Most of us realize pretty quickly that it takes more than just riding to get better at mountain biking. Gassing out quickly, getting overpowered by technical trail sections and finding yourself unable to bend and twist like you need to in order to stay balanced on the bike are all signs that we need to spend some time improving our mobility and fitness.
What I’ve found to work better is to focus on the things that you need while riding that you don’t use enough while riding to improve.
However, this is also the time that a lot of us make a big mistake with the logic we apply to the problem.
A lot of us make the mistake of thinking that since we’re tired and sweaty at the end of a hard ride, we need to be that way at the end of every training session. We end up turning every workout into a test of our cardio and work capacity, thinking that we’re working on the same thing we need on the trail.
While this makes a lot of sense on the surface – we need a lot of cardio when we ride so we need to train it a lot off the bike – there are problems with this approach.
The main problem is that the human body can only recover from so much and your body doesn’t look at riding and cardio training as separate things. You do use a lot of cardio when you ride and that counts as cardio training to your body.
If you are always training your cardio every time you workout – be it riding the trail or in the gym – then you aren’t giving it a chance to re-build and improve. Remember that training breaks you down and recovery is what allows you to improve and without allowing your cardio system to recover it won’t be able to improve.
In fact, what often gets forgotten when talking about training for mountain biking is that we have the chance to practice our sport at or near full speed and effort. This means that your trail riding sessions are as specific as you can get with your cardio training.
Unlike sports that don’t allow you to train at full speed and effort, we don’t need to fill in as many cardio gaps with a specific cardio training program. In fact, since trail riding is the most specific cardio training we can do we need to make sure that we prioritize those things as cardio training when planning our overall program.
But it is here that things start to get confusing, and that confusion stems from the fact that most of us look at “riding” and “cardio training” as separate things. However, doing this can really start to cause problems if the fatigue from your cardio training starts to interfere with your ability to ride hard when you hit the trail.
You should look at your mountain bike riding and your cardio training as a seamless process, with one blending into and affecting the other. Riding your mountain bike is the most specific cardio training you can do, making it the best way to improve your mountain bike specific endurance and that has to be taken into account when designing your overall program.
But what often happens when starting a cardio intensive program is that we see an initial improvement followed quickly by a plateau. We see this lack of improvement – or even a regression in our fitness – as a sign to work even harder on our cardio outside of riding and eventually a lot of us burn out or get hurt.
It is a vicious cycle I’ve seen repeated countless times and one that is tough to break because you have to go against the common views of sports training.
What I’ve found to work better is to focus on the things that you need while riding that you don’t use enough while riding to improve. Think about it – you get plenty of cardio already when you ride so why spend more time focusing on it when you also need strength, mobility and power when you ride but don’t use them enough to see them improve from just riding?
I’ve found it better to use your training time more like this…
– 10 minutes of bodyweight exercises – With bodyweight exercises and bodyweight flows you can improve your body awareness and joint strength.
– 20 minutes of strength training using a mix of loaded and bodyweight exercises – When done correctly strength training helps to cement your movement and help you produce more tension more efficiently.
– 10-15 minutes of cardio – I use short interval based workouts that usually focus on maintaining posture and breathing patterns under fatigue.
That’s it…not very fancy but when done consistently 2-3 times a week a simple approach like this works great. Everything on this list is geared towards helping you move with more efficiency and maintain that efficiency under stress and fatigue, which also improves your mat endurance without directly overloading your cardio system.
Add in 2-3 rides a week and you have a solid program that will ensure you are improving your fitness in a way that supports your trail riding instead of potentially detracting from it. If you are riding more than 4 times a week then you may even consider cutting back even further with your on-bike cardio training and focusing more on kettlebell swings, which make an awesome hybrid cardio-strength exercise.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I am saying that you don’t need to work hard and that there won’t be times that you’re going to hit the trails and be sore or stiff from a workout. There is just a mindset prevalent in today’s sports and fitness culture that says you have to kick the shit out of yourself every time you train trying to build cardio/ work capacity and while it works for some it leaves a lot more frustrated, burned out or hurt.
I’d also like to point out a few exceptions to this general rule of thumb…
– If you are miserably out of shape then some extra low level cardio to build your overall aerobic capacity can certainly help.
– If you are a professional mountain bike athlete with a ton of time to train and resources to help you recover then you can – and should – do some extra cardio training but even then you want make sure you don’t overdo it. Remember that more is not better, better is better.
– If you are not able to get in 2-3 good rides each week then you will need to add in some longer cardio workouts that focus on mimicking the tension, movement and time demands of trail riding. This is strictly to try to get as similar a benefit as you would get from trail riding but not meant to take its place.
Here are some other random thoughts I have as well. First, your typical XC race lasts 2 hours or less. Your typical Enduro race has several segments that last 20 minutes or less each. DH races usually last less than 5 minutes.
This means that your goal is to increase your ability to ride faster at a pace harder than your current best times. And this needs to be done on your scheduled hard rides.
And if you don’t have a scheduled hard ride then you should check out this article on the need to cycle the intensity of your rides so the rest of this makes sense…
I find that if you do too many junk miles you end up not being able to go truly hard on your hard rides. You spend very little riding time at or above race pace or working on skills and a lot of time mindlessly pounding out miles.
Most riders do too many junk miles because they are following programs that are written by coaches who have one tool in their toolbox – cardio training. There is an old saying that when all you have is a hammer then everything starts to look like a nail and your typical cycling coach has a big hammer he tries to use for almost everything, which results in the bulk of training hours being spent on a bike doing cardio.
Since I have far more tools in my toolbox I get a different distribution of that time. The focus of your cardio program are those 2 hard rides/ Energy Systems Demand workouts (my version of cardio workouts) and pushing yourself to become more comfortable at the paces you need to sustain in your race. The real goal of a cardio program is to increase your mental confidence that when you find yourself in the heat of a race you’ll be prepared with how to deal with it.
Mental fatigue IS fatigue and if you get pushed out of your comfort zone and blow up it doesn’t matter how many miles you’ve ridden and how “fit” that is supposed to make you.
Put in the focused effort during your hard rides/ ESD workouts and get your miles in with the moderate and light rides (those count a lot towards building neural efficiency which is a huge component of overall endurance) you’ll do much better than a rider who spends less time focused on the paces and skills he needs to succeed.
And don’t discount the effect that increasing your skills has on your endurance. Even roadies can benefit from increased skills – even there the fastest riders are often those that pedal the least, showing that pedaling is just part of the equation – so don’t discount the synergistic effect this has on your performance.
Cardio gets really overrated when it comes to cross-training for mountain biking and using your trail rides as your main cardio makes much more sense that having unfocused rides and too much extra cardio to make up for it.
The take home message is that you 1) need to do something besides riding your bike to fast track your fitness and stay injury free and that 2) you already get a lot of cardio from your trail rides which means it doesn’t need to be the focus of your cross-training.
One of my missions with MTB Strength Training Systems is to bring you the training info you need to apply this to your own training so you can see improvements from your training while leaving you fresh enough to ride faster and longer.
So how about you – what do you think about the importance of cardio training outside of your trail riding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, be sure to post a comment and share them.
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Until next time…