This is a guest post from Jukka Mäennenä, a Finnish cycling coach who specializes in BMX and Mountain Bike training. Jukka is someone I have known for a long time and he has been on the podcast before and shared a great article and video on modern day mobility training for riders.

Photo credit: Peter Holmberg
Photo credit: Peter Holmberg

The last time we talked the subject of BMX training came up and we both agreed that most mountain bikers could learn a lot more from training for BMX than training for road riding. After talking about it for a bit Jukka agreed to write and article sharing the three things he felt mountain bikers could learn from BMX racers.

And after a slight delay so he could write his second book he got it to me last week. I think there are some great lessons in here and I know you’ll get a lot from this unique perspective on training to be a better rider…

For most mountain bike riders BMX racing is an odd sport. Riders sprinting around a track on bikes that suit an average 8-year old. However, on a closer inspection it turns out that race tracks are very challenging – especially when going full speed. It isn´t a coincidence that a lot of the top mountain bike riders have background in BMX racing. I´d go as far as saying the no other sports lays the foundation for bike handling skills and control as well as BMX racing.

Apart from being a form of riding just for younger riders, BMX racing has been an Olympic sport since 2008. In the highest level of the sport, the top riders have some serious power and skills. A phrase I like to often use is that a good BMX racer is an elite sprinter with awesome bike handling skills. When it comes to performance metrics, top power outputs are in the range of 2000 W and even higher! To put that into perspective, an average rider, who hasn´t spent considerable time for power development might produce 1200-1400 W. That’s a difference of a couple of bike lengths during a sprint that lasts only couple of seconds.

There are several things that any serious rider could learn and benefit from BMX racers. I´ve tried my best to list some of the main things that could be put into practice.

1) Sprint for power! Most likely everybody knows at least one rider who can accelerate to steep climbs with almost no run up or who can get almost into full speed from a turn after getting just one or two pedals in. The differentiating factor is that, besides having good skills, these riders have some serious power. BMX racers have some of the highest top power outputs in cycling and it isn’t by accident. A lot of training time is dedicated to sprint training and gate starts.

For most riders, this type of training is most likely very different compared to what they’ve gotten used to. It is characterized by short full efforts, ample rest between repetitions and limited volume, only about 6-12 repetitions in total. Unless you´re not a 4X specialists, this type of dedicated sprint training isn’t perhaps necessary. One good way is to embed into regular trail rides so that you might pick sections of the trail when you´re going full out for 4-8 seconds. Vary the gears used so that some of the sprints are done on higher cadences and on the other hand use heavier gears with lower cadences. Have an active recovery of 2-4 minutes in length between sprints by pedaling and coasting easily on the trail. Another way to spice up a transfer to the trail head for example is to have “mini races” with friends. Try having a sprint race form a lamp post to the next. Road riders have done this for ages. It´s a simple and good way to get some sprints in and it gives you clear picture if laying the power down to the rear wheel is a strength or weakness compared to your friends.

Developing some power is one of the differentiating factor that gets you into full speed after a turn, which in turn makes carrying higher speeds a lot easier. Every skilled rider knows that once you get up to speed, carrying it and even accelerating is almost exponential when compared to situation with low initial speed.

2) Concentrated skills training. How many often you take more than one go on a challenging turn or a section on the trail? Sometimes, rarely or maybe never? If you want to get better at something, you need exposure. This in turn, means repetitions. Spending more time riding the challenging sections is one thing that separates extraordinary riders from the average ones. There´s quite remarkable difference between cultures in this area. Rarely do you (or the whole riding crew for that matter) stop to take multiple goes on a certain section of the trail or track. In BMX, it is the norm to practice sections of the track hitting the same jumps, rollers and berms dozens of times, trying to hit them on a certain way.

This does not only build skills on the track in question, but develops overall bike handling skills. If you know how to ride a steep set of doubles, manual several rollers in a row or jump into a manual, those skills transfer into easier sections and other areas. A sign of a true pro riders is that he or she is prepared to ride just about anything and even hit it full speed first try. A state like this is rare air indeed, but I see one of the ultimate goals.

3) Recognize the limiting factor. In BMX racing, performance can be divided into two broad categories: physical attributes and bike handling skills or technique. Recognizing the limiting factor from those two categories is initially quite simple. If someone is the first one out of the gate and can almost pedal the cranks off from the bike but loses ground on the more technical sections of the track, he certainly has the raw horsepower necessary, but lacks the sharp bike handling skills needed to be competitive. The other way around, one could be the most skilled rider on the track, but if he can´t or doesn´t have the capacity to lay down the power when the gate drops, podium places are few and far between.

Measuring or assessing some type of performance metrics can be very informative. The more experienced the rider and higher the level he competes, the more important it gets. Here are some examples to assess different areas.

  • Power: Timing sprints, vertical jump, maximum or average power during a 5 second sprint. If you don´t have access to power meter, having a go on Wattbike is one option.
  • Strength: 1-5 RM lifts in the front squat, deadlift (bilateral or unilateral), military press and chin-up. Even cleans can be used if you´re proficient with the technique.
  • Energy systems: For sprint orientated riding disciplines, the Wingate test is hard to beat. To assess aerobic development, one can use the ramp test or measure his or hers FTP which stand for functional threshold power. All of these tests require special equipment or even laboratory conditions, but on the other hand they can be very informative. To get a very rough picture, one can just measure resting heart rate. Anything lower than approximately 55 bpm is a good starting point. The more one is geared towards endurance events, the lower the resting heart rate should be.
  • Skills: This is a very broad category that can be divided into several sub-categories such as: cornering, jumping, carrying speed trough rough terrain, pumping, line choice etc. The easiest and fastest way to get a grasp of this is to ride behind a faster rider and see where you lose the most ground.

For closing thoughts, give these ideas some thought and put them into practice even for a short period of time. Mountain bikes can learn a lot from BMX racers. It is not a coincidence that some of the best riders have BMX racing background such as Jared Graves, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Mitch Ropelato etc. As always pick things that you like and suit your needs, discard the rest.

If you want to take a step further, get a BMX race bike just for one season. You will be amazed what it can do for your bike handling skills. The best part about it is that you can get a new quality bike with a price lower than a new suspension fork.

And do not forget to have fun, no matter the wheel size you´re on!

– Jukka Maennena-

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