Off season training means one thing for a lot of riders – the continued quest to improve their ability to create and maintain power while pedaling. Most riders are familiar with the need for more power and an entire training method has been designed around tracking a rider’s power with power meters, reinforcing the message that power is the Holy Grail of training. And while I won’t argue that it isn’t important, I will say that I think a lot of mountain bikers get mislead as to its ultimate value on the trail.

You see, Power is just one side of the tension spectrum. It is usually associated with very fast movements against minimal resistance. On the other side of the tension spectrum is Torque, which are movements which slower and against more resistance.

Training isn’t rocket science – look at what you need to improve on the trail and find ways to address those things.

While Power has its place, Torque is something that also has a lot of value on the trail and needs to be trained as well. The easiest way to explain this difference is with a car analogy…

Power is like a Formula 1 Race car. There isn’t a lot of resistance that it has to overcome and it is extremely light weight – in other words the motor doesn’t need to do much work on the lower end of the RPM scale but it does need to be able to rev high and stay there.

Torque is like an off-road 4X4 Jeep. It spends all of its time overcoming resistance from the trail and heavier chassis – it does almost all of its work on the lower RPM “grind” side of the scale and rarely spins its RPMs up very high at all.

In car terms this makes perfect sense – on pavement you need a light weight chassis that can achieve and sustain a high RPM “spin” while on the dirt you need a heavier duty chassis that can grind out lower RPM efforts with ease.

What isn’t so apparent is that this same principle holds true for bikes as well. Try to apply too much “power” off road and you end up having trouble making it through the slow speed sections of the trail that require more torque to ride through. Being able to slow your pedal stroke and grind your way through a technical climb is just as important – of not more important on some trails – than the ability to apply a lot of high RPM power to the pedals.

So why is Power Training so popular and “Torque Training” never discussed? As usual, it has to do with a misapplication of a successful road riding method to mountain biking.

Here is an interesting bit info that few riders know – when you pedal your bike you can change the muscular vs. cardiovascular demands based on how fast you pedal. At 90+ RPMs how long you can pedal boils down to your cardiovascular system’s ability to supply fuel to the working muscles. The tension levels in the muscles isn’t high enough to trigger excessive muscular fatigue which is why road cyclists are told to pedal at 90-100+ RPMs.

However, at 80 RPMs or less something very different happens. The tension at the pedals increases and this increased tension shifts the weak link from the cardiovascular system to the muscular system. In other words, it isn’t about your VO2Max at that point, it is about your ability to produce and sustain tension in the muscles. This is much more difficult and can not be sustained nearly as long as the higher RPM/ lower tension efforts can.

What this means is that the type of pedaling that lends itself to road riding efforts also works well with power training since higher RPM/ lower tension efforts produce more power. This is why power training has become so popular with the road riding crew – it provides a great way to see how well you are able to sustain the higher RPM/ higher power efforts you need to be successful in that sport.

However, as I’ve said many times – mountain biking isn’t road riding on dirt. On the trail we can rarely sustain a high RPM spin and many times we find ourselves having to grind out efforts well below the 80 RPM threshold. These efforts triggers more muscular than cardiovascular fatigue and if you don’t recognize and train for this reality you will be caught off guard, incurring excessive fatigue when faced with it on the trail.

This is why I recommend that riders spend time training with what I call Torque Training Intervals. These are intervals that purposefully work on the ability to sustain lower RPM/ higher tension efforts on the trail. Including them will train your body to get used to those types of efforts, which you will inevitably run into on the trail.

Technically this type of interval isn’t as good from a pure Power Training perspective since the power levels are lower than if you sat down and spun a higher gear. However, it is more specific to the types of tension you need to be a good mountain biker which, in my opinion, is more important.

What gets forgotten is that power is a symptom of how well you can produce a specific type of tension, not a direct cause of improved performance. You should be focusing on training the types of muscular tension you need on the trail regardless of how they measure up on a power meter.

Now, time to put this into perspective before everyone gets the idea that I don’t think that power training has value because that is not the case. For some riders, specifically road riders and Fire Road Racers, it has tremendous value. I just don’t think that it has the same value for a mountain biker that actually rides on real trails.

Since you need more torque on the trail then it only makes sense that you train for it with your program. In fact, one could argue that you should make it a priority with your program since it will allow you to turn a weak link for many riders into a strong point – being able to stand up and grind up a hill without blowing up at the top will help ride faster and longer, which is the goal of training in the first place.

So use power training as a part of your program, just don’t make it the centerpiece of it if you ride trails that don’t lend themselves to high RPM spins for sustained periods and have technical sections that require you to slow down and grind it out. Training isn’t rocket science – look at what you need to improve on the trail and find ways to address those things. For some riders spending some time working on Torque may deliver better results than another off season focused exclusively on Power.

-James Wilson-

4 thoughts on “Is Power Training really valuable for mountain biking?

  1. Desmond Haman says:

    I think the guys at Zwift HQ hit the nail on the head with their MTB specific training plans, emphasizing lower cadence efforts. But a very relevant article. As a “power training newbie” this is very useful. Thanks!

  2. Kostopoulos Vassilis says:

    Thanks, for me the best is a program with one day intervals with low RPM/hard resistance and next day with intervals of high RPM. The mixing of these two I think is the best for training

  3. Vinay says:

    Now I’ve got to say I’m a bit confused. I thought power is the product of torque and angular velocity (or well, RPM). So you can deliver the same amount of power with a high torque and a low cadence as you can with a low torque and high cadence. I’d say both have their place in mountainbiking. High torque and low cadence for (out of the saddle) climbing indeed but high cadence for sprints (gate start in a 4X race, finish line sprint in a DH race). Though if the point was that it is silly to spin your Eagle like mad when crawling up a climb then yes I agree. Yet at the same time nearly all my mtb riding is standing up and I can’t spin a super high cadence like that anyway. Which does imply I’m killing those little 11t cassette sprockets every few months. So for level sections I’m actually trying to lower my torque and increase my cadence (in a lighter gear). Just to keep the drivetrain wear down.

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