The real secret to better cardio on the trail…

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

Monday –

Tuesday – Moderate Ride

Wednesday –

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.

And if you liked this article please click one of the Like or Share buttons below to help spread the word to fellow riders who could benefit from the info.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

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  1. knobbies says:

    how does gym/strength training and cardio fit into that weekly ride schedule?

    Reply • February 17 at 8:17 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      As a general rule of thumb you want to avoid doing a strength training workout on the day before or day of a Hard Ride. Extra cardio work would be the same – you don’t want to detract from your Hard Rides by going into them fatigued from your other training.

      Reply • February 17 at 9:49 am
  2. Dale says:

    Interesting post. I’ve just started working through your DB Combos workout and was wondering how my rides and the program should complement each other if I’m training for mostly endurance riding? Ie 3+ hours plus with some 24hr races coming later in the year? Would the same principals apply for my rides as you’ve outlined above?

    Reply • February 17 at 9:19 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you are doing a 24 hour race then your riding strategy would be a bit different and would be base more on your lap times than the whole event. Since the hard part for events like that is pacing yourself then you need to train that pace. The dirty little secret is that there is no way to really “train” for a 24 hour race except to ride for 24 hours so your goal with training is more about giving you the physical and mental confidence you need to log that many miles.

      Reply • February 17 at 9:51 am
  3. John W says:

    On a recent ride, a fellow rider said I needed to stay aerobic rather than anaerobic. Now I’m guessing he could tell by my breathing which I’m sure was a pretty high rate.

    That said, can you shed light on aerobic vs anaerobic in terms of MTB riding?

    Reply • February 17 at 10:51 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Your breathing is a good indicator of aerobic vs. anaerobic on the trail and the more you stay aerobic the longer you can go but that doesn’t mean that training to stay aerobic all the time is best for MTB. The trail forces you to go anaerobic a lot and the better you can deal with it the better you can handle the trail. You want to work on being strong when you do have to go anaerobic and being able to use you aerobic energy system to help fuel and recover from those efforts.

      Reply • February 17 at 3:49 pm
  4. Steve says:

    Great reading James!
    I fully agree with improving your technique on the trail which in turn means you need less effort to ride.
    I like using a Heart rate monitor. A bike computer will tell you how fast your bike is going but the HRM tells you how fast your body is going. After many miles training and many miles on the trails I now know what I have left by my heart rate. It also give you the info on how quickly you recover. Many a time I have thought that’s it, nothing left then I glance down at my HR and realise oh yes there is more.
    It’s also a great measure of your fitness. It gives me a measurement to work with after I have been away for a week or two. I know how quickly my heart rate drops when resting after a surge of power and if this takes too long I know I’m off pace. The quicker it drops the quicker I’m off kicking ass on the trail again.
    I would say the training should be “quality” not “quantity” and “consistency” not “every now and again” This I believe leads to more power, more technique, and most importantly More FUN!

    Reply • February 17 at 12:59 pm
  5. Darren says:

    Hi James,
    Based on you ride schedule above, when would you fit in the dumbbell combos program?
    How about if I do the same workout as above but only get in one weekend ride? I ask because I never know when it’s the right time to lift. It seems like if I lift the day before a big ride, I’m usually not recovered and pay for it dearly.

    Reply • February 17 at 10:32 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I plan on the days I am going to lift and then adjust if needed based on how the week plays out. So if you ride on the weekends then you could do the DB Combos Program on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, maybe taking it a little easier on Friday if you have a ride on Saturday. If a big ride comes up then just adjust your schedule or take it a little easier in that workout.

      There is no “right” answer and a lot of it depends on understanding that you don’t have to ride and train all out every time. You can apply this concept of Hard, Moderate and Light workouts to your lifting as well, which is getting a little more complicated than what the DB Combos Program is designed for, which is to be a very straightforward workout program.

      Reply • February 20 at 11:15 am
  6. Bradley Anderson says:

    Hi James, I race every Wednesday night at 6pm xc and like to train about the same time during the week, was hoping you could reconfigure the training schedule for me please

    Reply • February 20 at 12:19 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Just switch the Sunday Hard Ride to Wednesday and adjust the rest of the days accordingly.

      Reply • February 20 at 11:15 am
  7. Carl says:

    Hey James, Up in Canada here, we have a had a lot of snow fall in our area and trails wont be ridable for some time yet (could be more than a month) Is there a better way to use road rides as a substitute until the trails or ready or should I focus more on strength while I wait?

    Reply • April 7 at 8:48 am

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