Mountain bike training has a lot of “trail myths” surrounding it. When someone decides that they want to get better on the trail they are usually told things like “work on your cardio”, “ride your bike more” and “get a bike fit”…but there is more to each of those pieces of advice.
– “Work on your cardio”: While cardio is important, the real key to riding faster and longer is to achieve better efficiency on the trail. Cardio is like the size of your gas tank and your efficiency is like the mile-per-gallon. You can get more by working on both than simply shoving a bigger gas tank in.
Efficiency comes from working on mobility and strength in the gym and on your skills off the trail. Increased mobility and strength will result in less wasted energy on the bike as your body is better able to achieve and maintain optimal alignment and movement. Increased technical skills will result in less wasted speed and momentum on the trail which means less overall “effort” to achieve the same speed.
Add it all up and you are able to go faster while pedaling less, which means better use of the cardio capacity you already have. For most riders starting out with a mountain bike training program, this is the first place to start. Increased “cardio” is nice but if you’re wasting a ton of energy on the trail it is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it- it will never get full until you plug the leak!
– “Ride you bike more”: When new riders first start every time they go out for a ride they feel like they are improving. However, this honeymoon period soon ends and riders are left trying to figure out how to continue improving. The advice from most veteran riders is that since riding helped in the beginning, then riding more must be the answer, right?
Not so fast, my friend. Riding your bike is the best way to learn how to apply your current fitness and skill levels to the trail. After a year or so of riding most people have maxed out their current fitness and skill levels, which is why they stop improving. While riding more can improve those things, you eventually run into the ugly truth – you hit the point of diminishing returns and an extra couple hours of riding each week doesn’t really improve your overall performance.
Strength and conditioning is one of the most efficient uses of your mountain bike training time and can dramatically raise your performance potential. When done right, it can improve fitness and skill levels as you develop better body awareness, strength, power and mobility. That way, when you hit the trail you are learning to apply those new levels, resulting in an increase in performance without a large increase in riding time.
– “Get a bike fit”: Bike fits are great – if you’re a roadie. On the trail they are very limited when the perfect world of the roadie meets the chaos of the trail. Mountain biking carries a very high technical skill element and you want your bike set up to best fit this need, not to work around your mobility and movement deficits.
Most bike fits looks to change how the bike is set up around you regardless of how those changes affect the balance and handling on the trail. Some of the most common bike fit “fixes”, such as changing stem length, will negatively affect your ability to corner and handle your bike. Mountain bikers need to pick the weapon that will give them the best balance and position and then work on fitting their body into that set up. It is rarely the fit that is holding a rider back; it is more often the tight and weak rider that is holding the bike back.
While working on your cardio, riding more and getting a bike fit can be helpful and result in some progress, they are not the most efficient and effective ways to transform your trail riding. The foundational movement and strength levels of the rider determine their true potential and by working on these things you can ride faster, longer and with more confidence no matter what bike you’re riding or trail you’re on. Strength and mobility training deserves an important spot in your mountain bike training program if you really want to stop riding at the same level year after year.