One of the natural progressions for many as they get older is a change from road running to trail running. The constant change in surface as well as gait is far less harsh on the body than running on hard surfaces.
Cycling is no different. Many get into road cycling initially as their body can no longer tolerate running in the first place. Over time they develop a love for all things two wheels but as we get older still there is often a subtle shift towards trail riding/ mountain biking. Unlike road running this has little to do with the trauma of cycling on a hard surface, and far more to do with local traffic. More and more I hear from guys in my age group that they no longer want to ride on the road anymore because of concerns over traffic. And next thing you know they’ve ditched the lycra for baggies and are looking at mountain biking. In fact, one of Australia’s best ever cyclists – Ryan Bailey who was a double gold medallist in track cycling at the 2004 Games – has said he no longer rides on the road for safety.
Eventually, after a few rides and getting to know the sport, people start to wonder about entering an event and how they should best train for these things. Mountain biking can be roughly split into two categories – cross country (XC) and gravity events like enduro and downhill. While there may seem to be some similarities between road racing and cross country, the physiology required is quite different. And then from cross country to enduro it is different again.
When it comes to figuring out how to train the best place to start is with a simple self-analysis. Included below are the bare bones physiology of road racing, cross country, and enduro. You’ll see that what is required for each sport is different enough that success in one won’t imply success in another. It should also give you the best starting point for where your own training plan should focus to begin with. The statistics below are taken from male elite competitors in each event. If there are two or more numbers listed it’s because I also found non-elite numbers. If there are three figures listed it’s because there was also a “competitive” class listed. This is normal in road racing where you commonly have four or more grades of racing possible, with A or Category 1 being the highest.
VO2max – 74.8, 78.7, 85.6
Body mass (heigh and weight) – 179cm/ 66.9kg, climbers – 175cm/ 62. 4kg.
Power – 332.8, 391.5, 438.5
Cross Country MTB:
VO2max – 70.0, 75.4
Body mass – 177cm/ 67kg
Power – 375.5, 395.4
Vo2max – 63.5, 65.8
Body mass – 69.6kg, 75.1kg
Power – 541w, 658w (between 5.5w/kg and 6.2w/ kg)
Why do these numbers matter?
Numbers matter because they can tell you what can realistically be expected from entering an event. For instance, if I planned to enter a 100km MTB XC event I could never expect to win. I am 15-20kg too heavy. That weight comes at a huge penalty whenever an uphill section needs to be completed as it would be like having to carry a spare bike slung on my back for the entire event. In organised events using short loops where you may have to repeat the same climb multiple times in a single event I could never hope to finish high up compared to someone who had the same fitness but carried less weight penalty. It always strikes me as odd that cyclists in general will spend thousands on carbon to make their bike lighter but spend nothing at the supermarket to buy foods that will help them maximise their functional weight on the bike. Between fancy new carbon wheels and a salad I know which I’ll choose every day of the week for performance gains. In fact, Tyler Hamilton – one of the best cyclists of the modern era, both for his race performances as well as his drug use – has said that given the choice between using EPO to increase his hematocrit 3% or losing three pounds that he would take the three pound weight loss every time.
Looking at peak power you may think that for XC racing that power isn’t so important. Don’t be fooled by the numbers. A road race is performed on smooth roads where tire grip is excellent. On a slippery dirt track that may be covered with slick roots or rocks grip is hard to find. The lower power numbers seen are taken from in race data using power meters, not on an erg. What you do see is that body mass is very similar to uphill/ climbing road race specialists and that makes complete sense given the nature of XC racing that features multiple short climbs in a single event. Looked at as an average over a season of World Cup races the average men’s XC race features 1942m of climbing in a two hour time frame. The infamous Alpe D’Huez climb in the Tour de France has fast times around the forty minute mark, and sees a gain of 1071m, for some reference. So in a two hour XC race the men will cover roughly two climbs up the infamous Alpe made up in multiple short climbs.
It’s these short climbs that tends to really set MTB apart, even when looking at enduro. An Enduro World Series event will typically take in ~55km and feature over 1600m of climbs. While that may sound like not a lot of climbing you have to take into account that more than half of the distance covered in an enduro event will be done going downhill. The Alpe D’Huez climb is 13.8km so that means that again roughly double the height of the Alpe will be done at each event getting your bike back to the top of each hill before your next run. This effort will be combination of both walking your bike uphill as well as pedalling. Because the climbs aren’t timed the body mass of competitors can be a bit higher, aiding their strength and strength endurance for these long punishing days.
How should I train?
The first step in any training plan is to focus on your health first. There’s not much point in throwing away your health chasing performance in your hobby. Usually when I work with clients we focus on fat loss first because I know it will have the greatest impact on their overall health as well as their performance for most outdoors events. The short version is that your doctor will love you and your endurance performance will go through the roof as you drop some weight. Looking at the numbers you’d also need to ask yourself if that is healthy and realistic for you to try to match elite cycling weights. I know that dropping down to 70kg would be unhealthy for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to maximise what I can and minimise non-functional mass. That means the first objective of my training plan should be weight management and getting rid of as much fat as possible.
The second part of the training equation is base fitness. Regardless of whether you want to do an XC epic that is 100km or enter your local gravity enduro you’re still going to be on the bike for hours. The best way to develop all day fitness on the bike is… to do longer sessions on the bike. Despite what the modern fitness world will tell you, you can’t gain all day fitness on short interval training. Save that for close to your event to develop event specific climbing ability to allow you to punch out short climbs. One of the most frequent comments I hear from people about their event performance is that they suffered from cramps. The usual suggestions then are to start using electrolytes. A better way to think about it though is that it’s not a chemical problem, but a physical one. Muscles cramp in longer events because you’re asking them to contract more times than they ever have before. The simplest and most obvious solution isn’t to spend money on supplements, but to become fitter.
The best way to develop all day fitness is with low to medium intensity rides lasting two hours or more. There is no reason these can’t have a technical component to them. One thing to consider with technical training is that at high heart rates the brain struggles with fine motor control. In other words, if your heart rate is sky high because you’re going as fast as you can on the descent you’re going to struggle to learn new skills. Calm it down a bit, ride at about 70% of your maximum speed, and work on those technical abilities. remember – if you can’t do it slow, then you won’t be able to do it fast either. Keep the climbs moderate and work on those technical skills on the descents. You’ll be amazed at what deliberate practice can do for you versus just going for a ride on the ragged edge on every descent.
The next part of the training base is climbing ability. As mentioned before, weight loss is a vital factor in climbing ability so step one of developing your climbing will take place in the kitchen. Step two is deliberately working on climbs as part of a normal trail ride. Climbs can be a useful way to maximise your return on training time. They can develop power, fitness, and obviously climbing ability. If you target the right climbs then you won’t need to do much other specific fitness work prior to an event. My favourite hill climb reps involve a hill that is 3-4mins that can be done completely seated. I’ll repeat the climb three times, with just a roll down recovery. On the third climb go and do a technical descent working on your skills and repeat. Keep in mind that enduros and XC races will often feature 1000m+ of climbs for the day so that is a good target for an individual ride.
In the following basic week format I’ve included performing strength training because smart masters’ athletes know they should keep it in their training year round. Strength training is like armour plating your body against injury.
Monday – upper body strength, core.
Tuesday – 2 sets of 3x3min climbs.
Wednesday – Full body strength, core.
Thursday – Easy technical ride working on bike handling skills.
Friday – 3-4 x longer 10-20min climbs.
Saturday – Long easy ride, technical descents, easy climbs.
Sunday – rest day. (Bike washing and food prep).
While elite endurance athletes are often very different to the rest of us in terms of body shape and size we can still get clues as to what is the best way forward regardless of our passion. Right size your body to fit the demands of the sport so that you can get the most enjoyment from it then tailor training to fill in the gaps in physical performance. Don’t forget that a large part of MTB racing – whether enduro or XC – will come down to bike handling. There’s no point in working on your fitness solely on an erg on Zwift and building a big engine only to have zero bike handling skills. Where possible the most important element is to ride your bike as much as possible