How important is pedaling endurance for DH and 4X riders?

Here is something I’ve been pondering lately. You’ll have to bear with me for a minute because when you first read this it could sound pretty crazy…

How important is pedaling endurance for downhill and 4 cross riders? Let me qualify this first…

I was talking with a very successful DH coach and he mentioned that he did not understand why riders rode a trainer at the top of the hill. He said that a rider will take about 3-5 cranks out of the gate and then coast. His point was that there is not a ton of actual pedaling going when compared to the total time on the bike. Also, pedaling is very short bursts of cranking as hard as you can.

I was also watching an old MTB video and saw some of the pro guys ripping the Mt. 7 Psychosis DH run. I was just floored by how fast they were flying and realized that their ability to absorb impacts was key in letting them go that fast. A weaker rider would have been forced to slow down or else get tossed off the trail.

They were also not pedaling a whole lot. To me, this meant that their eccentric strength levels were actually more important than their ability to pedal for 5 minutes straight. Skills also seemed higher on the list. I’d also rank total body power endurance as playing a bigger role than pedaling endurance.

So, my point is that there may be more important things that contribute to DH and 4X success (my friend Lee McCormack had some interesting insights on the 4X side things). Perhaps it doesn’t come down to “cardio” as much as we think it does.

What I’m talking about here is pedaling endurance – the ability to pedal continuously for an extended period of time. Think about it for a second. In both races you crank hard out of the gate and then you stop pedaling and start coasting. You are not pedaling for the entire length of the race, you are catching pedals where you can or need to.

What percentage of either race are you really pedaling? How long is the longest single pedaling effort?

Talk on the DH World Cup Circuit is that the tracks are getting steeper, more technical and less pedaly. In my mind, eccentric strength and strength endurance become more important than the ability to pedal as hard as you can for 4 minutes straight.

4 Cross races are won or lost at the gate for the most part. Snap the gate, get the hole shot and then stay smooth, cranking where you can. To me the most important thing to train for is that hole shot making hip strength and power more important than the ability to pedal continuously for 30-60 seconds.

Just to clarify – I am not saying that pedaling endurance is not important, just that it may be over emphasized for some riders. Simply some food for thought on a Monday morning. Anyone have some insights or opinions on this?

-James Wilson-

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  1. Mike says:

    Hey James,

    This post may have confirmed one of my concerns – that your programs are geared a bit more for DH riding that cross country. I am a cross country racer (not much DH racing here in Houston, TX) and have just started your dumbbell program. I was considering your full strength training program upon completion of the DB program, but not sure if it would be ideal for a cross country rider. Can you give me some insight on how DH strength training will benefit this cross country racer?


    Reply • February 8 at 8:57 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Mike – Just because I make a post about some specific racing concerns of the DH rider doesn’t mean my programs are all DH specific. I did a podcast on how most mountain bikers, especially in the beginning of a training program, need similar things from a strength training program. However, the real differences are in the specific cardio conditioning I would do with each rider. You can catch the podcast by clicking on this link.

      Just check the Rider Feedback on this site ad you’ll see that most of it comes from trail riders and XC riders who all benefited from getting stronger. Don’t get caught up in thinking that XC and DH riders need completely different training approaches. 80-90% of their programs will look similar with the big differences being specific strength work (like eccentrics for DH riders vs. more high rep work for XC riders) and conditioning (like shorter intervals for DH riders and longer ones for XC riders).

      Hope this helps…

      Reply • February 8 at 9:37 am
  2. Jason says:

    The need for pedaling endurance in 4X varies from track to track, and from bracket to bracket. In the pro class, it is normally the hole shot that takes the win, with few clean passes. IMHO, local cat 1/2 racing requires more pedaling endurance as there is a good chance you can catch someone.

    While not your specialty, pedaling endurance in 30 second sprints is critical in BMX racing. Even if someone gets the snap and the hole shot, they still cannot coast to victory if they know I am pedaling like mad, one bike length behind them.

    Reply • February 8 at 9:26 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Jason – good points, however please note that I did not say that you just coast to victory, you will still need to pedal hard to stay in front. I’m simply pointing out that if you want to have the biggest impact on 4X racing getting strong on the gates might be more important that 30 second sprint efforts. A rider who is dominant on the gates and average with their “cardio” will probably do better than the rider who is average on the gates but has great “cardio”. This is also assuming that skills are equal, as they obviously play a role as well.

      Less important does not mean unimportant. Everything can not be “most important”, you have to set a priority with your program while also working on other things. To me, there may be higher priorities for some DH and 4X riders than pedaling endurance. For some pedaling endurance may be most important but if every rider comes at it the same way only some will be truly addressing their weakest link.

      And I obviously do think that cardio endurance is important, just ask anyone finishing a round of the combo drills or intervals if they feel that they are building cardio.

      Reply • February 8 at 9:44 am
  3. Hey James,

    As you know, I’m just finishing a BMX how-to book, “Pro BMX Skills.”

    I think we can agree the physical demands for BMX racing and 4X are pretty similar. I learned a ton about BMX training from Coach Greg Romero (who coached Jill Kintner and Mike Day to medals). In order of importance: start power, acceleration, top speed, track endurance. Those athletes focus most of their energy on the first straight, and they do just enough full-lap work (and long intervals) to stay strong the whole race.

    The book will have tons of detail (and little illustrations of James demonstrating key exercises).

    Pin it,

    — Lee

    Reply • February 8 at 2:41 pm
  4. joe dondero says:

    james,shouldnt pedal power be as important as mobility and core strength? your system and workout combos target pedal endurance,just indirectly.haveing the strength to apply power as needed can make the differance between in a fun and exciting run and a laboring,non-flowing run.joe.

    Reply • February 9 at 11:15 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Joe – Pedaling power and pedaling endurance are different. Power is the most important thing, which is why strength training helps you pedal harder. However, that is different than the ability to pedal for 10 minutes straight. Bursts of power with limited “recovery” between bursts, plus the strength to absorb high speed impacts seem more important than pure cardio.

      Reply • February 10 at 8:35 am
  5. Gord says:

    I have a bit of concern with this statement:
    “I was talking with a very successful DH coach and he mentioned that he did not understand why riders rode a trainer at the top of the hill.”

    I race XC, but I think it would even more important in DH to approach the start already warmed up. I know it takes me about 15-20 minutes on the trainer to get a good sweat going and be warmed so that my legs feeling like they are ready to deliver. A fast start in XC is also very important as you want to get the hole shot and be first to the single track. In an event such as DH where you have such a short period of pedalling you need to be 100% ready – I can’t imagine coming up at the top and trying to get a fast start with no warm up. To add to that, if you don’t have the cardio, you could be out of breath and exhausted by the time you are warmed up and ready to go! I’m not saying DHers need cardio to race a 20 mile race, but enough for a solid warm up plus what they need to complete the race and a little extra so they have the ability to recover from small mistakes to still give them a chance if they can out pedal everyone else where there is the opportunity.

    Reply • February 10 at 11:05 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Gord – Saying that you don’t like the current warm up techniques doesn’t mean that you don’t think a warm up is in order. 5-10 years ago we would warm up for strength training with a 10-15 minute jog and some static stretching. Today we employ foam rolling, stretching, dynamic mobility movements and activation drills.

      I would think that a DH rider, who is getting ready to redline it down the mountain, a warm up with more intensity would probably get the body more prepared than spinning at a moderate pace for 20 minutes. Plus, sitting and spinning is not really preparing the legs for what they are really getting ready to do – stand and hammer while absorbing impacts.

      It is just a very non-specific warm up – you are sitting down going at a moderate pace for a race where you are going to be standing and hammering. Plus, technical skills, which stem from the hips, are of paramount importance so going through some movement prep/ practice drills would also make sense.

      No one said you don’t need to warm up, just that there may be better ways to do it for the specific demands of DH racing.

      Reply • February 10 at 12:28 pm
  6. Hi James,

    what would you suggest as a best warm up before DH race?

    Reply • February 10 at 1:37 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Radek – I’ll run through what I think a good DH warm up would look like in a post next week…

      Reply • February 14 at 5:27 pm
  7. Chris says:

    Hey James, I think it’s very interesting that the “very successful” DH coach you were talking too had those comments about the “standard” turbo trainer warm-up seen at the top of World cup and regional race start hills alike. I think that the trend of the turbo trainer warm-up being the only style of warm-up pre race run is changing.

    I now see a lot of riders at World cup level incorporate dynamic mobility adn movement prep exercises in conjunction with turbo trainer warm ups at the start of Dh adn 4x racing, Jill Kintner and Justin Leov are two that spring to mind first.

    However I do think that there is still a huge place in the warmup protocol for turbo trainer time. after all it is one of the best ways to illicate a cardiorespiratory response similar to the one which the riders will face in the first 15-30secs of the race run. For example if you take Fort William or Mont Sainte Anne, the initial 15-25secs of competition are flat out pedaling, coupled with some jumps and quick turns. In those cases a turbo trainer is probably a fantastic way to prepare the body for the coming onslaught and not have the cardorespiratory responses totally shock the body which would surely lead to some negative effects on the neuromuscualar efficency.

    Having said that, there are certain courses where the turbo trainer could be dumped maybe, Champéry and Schladming are two that spring to mind as courses where after only 3-7 pedal strokes your’re into pure mayhem. Here some real specific movement prep and on the bike drills could be far more productive.

    I did see first hand at Champery ’07 when Sam Hill produced the most stunning ride in DH history to near decmiate the field in atrocious conditions, that all he did before his start as the fastest qualifier was sit on a bench under a little store shed beside the start house, shoelding himself from the rain. no warm-up, no turbo trainer, no dynamic mobility. Just quiet contemplation followed by complete destruction! The bottomline could be horses for courses?

    Reply • February 10 at 2:52 pm
  8. Darren says:

    Hi James,

    I think something is being over looked here with trainer at the top of the hill. I have to confess before I go on that I am a XC racer and really only know a very little about DH (mainly from mates that race at national level etc.) The trainer at the top of the hill is simply to warm up. There can be a substancial amount of time between runs especially at bigger events, this helps to warm up, open up hamstrings (compressed of sitting around) stimulate neurological activation and preparing the body to buffer lactic acid by-products. By warm-up this does not mean you have to just sit and pedal aimlessly for 10 minutes, you can incorporate fast pedal drills, standing drills the whole lot.

    Generally in my experience (unless being chased by a dog or something) you would never attemp ‘All out’ or ‘max power’ intervals without a substancial warmup training or racing.

    All that being said some of this does come down to the individual. A good example of this was when Travis Pastrana was racing motorcross and supercross he would be on the trainer right up to the last minute of the race start, he would jump on the bike covered is sweat just before the start while the other opponents sat casually on the start line. Coaches may have said that wasnt the best approach either but it worked for him and helped to prevent cramps etc.

    Surely pedal endurance is another ‘String to add to you bow’ so to speak. I remember going to the National championships at Mt Stromlo in Canberra in 07/08 and that track flattens out at the bottom before the finish line maybe a few hundred metre, there was only a couple of guys all day that had the endurance to pedal to the finish line because they have never spent time working on this skill. Whats the point of smokin off the start line, flawlessly jumping every object to give you time away on the flats???

    No offence intended to anyone

    Reply • February 10 at 5:15 pm
  9. bikejames says:

    So, I think we have steered a bit off course here…

    I want to point out that pedaling endurance is important for DH racing, I am simply asking is it the most important thing? Or second, or third…

    I know a lot of it depends on the rider, which is also kind of my point. For some riders it may be their legitimate weak link, however it may not be for others. The prevailing wisdom in DH training is that everything should center on cardio endurance – I’m just saying that approach may not be the best for everybody.

    However, rest assured that I think pedaling endurance is important…just not most important all of the time.

    And the comment about the trainer was not meant to say that it was worthless and had no place. It was simply a comment that made me think about pedaling endurance for DH racing. The trainer can certainly be used effectively at the top of a course, just not as a tool to sit and spin for 20 minutes and call it good.

    Good comments though, glad I could get some thinking going on…

    Reply • February 11 at 12:57 pm

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