row with little problem, often times with you ending the ride or training session feeling a bit better than when you started.

While this is a very unscientific explanation I find it works well because the terms Hard, Moderate and Light will mean much different things to a DH rider compared to a 24 Hour Solo racer and this way they can plug in the specific types of riding that fit their goals and fall within these parameters. The easiest way to do this is to rate your rides and workouts on a 10 point Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale –

– Hard efforts are 8-10 on the RPE scale

– Moderate efforts are 4-7 on the RPE scale

– Light efforts are 1-3 on the RPE scale

Just jot down the number that you felt corresponded with your ride/ training session and you will start to notice some interesting patterns. Here are some guidelines I use to both plan a training week and to make adjustments as needed during the week:

– Look to one ride to be your main effort for the week and mark that as your Hard Ride. If you race then this ride should be on the same day you usually race and mimic your race conditions as much as possible. Think of this as a mini-race/ time trial and make sure that your other training efforts support it or at least don’t interfere with it.

– Don’t schedule a Hard or Moderate Training Session the day before a Hard Ride.

– Don’t schedule more than 2 days in a row of Hard or Moderate Rides or Training Sessions. In other words, if you play/ train reasonably hard for two days in a row look to take a rest day or do a Light Ride or Training Session.

– Keep your weekly RPE score under 50. If you add up your RPE scores from the week and find yourself near or over 50 then odds are you are training too hard and too often.

Again, these are just some general guidelines that I have found work well. This is the reason that I cover how to cycle both workout and ride intensities in the Weekly Training Plans that come with my programs but hopefully this article will give you the tools to apply this important concept to your training and riding. While you want to be able to ride faster and longer you can’t do it every time you hit the trail, making a balance between efforts a necessary component to your long term success.

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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  1. Jon Laterveer says:

    Another good article, last year I went out and hammered every ride. I ended up slower and finding I was having less fun and more stressed after my rides. How wrong is that? This year I plan to cycle my rides and it’s going to be great and involve my family (they ride to!) more 🙂

    I have a question about the KB workouts. We should be feeling in accordance with the scale for the heavy, moderate and light workouts? I did a Light workout the other day but my RPE about 8-9. I am thinking I need to cut down my intensity/reps so I feel my RPE is about a 3 after a Light KB workout and follow the same mindset for the Moderate and Heavy workouts. This sure is a learning curve I am happy about, big chance from a ” go hard or go home” or “leave it all on the trail” mindset.

    Reply • March 4 at 7:53 am
  2. Mike says:

    Good advice James, but I’m not 100% clear on one point; does the RPE score include my light, medium, and hard workouts both on and off the bike?

    Reply • March 4 at 5:31 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, you need to track both. Too many hard rides and workouts in a row will take a toll so you need to cycle both of them in relation to the other as well.

      Reply • March 6 at 8:33 am
  3. Mark in Denver says:

    James you are awesome. I love your articles and its been just the education I need to get in a good training routine that I’m really enjoying. Just want you to know you have a fan- thanks bud!

    Reply • March 5 at 7:13 pm
  4. jmvar says:

    Hi James, great article thank you for posting. I have a question about differences in intensity and duration for rides. I can go out and do a ride for 1 hr really pushing it and have it be a 10 on RPE. I could also go out for a 4 hour ride at a very moderate pace and have it really tire me out because of the duration more so than the pace. Should these 2 different efforts be considered the same when taking weekly effort into account and scheduling workouts around rides?


    Reply • March 6 at 1:12 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, it gives you a look at the intensity of your efforts which is different than the length of the effort. You can also go on a 1 or 4 hour ride and it rank a 5 or 6 on your RPE. You can also go on a ride you know should be a 5 or 6 and it feel like an 8 or 9, which would indicate that you are not fully recovered and the accumulated fatigue is starting to affect you.

      Reply • March 7 at 9:36 am
  5. Doyle says:

    This is a great article! Thanks for writing this James.

    Reply • January 21 at 3:04 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No problem, glad you liked it.

      Reply • January 22 at 11:08 am
  6. Amos says:

    Hi James, right now I’m just starting the season with your NGNP workouts in the morning M-Tu, Th-Fr with the hardest Monday and tapering off throughout the week before a hard, long ride on Saturday and then a mellow ‘fun run’ day on Sunday. Of course, I try to squeeze in a light hour or so on the bike after work during the week with an intense ‘power hour’ on Wednesday, my workout off-day. I’m only a few weeks into the season and it seems to be working, but do you have any suggestions? Thanks

    Reply • May 26 at 4:57 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Sounds good to me, the trick is to make sure that you aren’t trying to do 2 hard rides back to back and that you have some planned moderate and easy rides. If that plan is working for you then stick with it.

      Reply • May 27 at 1:34 pm

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