Fatigue masks fitness

I don’t know why but I have become obsessed lately with the whole “pedaling endurance” concept. The more I think about it the more I think it holds the key for most mountain bikers to take their riding to the next level. And far from being just a DH rider concept, this idea applies just as much to trail riders and XC racers.

I was going over the new programs with a couple of my riders this weekend and in talking with them I mentioned a saying I’ve heard many times before – Fatigue masks fitness.

No matter where you are or what type of riding you do this saying applies to you. When you get tired your “fitness” is hard to display. However, what is important to note is that fatigue from one thing can affect your fitness in another area.

Let me give you an analogy to illustrate my point – take a powerlifter who can easily squat 600 pounds. Most would admit that he is very “fit” from a strength perspective. However, have that same guy go run a 10K and then try to squat – I guarantee you that he won’t be squatting nearly as much as he usually could.

Now, take a runner who can cover a 10K in under 40 minutes. Have them do a max effort squat workout and then go run – again, they will not be able to run as fast as they usually could.

What we have here is a guy who is strong but had that fitness masked by fatigue from an endurance event. Conversely, we have a runner who has great cardio but it was masked by fatigue from a strength event. In both cases you had people who were “fit” relative to their sport but had an unrelated event mask their fitness.

This is what I think happens to a lot of trail riders and XC riders, especially those who automatically write off a lot of my advice as being “DH specific”. No matter how great your cardio levels are, if you get to the end of a ride or race and you have been physically beat up by the trail you will feel sluggish and tired.

Your physical weakness will mask your cardio fitness on the trail. Unfortunately, a lot of riders who get to the end of a long ride or race and feel their legs going out on them misinterpret that as meaning that they need to work on their pedaling endurance (i.e. more long rides and other cardio stuff). However, what they really need to do is get stronger so that the trail doesn’t beat them up so bad that they are excessively fatigued when they get to the end of a ride.

No matter how long your average ride or race, lack of physical strength will take its toll on you and make it hard to show your cardio/ pedaling fitness towards the end of a ride. This isn’t even taking into account how stronger riders can plow into technical trail sections faster and with more control. Add it all up and how strong you are starts to become even more important to how fast and long you can ride.

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  1. Shawn Sinskie says:

    Yes,Thank You. Strength training is very important. How much and what type of training is where i think people have a difficult time. (Example How much weight? , do i need to bulk up? how many reps do i need to do for strength and not bulk?) Oh yeah Nice Bike! Keep up the good work!

    Reply • February 22 at 9:14 am
  2. Craig says:

    If you race and don’t strength train your seriously misguided.

    Good Post.

    Reply • February 22 at 5:28 pm
  3. electric says:

    Makes sense… probably why the paris-roubaix race is so challenging.. cobble stones and dinky road tires shaking you like a British nanny!


    Reply • February 22 at 10:28 pm
  4. Andie says:

    I would agree that strength training is needed for peak performance in MTB racing. But as a female I’m curious if I should be doing anything different in regards to strength then my male counterparts? I don’t want to “bulk up” but yet still get the most out of my training. Advice?

    Reply • February 24 at 12:59 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Andie – As long as you avoid excessive load (lots of sets, reps and exercises) then you won’t bulk up. Body builders use the volume approach because it builds muscle, athletes use an intensity based approach because it builds functional strength and power while minimizing muscle mass. Maximizing strength to weight ration is the name of the game so even males don’t want to “bulk up”.

      In other words, I wouldn’t really do anything different as almost all riders I work with, regardless of gender, don’t want to add a lot of unnecessary weight.

      Reply • February 25 at 7:48 am
  5. Chris says:

    Gotta agree with Shawn. Strength training is important, but how much you do is where the difference lies between different styles of riding.
    To use your analogy, if you were to get the guy who can squat 600pounds, and the guy who can run 10k in under 40minutes to do a 5km cross country run, I’m pretty sure the runner would leave the other guy in the dust. A big muscle-bound guy is not built for endurance. However a guy who did running practice, some strength training and plenty of core exercises would smash them both. 🙂
    This weekend just gone, I did an endurance XC race which included some very steep and long climbs (picture being in granny gear and fighting to keep your front wheel down). The ride took me 7.5 hours and I finished in the top 25% of riders. Getting prepared for something like that (for me) involves a mix of strength training, hill cimbing practice (on and off road), and hitting local single track to get my skills up. Finding the mix (that fits in with the rest of my life) is the tricky bit.

    Reply • February 24 at 1:44 pm
  6. jeffB says:

    James, I suppose I would be the powerlifter in your example. I have always been able to squat a lot (not that I ever would, but I could probably push up 5 plates per side cold, no warm up). I cranked out 2060 watts on a SRM equipped bmx bike (I raced bmx for many years, even raced pro for a season). I have ridden mtb on and off since `96, now back to it full time (retired from bmx last summer). Fitness is decent (lactic thresh. is 177, max HR is 192, I`m 36). My question is this: How should I train for repeated climbs? One climb, either long and steady or short and steep doesn`t bother me one bit. HR might go up to 185 but will drop back to 125 in less than 60 seconds once the climb is over. The problem is when I have many climbs back to back to back (etc…) my lungs just won`t keep up. I can go to the granny gear and spin up the hills at 3mph but who`s going to win a race at that speed ? LOL. I`m a knowledgeable trainer and can formulate a plan for strength/discharge/aesthetics to suit even the hardest of hardgainer but I know little about endurance training. I don`t want to waste time training in a way that isn`t optimal for my needs. Any advice or suggestions? (realizing the info I gave is fairly limited I know I can expect only a general response, but thanks for any info you may offer)

    Reply • March 25 at 9:25 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ jeffB – intervals are what you need to do now. Repeated hard efforts are your weakness and so using a training method that mimics that is what you want to do. Something like 30 seconds HARD and 1 minute rest, repeated 4-8 times a couple times a week should help.

      Reply • March 27 at 8:16 am
  7. jeffB says:

    Thanks James. I recently started intervals for cardio and high HR performance, which I think is simply masking the real issue (the high HR was a result of my weakness in high output leg endurance). I`ll start doing them with high effort instead of cadence. What`s your opinion on a thought I had to change my squat routine to 4 X 20 with 1/3 my usual working weight?

    Reply • March 28 at 8:52 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ jeffB – high rep squats might help. I like combo drills myself. I have a program based on them if you’re interested…

      Reply • March 28 at 9:19 pm
  8. jeffB says:

    Been a certified trainer for many years…I`m ALWAYS interested in new or different angles. I do have a very specific question if you wouldn`t mind sharing an opinion. Mind dropping me an email if you get a minute?

    Reply • March 29 at 5:39 pm
  9. bikejames says:

    @ jeffB – fell free to shoot me an email at james@bikejames.com with your question and I’ll do my best to answer it.

    Reply • March 29 at 8:04 pm

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James Wilson
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James Wilson