I think that people sometimes get the impression that I don’t think that pedaling your bike is important for being a good mountain biker. With my constant message of Cardio Training is Overrated for Mountain Bikers, not using Road Bikes for Training and the Importance of Strength and Mobility Training I can see why some would think that.
I see the look in their eyes when I tell explain this concept to them – You mean I don’t just go out and ride as hard as I can for as long as I can every time I ride?
However, that is far from the case. I think that riding your bike is the most important thing you can do and that hours in the saddle are extremely important. I just think that there is a difference between something being important and overemphasized.
Miles on the bike are like calories – more is not always better and getting the most out of the least amount possible is usually your best plan. In other words, avoid a lot of junk miles.
Most riders end up putting in way to many junk miles both because they don’t look at the miles they put in on the trail as training, and even if they do they are often not using those “training rides” properly. Just like pounding out mindless reps in the gym won’t get you anywhere, pounding out mindless miles on the trail won’t get you anywhere either no matter how much power and heart rate data you collect along the way.
So what you end up with are trail rides that aren’t optimized for promoting the cardio effects you need to ride at the pace you want to on the trail. The solution is often to add more pedaling, usually in the form of extra cardio training on the trainer or the road bike.
And this is where I differ with the usual mindset on mountain bike training. Instead of adding more pedaling to the equation, why not just fix the real problem which is the ineffectual trail rides? If you still need to add some more pedaling in the form of “cardio training” then fine but in my experience most riders suddenly find that they don’t need much more and can spend more time on the strength and mobility things that will truly complement their trail riding.
The next question is how do you make the most of your trail rides? The simple answer is to understand the difference between a Hard, Moderate and Easy ride are and how to cycle them each week.
Now, that right there is a revelation for a lot of riders. I see the look in their eyes when I tell explain this concept to them – You mean I don’t just go out and ride as hard as I can for as long as I can every time I ride?
What usually happens is that most trail rides are done with no thought to how they fit into the overall scheme of your training plan. But here is a better way to look at your trail rides…
Hard Rides: These are rides that you push a pace that is near or even a little above your race pace. This means that you have to think about your race and how you can create “mini-intervals” on the trail that will help you develop the physical and mental confidence to deal with those paces you need in your race.
This means that very few riders really benefit from a 2-3+ hour ride at constant pace. Even XC races are 2 hours or less so being the best at riding long and far may not make you the best at riding faster over shorter distances.
In my opinion, a good Hard Ride would consist 1-2 hours split up into 10-30 minute hard sprints on the trail followed by a short rest, allowing your breathing to get back to the point where you aren’t panting. Once your breathing and heart rate are back down you go again, repeating for the remainder of the ride. Your focus is pushing the physical pace and maintaining the mental focus you want to use when you race.
These types of rides are very taxing both physically and mentally so you want to limit them to 1-2 times per week. If you race I like to have one of those Hard Rides be on the same day of the week you usually race on to acclimate your body to that weekly rhythm.
Moderate Rides – These rides are the fun rides where you aren’t pushing a hard pace and are staying just short of things feeling “hard”. You’ll still want to divide the ride up into shorter “mini-intervals” but your overall goal is putting in some miles and not dipping into your recovery abilities too much.
I also like to use these rides as Skills Focus rides. Since you aren’t pushing the pace as hard then this is a natural ride for you to work on your trail skills and spending at least 30 minutes on these rides focusing on applying a single skill to the trail will really help improve your overall skills.
These rides are sneaky because they don’t feel “hard” and so a lot of riders might dismiss their importance but they are missing two important things. First, you are putting in miles and your body is growing more efficient at the movement you use on the bike. This improved efficiency still helps your overall endurance on the bike even if the miles you put in weren’t “hard” from a cardio standpoint.
Second, your trail skills are a huge part of your overall endurance on the trail. The better you are at being able to maintain better body position, corner better, manual and many other things you can work on the less energy you will waste on the trail. You’ll spend less time pedaling to make up for lost speed and momentum and more time pedaling when it really counts.
Since these rides aren’t as taxing you can fit 1-3 of them in each week.
Easy Rides – These are almost too simple. Go out for a ride, have fun and don’t even come close to working hard in the process. This doesn’t mean you won’t work hard for a short time if the trail demands it but avoid any sustained hard efforts. You almost want to end this ride feeling better than when you started. This ride isn’t a “workout” and is more to help you recover and put in some more miles on the trail without adding to your body’s overall stress load.
You can also use these Easy Rides as skills practice time and set up some cones in a parking lot to work on your cornering or manualing or many other trail skills. I like to fit in 1-2 of these each week to round out the riding schedule.
Here is how you might put this altogether for someone who rides 3-4 times per week:
Sunday (Race day if racing) – Hard Ride
Tuesday – Moderate Ride
Thursday – Hard Ride
Friday – Easy Ride
Saturday – Moderate Ride
Again, this is just an example but it gives you an idea of how to use this concept when planning your weekly rides. And yes, this does mean that sometimes you might have to ride by yourself. Riding in a group is fun and part of what I love about riding but you do need some time on the trail by yourself to focus on the things you need to get better at riding.
Before you go looking to add to add 4-10+ hours each week of extra pedaling to your program along with your trail riding I’d suggest seeing if you can use your trail rides more effectively and save yourself some time and energy. In addition to a smart strength and mobility training program like the Ultimate MTB Workout Program or the Time Crunched Trail Rider Solution and a lot of riders have found that they put in less time training but see better results on the trail.
So there you have it, one of my “training secrets” I use to help riders waste less time on junk training and see better results on the trail. Trail riding is the most sport specific training we can do and by having a better understanding of how to use it to your advantage you can greatly improve the effectiveness of your overall program.
If you have any questions on this concept please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems