Last week I posted an article sharing a couple of the lessons I took away from my experience as a track athlete. I brought these views on training with me when I started mountain biking and I feel that they have helped shape my rather unique view on improving your performance as a mountain biker.

In the first post I covered the first two lessons, which were to 1) Have tune-up and practice races on your schedule and 2) Make smart use of both over- and under-distance training. You can check it out by clicking here in case you missed it.

In this post I want to go over the last and most important lesson you can apply to your own training. In fact, once you understand this concept you’ll never look at why you train the same way again.

Lesson # 3 – Your training program should not focus on “cardio” but instead on helping you ride faster. On the track we don’t run to train our cardio, we run to run faster. And while they may appear tobe the same thing on the surface, once you understand that they are not it will completely change howyou look at training to improve your performance on the trail.

There is a misconception in the mountain biking world about the need to improve your cardio in order
to improve your endurance. While proper endurance training will also stimulate specific cardio changes,if you try to train your cardio outside of the context of how you are going to use it then it isn’t going to be nearly as effective.

While there was some basic “cardio” work in my overall program, the bulk of my running workouts were not looked at as cardio training. On the track I did workouts that were designed to help me improve my speed and endurance over a specific distance.

Sure, as I improved my fitness my cardio improved as well but my cardio improvements were secondary to the specifics of running faster or longer within the context of my goals. For example, I didn’t run 60 second 400 meter repeats on the track to stimulate some sort of cardio changes, I ran them to get better at the physical and mental intensities of running at a specific pace.

The reason for this is that we understood that there was a lot more that went into how fast you ran than just your cardio. Strategy, movement efficiency and mental toughness all played a role in helpingyou run faster and were best trained by not focusing on “cardio” but instead the paces we needed to race at.

This also meant that things like training to refine our running stride and technique, strength training and mobility training (we called it stretching back then) were part of the overall program. Along with our running workouts they were important parts of the big picture to help us run faster.

These things went outside of “cardio” but played big roles in our performance and improvements.

So again, the workouts were designed to help you run faster, not specifically to train your cardio. The cardio training was a secondary concern to mimicking the mental and physical intensities we needed to race at while also working on the technique, mobility and strength we needed to support those paces.

Problems crop up, though, when you start to plan your training outside of the context of how you will be using that fitness. You can easily end up with a program that uses workouts to improve your cardio that neglect the realities of how that cardio will be used while also discounting the importance of other things that aren’t seen as important as doing more cardio.

And unfortunately there is a prevailing backwards logic employed by some in the sports training world that encourages this simplistic view of improvement to the public.

Here is how it goes – scientists study the best athletes in an endurance sport. They observe that said athlete has high levels of metabolic markers in a lot of tests associated with the cardiovascular system like VO2Max and lactate threshold.

The (false) conclusion is that those high levels of measurable cardiovascular fitness are what led to their high levels of performance. Working backwards, they conclude that if you can improve those markers of cardiovascular fitness then you too will improve your performance.

The problem is that you often end up training to get better at the tests and not the actual sport.

You also see this faulty logic with the power training crowd as well – looking at power readings from the best and training to improve in the tests for those types of power instead of looking at the actual context of how the power will be used (read my Torque vs. Power article for more on how power training can be misapplied).

You see, while this logic isn’t completely wrong, it is incomplete. What is missing is the context in which that fitness or power was built and not just the end results as measured in a lab.

And this is exactly what you see with the roadie influenced, cardio-intensive training programs passed off as mountain bike specific workouts.

They use accepted methods of improving testable measures of cardiovascular fitness or power levels – and often succeed in helping to improve numbers in those tests – but often those workouts don’t reflect the realities of trail riding and fail to produce the same results there.

Workouts designed outside of the context of how you need to employ that fitness are simply wasting your time.

This is why a mountain bike workout program that has you riding a road bike and/ or focusing on spinning a high RPM but claiming that it works the same type of cardio you need on the trail is bullshit. It may improve your “cardio fitness” but it didn’t actually prepare you to go faster on the trail because it didn’t address any of the factors that go into helping you ride faster on the trail.

So the practical use of this lesson for us as mountain bikers is pretty simple – stop looking for ways to improve your “cardio” and instead look for ways to ride faster and longer on the trail. Your cardio will improve but improving your cardio shouldn’t be what is driving your program.

On a side note, this is why I prefer the term Energy Systems Development to Cardio Training.  The term Cardio Training leaves us with little to no context which leads to confusion and inferior training methods being passed off on the wrong people.

The term Energy Systems Development better encapsulates the real goal of endurance training, which is to look at the specific energy systems and how they are used as a jumping off point for designing a program. When you look at the bigger picture of the Energy Systems (of which the cardiovascular system is a part) you start to realize how only focusing on cardio training can limit your overall progress.

You can learn more about the Energy Systems Development concept in this podcast interview I did with Energy Systems Training expert Joel Jamison. It is a “must listen” for anyone interested in getting the most out of their endurance training.

So there you have it, the last lesson I think every mountain biker can learn from how track athletes approach their training. I’ve found that this approach can really simplify your training as well as give you much better results. And hopefully some of the crazy things I’ve been talking about make a bit more sense now.

I’m sure you have some thoughts or questions about what I’ve talked about here so please leave a comment below this post.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *