One of the hardest parts about creating a cardio training program is knowing the value of numbers. A lot of cardio training programs are very driven by numbers like hours of training, miles ridden, heart rate zones and power zones.

So who is getting more from their workout? The rider with the better breathing and posture or the rider with the higher heart rate/ power output?

The theory is that training is like a math equation and if we ride X number of miles at Y heart rate/ power zone we’ll get Z increases in performance. We give the body an input that stimulates a specific metabolic response and that is how we improve fitness and performance.

The problem is that this is not a realistic view of performance.

How we perform is not governed by those numbers but instead by how efficiently we can apply our fitness to the specific demands of the trail.

In other words, it eventually boils down to how efficiently you move and breathe.

Applying high quality movement to your training is the missing ingredient in most riders programs because we are told that chasing numbers is the goal. But numbers for the sake of numbers means nothing on the trail.

But this doesn’t mean that numbers aren’t valuable.

We just need to understand that they are a symptom of the real goal, which is to improve our efficiency. When you move more efficiently your numbers will improve but if you chase the numbers you can miss chances to improve your efficiency.

Let me give you a specific example of what I mean…

Rider A and Rider B are doing a series of 20 second intervals. Rider A told to push as hard as he can while maintaining good posture and breathing habits. As soon as he feels them start to go he backs off as he needs to so he can maintain them.

Rider B is simply told to go for a max heart rate/ power output each time. He isn’t focused at all on breathing and posture and simply wants to push as hard as he can. In the process he uses less than optimal breathing and posture but he does achieve a higher heart rate/ power level than Rider A.

So who is getting more from that workout? The rider with the better breathing and posture or the rider with the higher heart rate/ power output?

First, I would argue that it is Rider A. I am a big believer that posture and breathing play a major role in your performance. When you have good, strong posture you waste less energy when you move and the better your breathing the more efficiently you are able to fuel your efforts.

When you train your goal should be to focus on working as hard as you can within the context of good breathing and posture. Letting those two things go to hell so you can chase a higher heart rate or power reading isn’t the point of training and is in fact counterproductive to how you want to ride on the trail.

How you ride is simply and extension of how you train and if you train with crappy posture and breathing habits then that is what you will bring to the trail. And this means that you should let those be your guide, not your heart rate or power level.

Now, the ultimate answer would be “both” – you want optimal breathing and posture plus the higher heart rate/ power output.

And this is your eventual goal with training.

By focusing on the quality of how you move and breathe first you’ll eventually turn those things into a habit so you can put more mental energy into “working hard”. But since you understand that “working hard” had to be done within the context of reinforcing the posture and breathing habits you want to use on the trail you’ll get much more out of those hard workouts.

So using numbers as an objective look at how you are responding to your training program or to get you in the ballpark for how hard to work is fine but they shouldn’t be the goal in and of themselves. Keep the quality of your movement and breathing as the “weak link” that guides your training and let the numbers take care of themselves.

And this is also where a good strength and mobility program come into play. One of the best ways to change your breathing and posture habits is through strength and mobility training, making it easier to apply those things to your cardio training and eventually to the trail. It is almost impossible to change those things on the bike without first getting off the bike to fix the underlying issues causing the breakdowns.

So make sure that you are letting your breathing and posture be your guide during cardio training and use strength and mobility work to re-set and reinforce that posture. This will ensure that you see results on the trail and not just in your training numbers.

So what do you think? Should numbers drive our training or are they simply another guidepost on the way to improvement? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you liked this article please click one of the Like or Share buttons below to help spread the word to fellow riders who could benefit from the info.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

2 thoughts on “Don’t make this mistake with your cardio training program…

  1. Billy Smith says:

    Hello, Unfortunately I missed the zoom presentation on breathing, will there be another chance to view the presentation? Thanks Billy

  2. George says:

    I have been riding for over 20yrs, but just got a HR monitor in the last year. I was surprised to find I was redlining nearly all the time every time I rode. I started focusing my training more using tools like Strava’s freshness/fitness.. and going out for rides more frequently, but having rides where I would stay under 130 or 120 HR the whole time, while focusing on posture, breathing (through nose) and cadence….. became more disciplined in hip mobility and core strength exercises for recovery.

    The improvements have been awesome. So I really find my value in the numbers not on the high end, but on helping me get good work while not beating myself up every time.

    Regarding posture, improved core strength has been a tremendous help on my trail rides by being able to keep more of an open/upright position on climbs and sections that don’t require the attack position. Allowing me to get more oxygen in and stay more relaxed in the upper body, letting most of the ‘fuel’ go to the legs where they are needed most…. and greatly improved in ride recovery times.

    To assist, I set a HR alarm on my garmin when I exit zone 3 and enter zone 4… it has been a great training tool to allow me to back off a bit and try to maintain or recover, rather than kill it. I am finding that I am near my PR’s or setting new PR’s at lower HR in many sections using this strategy, and I feel like I am not working that hard.

    Besides my improvement on rides, I am able to get out to ride more frequently each week and do more at home on days with big rides, I am not nearly as wiped out. After all these years of going as hard as I could each ride to get better.. I find out now that the better approach is to take a more measured approach, and go easier and train those breathing and posture skills/strengths along with mobility…. with that approach getting faster just happens, and feels easy…

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