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Metabolic Flexibility and the Death of Cardio Training

Cardio Training is dead – at least, it should be if your goal is to improve your ability to ride faster and with more endurance on the trail. Much like bodybuilding workouts that try to isolate different muscle groups from each other, traditional Cardio Training tries to improve your ability to ride as fast and as long as you want by isolating your different Energy Systems. Just like those outdated bodybuilding workouts won’t prepare your muscles for the real world demands of working together to create movement on the trail, traditional Cardio Training doesn’t prepare your cardiovascular and metabolic systems for the real world demands of integrating everything together to fuel your efforts on the trail either.
In other words, it is one thing to have a high level of fitness with the different energy systems but it is another thing entirely to be able to easily transition from one to the next. Metabolic Flexibility is a relatively new term that refers specifically to the ability to easily and efficiently switch back and forth between different energy systems as well as how effectively they support each other. Based on some of the things that have been found out so far I think that you will be hearing a lot more about Metabolic Flexibility in the future. 
What has been found so far is that the fittest athletes have a higher level of Metabolic Flexibility, not just specific measurements of different kinds of cardio like VO2Max and Lactate Threshold. This explains why there isn’t a direct relationship between lab tests for cardio fitness and actual performance on the trail. This also means that training to improve your cardio as traditionally thought of isn’t the real goal; it is to improve your Metabolic Flexibility relative to your sport.
This news is especially important for mountain bikers because trail riding requires a higher degree of Metabolic Flexibility than almost any other sport. In my experience of working with and hearing from hundreds of riders around the world tells me that most riders suffer from a lack of metabolic flexibility, not just a specific type of cardio.
Without being able to quickly transition back and forth between your different energy systems you don’t recover as efficiently from your Higher Tension/ Anaerobic efforts, which causes you to build up residual fatigue much faster. This residual fatigue causes the cardio system to work even harder, leading to more labored breathing and severe muscle fatigue. It is the little bit of fatigue that you can’t feel at first adding up slowly over the course of a ride that results in you “blowing up” towards the end of a ride, not a lack of a fitness with a specific Energy System.
While this concept has a lot of implications on training the biggest impact for me is on how it changes my understanding of how the Aerobic Energy System affects performance. Namely, I now look at it doing 3 things:

1 – Directly fueling a low level effort like a long steady state ride on a trainer or relatively flat course.
2 – Fueling the recovery from a High Tension/ Anaerobic effort like between stages of an Enduro race, heats in a Dual Slalom/ 4X race or the rest period between intervals.
3 – Fueling both an effort and recovery from a previous High Tension/ Anaerobic effort like when you crest a section of a climb and have 15-45 seconds before the next part of the climb forces you back into High Tension/ Anaerobic mode. During those 15-45 seconds you can sit down and “rest” so your direct effort level is no longer high enough to warrant the anaerobic energy system taking over. However, your heart rate stays high because your aerobic energy system is also working hard to repay the oxygen debt from the previous anaerobic effort.
It is this last job of the aerobic energy system that I think is lacking for most riders and is the pinnacle of Metabolic Flexibility – when your aerobic energy system can multi-task and both fuel an effort and support recovery from a previous effort you know you can more easily handle a lot. Unless you train this very specific type of Metabolic Flexibility you will always struggle with it on the trail and continue to think that your “cardio” is what is holding you back.
What I really like about the Metabolic Flexibility concept is that it ties together a lot of ideas I’ve had about better ways to approach “cardio” training. In fact, it explains why things like Combo Drill and Kettlebell Countdown Drills work so well for mountain bikers since those workouts build a lot of residual fatigue and force the body to better deal with it, leading to improved Metabolic Flexibility on the trail.
I’ll be writing a lot more on this subject in the coming months as I find out even better ways to apply this new training concept. In the meantime hopefully this article has helped you see that there is a lot more to the Cardio Training story than what we thought and given you some ideas on ways you can work to improve it through your training.

10 minute cardio drill to improve your mountain bike specific strength and endurance.
The Ultimate Sandbag  is still my favorite new tool to work with. Since getting one in the facility a few months ago I have been using them more and more in rider’s programs. In fact, one my clients favorite new cardio workouts is a sandbag combination drill I recently created.
  This workout does a great job of improving your ability to produce strength and power in the face of a high heart rate and accumulated fatigue.
This workout will have you doing a combination drill that combines the Rotational Lunge, Around-the-World and Clean & Press exercises. You will do each exercise for 3 reps before moving onto the next one in the drill, continuing through the drill for 90-120 seconds before resting for 60 seconds. You’ll repeat this sequence 3 times for a quick 10 minute workout that will build strength and endurance in a very trail-riding specific way.
Watch this video to see a demo of the exercises and how this drill will look in action:

I suggest starting with 90 second work intervals and adding 10 seconds when that feels “easy”, although if it ever feels really easy then you aren’t going hard enough. Once you build up to 120 seconds you can add some load to your sandbag and start the process over again.

This sandbag workout does a great job of improving your ability to produce strength and power in the face of a high heart rate and accumulated fatigue, which describes perfectly what it takes to excel at mountain biking. Try this workout as a way to finish your strength training session and let me know what you think.

Breathing Ladders to Instantly Improve Your Cardio
One of the most overlooked aspects of cardio training is the quality of your breathing. Too many riders are breathing excessively with the chest and mouth and not enough with the nose and diaphragm, resulting in increased upper body tension and inefficient breathing.
By learning how to drive your breathing from the diaphragm you can instantly improve the amount of oxygen you take in with each breathe as well as control how much carbon dioxide you exhale, resulting in improved cardio capacity without actually doing a single interval or training ride. Once you have learned how to breathe more efficiently you will get more out of your cardio workouts instead of just reinforcing bad breathing habits.
In this video I show you how to check your breathing and also show you a cool kettlebell swing workout called Breathing Ladders that will help you train this important skill. You can find a breakdown of the Breathing Ladder workout below. If you are not familiar with how to do a proper kettlebell swing then check out this video covering the basic kettlebell exercises.

Breathing Ladders for Better Cardio on
Swing Breathing Ladder
Begin at 1 single arm swing +1 single arm = 1 breath for recovery 2 single arm swing +2 single arm swing = 2 breaths 3 single arm swing +3 single arm swing = 3 breaths 4 single arm swing +4 single arm swing = 4 breaths 5 single arm swing +5 single arm swing = 5 breaths 6 single arm swing +6 single arm swing = 6 breaths 7 single arm swing +7 single arm swing = 7 breaths 8 single arm swing +8 single arm swing = 8 breaths 9 single arm swing +9 single arm swing = 9 breaths 10 single arm swing +10 single arm swing = 10 breaths
When this is easy then progress up to 8+8 = 8 breathes and then stick with 8 breathes as your recovery as you build up to the 10+10
When this is easy then progress up to 6=6 = 6 breathes and then stick with 8 breathes as your recovery as you build up to the 10+10
When this is easy then progress up to 5+5 = 5 breathes and then stick with 8 breathes as your recovery as you build up to the 10+10
When this is easy you can increase the size of the kettlebell you are using.

How Metabolic Skills Training & High Tension Cardio help you ride with more power, endurance and confidence on the trail.
Today I wanted to share some insights behind two of the factors that make my program so unique and effective – High Tension Cardio and Metabolic Skills Training – and how they can help you ride with more power, endurance and confidence on the trail….
Q: What exactly is High Tension Cardio and how can it help me ride with more power and endurance on the trail?
A: The cardiovascular system works to provide the fuel we need for movement and how well it can do that is very specific to types of movement we perform. At the root of all movement is tension – your muscles produce tension in order to create movement and your core creates tension to provide the platform for that movement. So, at its most basic level, your cardiovascular system supports the tension producing capabilities of the muscles since without tension there would be no movement and without movement there is nothing for the cardiovascular system to fuel.
Powerful efforts on the bike require a lot more core tension and muscular tension in the legs and upper body than what you find just sitting and spinning at a high RPM and these are what I call High Tension Cardio efforts. For example, standing to sprint up a steep, technical climb calls for your core to lock down, your legs to start producing more tension against the pedals and your upper body to get tight as well. Standing up to float through a technical rock garden also requires in increase in core, leg and upper body tension to sustain the impacts and muscle the bike over and around trail obstacles.
Most riders find these kinds of efforts very taxing and that is because they lack the High Tension Cardio needed to attack them without finding their heart rate redlined and lungs burning. No matter how much sitting and spinning you do your cardiovascular system will always struggle when presented with a High Tension Cardio effort because it simply does not know how to efficiently fuel and recover from those types of efforts. However, once you train your cardiovascular system to be more efficient at them then High Tension Cardio efforts like standing up to pedal and floating through rock gardens can actually become a strength.
DB Combo Drills are the perfect way to train High Tension Cardio because they combine strength training exercises into a cardio workout. Since strength training is the best way to improve your ability to produce tension then being able to combine several key exercises into a continuous effort places a huge demand on your ability to produce and sustain tension for prolonged periods of time, quickly recover and then do it again. This is the essence of High Tension Cardio and something that is very tough to train effectively with most other types of cardio training.
Q: What is Metabolic Skills Training and how can it help me ride with more confidence on the trail?
A: Metabolic Skills Training is the term I have given to the art of using strength training exercises to improve your technical skills on the bike. By understanding how each exercise relates to the skills you need on the trail you can ensure that you are getting maximum transfer from the gym to the trail. In addition, the right exercises done correctly will help you more easily learn and apply technical skills on your bike.
While attending a skills training camp I noticed that several riders were struggling with the most basic skill on the bike – body position. After watching the instructor try unsuccessfully to get them into better position I realized that they needed to get off the bike and learn to perform the movement without the added stress of balancing and moving. It then dawned on me that there were specific exercises that taught those movement skills and that if these riders had spent time learning and practicing those exercises then they would not struggle as much to apply them to the bike.
As a mountain biker you can not just pound out mindless reps and hope that it will help you on the trail – you must understand the movement lessons behind the exercises. Each exercise in your training program should be chosen because it represents a way to work on a fundamental movement skill that supports a technical skill that you need on the trail.
By understanding how an exercise applies to technical skills like cornering, manualing and body position you go beyond “strength training” and turn your workouts into “skills training”. When you move with more efficiency and power then you will find that everything you do on your bike comes more naturally, resulting in more of the elusive “flow” that so many riders hear about but rarely get to experience.
For too long mountain bike training has been lumped in with general “cycling” and treated as an afterthought. However, by recognizing the unique nature of trail riding we can start creating programs that address what it really takes to excel on the trail. By using a program like the DB Combos Program, MTB Kettlebell Conditioning Program or Ultimate MTB Workout Program to improve factors like High Tension Cardio and Metabolic Skills Training you can see ride changing results in just a few weeks. Spring is right around the corner and it is not too late to get started on the road to improving the most important “component” on your bike – you!

Don’t ride for “fitness”
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when getting into mountain biking is to think that it is a great way to get into shape. This mindset is actually a big problem with the fitness world in general – playing a sport is not how to get into shape. Things work out much better when you have a base level of fitness going into trail riding and it becomes a way to apply and hone your fitness.
There are a couple of problems with trying to use mountain biking as a way to get into shape. First, riding a bike is great fun but it is not the healthiest thing to do from a structural point of view. Sitting in a hunched over position while taking your  legs through a shortened, repetitive range of motion a few hundred or thousand times a ride causes all sorts of imbalances. Sitting down also takes your core and hips out of the equation and will cause movement dysfunctions that can lead to problems down the road.
Sure, you may lose some weight and gain some cardio fitness but you don’t create the type of broad based fitness you really need to be healthy from a larger point of view. Remember that you are a human being first and a mountain biker second – don’ ignore the need for basic human function before you try to develop specialized fitness.
Another pitfall to the mindset of using sports to get healthy is a lack of perspective on the training plans of the pros. As I mentioned before, sport is not really about health, especially at the highest levels. To get your body into shape to be excellent at a few things means that other types of fitness and movement patterns will suffer.
There is an old Greek saying – where good sport begins, good health ends. Pros know that there is a physical cost for what they do to hone their bodies into peak shape for the demands of their sport. However, your average rider who looks at riding as “healthy” doesn’t have the same perspective.
They think that the pros represent the pinnacle of “fitness” and try to emulate the lopsided, unbalanced programs they use. They don’t realize that the pros usually spent years developing their fitness base and go back to work on it often – all they see is the amount of time spent working on specialized fitness qualities and think that copying their approach is the key to achieving their fitness goals.
The truth is that most riders have no business following a program inspired by a pro rider – they need to focus on building their fitness and movement base through a strength and conditioning program and then just getting out on their bikes and riding hard. In fact, focusing too much on the narrow fitness qualities needed to excel at the pro level of mountain biking may lead to short term gains but will lead to long term stagnation and injuries.
My point is that if you love riding then ride for fun, not for “fitness”. Use a smart, balanced strength and conditioning program to address your basic fitness and then ride hard to hone that fitness into “mountain biking shape”. Riding is a great way to take your fitness to another level, just don’t come into it thinking that it is a great way to get into shape in the first place. Keep some perspective on what the pros do to excel at the highest levels and you’ll progress further, enjoy riding more and avoid overuse injuries by taking this approach.
-James Wilson-

Stop “cardio” training!
Let me ask you a question – Do you want better cardio? Or do you want to be able to ride harder, faster and longer on the trail? Think these two goals are the same thing? Perhaps not…
One of the toughest things I face when bringing new and improved training concepts to the mountain biking world is trying to work around the large amount of confusion that surround certain terms. For example, when you use the terms “aerobic training” and “cardio training” interchangeably then my call to avoid excessive aerobic training seems odd. Once I explain that aerobic training is just a specific type of cardio training and there are other ways to work on your cardio then my suggestions make more sense.
I’ve recently realized that it is time for me to take on two new terms that need clarification on their real meaning – cardio training and endurance training. In most people’s books these two terms mean the same thing but once you understand the difference between them you’ll start to see the impact it has on your training approach.
Cardio training is any exercise that increases your heart rate, gets you breathing heavier and directly increases the strength of your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, blood vessels). This type of training can consist of a variety of things, from short interval to long base mile workouts. Cardio training focuses specifically on improving your measurable markers of cardio capacity. While an important part of specific endurance training it is only part of the picture, though.
Endurance training refers specifically to any training that allows you to “endure” longer on the trail. In other words, any type of training that results in you riding harder, faster and longer on your bike is endurance training. Endurance is also very specific to what and how you ride – technical east coast cross country riding requires different specific endurance than bombing some SoCal downhill runs.
As I’ve mentioned in my presentations of the MTB Performance Wheel, cardio training is only one of eight training components that affect your specific endurance on the trail. I also include Bike & Equipment Set up as a “spoke” on the MTB Performance Wheel but since it is not a true training component I am not including it on this list:
• 1- Strength
• 2- Power
• 3- Mobility
• 4- Cardio
• 5- Nutrition/ Supplements
• 6- Recovery
• 7- Mindset
• 8- Technical Skills
As you can see, mountain bike endurance training requires a much broader view of training than simply focusing on the cardio component. However, this is not the approach that mountain bikers have been taught. Because of the influence that road riding has had on our sport we have been told that working on cardio IS working on specific endurance and the other 7 training components are deemphasized or forgotten altogether.
This view that increased VO2Max or other markers of cardio endurance will automatically equal better specific endurance on the trail has had a very heavy influence on how mountain bikers in every discipline have approached training. From the advice given to newbies (if you want to get better then just ride your bike more) to the advice given to world champs (base miles are needed in the off season) it is readily apparent that the cardio training mindset has taken over our sport.
Here is the problem with this approach, though – the fact is that there is much more to mountain bike specific endurance on the trail than cardio capacity. Let me give you two examples to illustrate my point…
First, consider what happened to Lance Armstrong when he ventured off his road bike. Lance is widely considered to be one of the greatest endurance athletes in history, boasting a VO2Max that is among the highest ever recorded. His domination of the Tour de France speaks to his otherworldly cardio capacity, yet when he trained for and ran a marathon he got beaten. He did not get beaten by one or two world class runners, either – he got beaten by a lot of “regular” people. If cardio capacity was the biggest determining factor in sport specific endurance then why didn’t he do better?
Second, consider the opposite story of Mark Weir. Known around the world as one of the premier endurance riders in our sport Mark had his VO2Max tested and found out that it was rather ordinary. In fact, rumor has it he was told by the docs performing the test that based on his results he would never be a great endurance athlete. Instead of accepting it Mark went on with his dream and the rest is history. If cardio capacity is the biggest determining factor for mountain bike endurance then why is Mark able to excel despite his relatively low test results?
The reason that Lance can’t dominate every endurance sport he competes in and that Mark can kick the tails of riders with better “cardio” is because much more goes into mountain bike specific endurance than one over emphasized component. Your strength levels, technical skills, nutrition and everything else I listed above goes into it as well. The real trick to consistent returns on your training time is to identify the weakest of those eight training components and focus on it. While counterintuitive at times, the only way to strengthen a chain is to work on the weakest link – anything else will not result in a stronger chain.
The reason that it is important for us separate these terms is because it will have a major impact on your training paradigm. Remember that you do not want better cardio; you want to be able to ride faster, harder and longer on your bike. These are two different goals and need to be looked at as such. As long as your paradigm is influenced by the notion that unless you are emphasizing cardio training then you aren’t working on your mountain bike specific endurance you will struggle to fully understand what it takes to be the best mountain bike rider you can.
In my next article in this series I will get more into the differences between the Cardio Paradigm and the Specific Endurance Paradigm and how you can avoid the pitfalls and problems that stem from overemphasis of the cardio training component.

Hybrid Exercise Routine
I’m pretty well known for the use of combo drills to build High Tension Cardio in mountain bike training routines but they aren’t the only ways to add some extra cardio to your workouts. If you want to work a bit more on strength while getting some extra cardio then Hybrid Exercises are another tool for you to put in your toolbox.
Hybrid Exercises are when you combine two exercises into one movement. They differ slightly from combo drills so watch this video to see how they break down and how to perform this routine.
Hybrid Exercises for MTB on
Here is a list of the routine:
- TRX Push Up with PJK                     X 12 reps
- RDL with Bent Row                           X 12 reps
- Split Squat with Shoulder Press          X 6 reps each leg
Go through this circuit 2-4 times.
-James Wilson-

DB Combo Drill with Weight Ladders
One of my favorite ways to build strength and endurance for the demands of trail riding are combo drills. By combining several challenging exercises into one continuous circuit you can work on vital movement skills while building strength and endurance, making them a very valuable weapon in the mountain bikers training arsenal.
While I’ve been using combo drills in my program for a while now, I recently came across a new technique that adds another way to use this method. Weight ladders are when you use 3 different sets of dumbbells for your combo drill – one set that is a little light, one that is just right and one that is a bit heavy.
By working your way up the ladder you are able to keep your movement quality high while exposing your body to different loads, allowing you to learn control and gain exposure to a heavier load. Here is a simple but effective combo drill using this method:

- DB Push Press X 5 reps (3-5 reps on the heaviest rung)
- DB Front Squat X 5 reps (3-5 reps on the heaviest rung)
- Renegade Rows X 5 reps (3-5 reps on the heaviest rung)
Each time you finish the combo drill you move to the next rung on the ladder until you have worked your way to the highest “rung” and then starting over again at the lowest rung. There are two ways to use this method:
1) You can work for a specified period of time and see how many times you can work through the ladder. For example, set a timer for 2 minutes, get through the ladder as many times as you can before resting for a 1 minute and repeating 3 times.
2) You can set a certain number of times your want to work through the ladder. For example, see how long it takes you to get through the ladder 5 times and then try to beat that record the next time you train.
This method is a great way to add some variety to your workouts while getting a lot of high quality work in. Try adding this in at the end of your workout and enjoy the results on the trail!
-James Wilson-

Are you “overskilled”?
I would have to say that 90% of the MTB riders and racers that I have met would be defined as “over skilled”. It sounds absurd since most feel that some aspect of their riding needs work, be it skill related such as gate starts or fitness related such as better power endurance (I define MTB specific fitness as a “skill”). However, when you really understand how the human body functions and best adapts to MTB specific skills and fitness you will see what I mean. First, though, I need to explain the OPP.
The Optimum Performance Pyramid (OPP) was first introduced to me by Gray Cook, a highly influential figure in strength training circles. It is probably the best explanation that I have come across describing how performance training should be viewed. Gray uses the OPP to explain the 3 distinct levels of performance training, their prioritization and how to best integrate them.
The first, and broadest, level is Functional Movement. Contrary to the current fitness trends, this does not mean standing on a wobbly doo-hicky, looking like you are trying out for the circus. Functional Movement simply refers to developing adequate mobility, body control and movement awareness in order to safely handle higher level movements.
Examples of exercises in this level would include single leg box squats, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlift, push ups and their variations, inverted rows and alternating DB shoulder press. Bodyweight and unilateral exercises make up the bulk of this type of training. However, bodyweight exercises are extremely humbling when challenging variations are used. Do not underestimate the power of this type of training.

The Functional Movement level should also address any imbalances in the body, both mobility and strength wise, as they are a huge red flag for a potential injury. An athlete without a strong base built in this level of training will be far more prone to injuries, have a harder time mastering new skills and techniques and generally find that their training efforts yield few and inconsistent results.
The second level of the pyramid is Functional Strength. This level focuses on improving your raw strength and power. As I have touched on many times, increasing these areas will effectively add to your raw potential. Riders without adequate time spent on this level will also find that they have a harder time mastering new skills and will probably feel as if they have hit a plateau with their progression.
Examples of exercises in this level would include deadlift, front squat, bench press, military press, weighted pull ups/ chin ups, and DB rows. Compound, core exercises for the main movement patterns make up the bulk of this level.
The last, and smallest, level is Functional Skill. Unfortunately, this is where most training that MTB riders undertake would fall. This includes trail riding, DH runs, dirt jumping, 4X track time, gate starts, sprints, intervals and high level strength training methods such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifts. These methods will only yield the biggest “MTB specific” gains if they are used by someone who has spent time developing the base levels of the performance training pyramid. Believe it or not, over use of training methods in this level can actually slow down and stagnate skill development and fitness progression.
In fact, if you talked with any of the originators of a specialized training method I will guarantee you that they would tell you that they intended that method to be used by someone who had progressed into it. Every good strength coach understands the importance of laying a solid foundation and building on it in a progressive manner, but that approach is rarely reported on in the media or used by less skilled fitness professionals. What you find in the magazines and training boards is someone who reports on the specialized method independent of the progression intended to lead into it. Everyone wants to report on, learn and/ or use the “special” and “secret” training method of the champs, but failure to understand the progression into that method does a great disservice to the pioneers that gave us those methods.
Plyometrics have to be one of the best examples of this. Developed and refined by the old Soviet Union, plyometrics have developed an almost mystical status here in the United States. Almost every training conversation that I have with a rider eventually comes around to “what about plyometrics”, as if they hold the key to all riding goals. Riders who can barely pull off a bodyweight squat are jumping around cones and off of boxes in the quest for a MTB specific workout. However, the pioneers of the plyometric method would be greatly disturbed by this approach.
Some of the old Soviet training texts suggest that an athlete should have progressed (there’s that word again) to a double bodyweight squat before they were ready for depth jumps and other high level plyometrics. While I may not agree with that specific suggestion (more recent suggestions are around 1-1.5 times your bodyweight), it does underscore the fact that no one came into their training program and started off with plyometrics. In fact, it could be years before they would allow an athlete to use those higher level training methods if they felt adequate functional movement and strength had not been established. BTW, the Soviets kicked a lot off butt with this approach and this template has become the model for almost every high level strength and conditioning coach in the world.
So, as you can see from this point of view, most riders spend far too much time and focus on the Functional Skill level of the OPP. A lot of them may not have spent any time working on Functional Movement and/ or Functional Strength. This makes them over skilled, as their MTB specific skill and fitness progression is maxed out compared to the base that they have built. This means that a long term approach with an eye on safely progressing through the 3 levels of the OPP is needed for sustainable results. Without it, you are simply guessing at what will help you and hoping that it will. I don’t know about you, but that approach leaves too much to chance. If I’m going to invest time into training I want to be sure that it is going to pay off.
Note: do not confuse “over skilled” from a performance training point of view with having “adequate skill” from a pure performance point of view. Most of us will never be satisfied with our skill and fitness levels in every aspect of riding so we will always be looking to get a little better in some aspect on the bike. What I am saying is that at a certain point you must re-solidify the base of your OPP in order to continue to realize the gains offered by the higher level strategies.

Why I love to Train and Play but hate to Work Out…
I love to train and I love to play but I hate to workout. Confused by that statement? According to emails I get from riders trying to piece together a program to take their riding to the next level, if you are confused then you are not alone. However, knowing the difference and how to balance the 3 is the key to being able to see progress month after month and year after year without burning out.
First up is the word Training…
The definition of the word training is “deliberate practice in the attempt to acquire or refine a skill”. This means that you know exactly how what you are doing relates directly to the specific skills and/ or fitness you want to acquire or improve on the trail. Training has to be at the cornerstone of any training program but that is rarely the case, especially when it comes to trail riding.
For example, knowing how a deadlift relates to proper body position on the bike and the creation of a strong, powerful pedal stroke and then thinking about that as you are in the gym is training. Knowing how a windmill applies to the lateral hip movement you need to corner a bike is training. Spending time with some cones in a parking lot working on your basic handling skills is training. Simply going through the motions and trying to act it out is not enough – you have to know what you are supposed to be feeling.
I tell my clients that you can not look at the programs I create as a list of exercises to get through without any thought of the lessons behind each of those exercises. If you don’t walk out of the gym feeling that you learned something about how you move and how you can apply that to the bike then it wasn’t “training”. Just going for a ride with no idea of how to execute basic skills and a plan on how to practice them on the trail isn’t “training”.
At the heart of it is a desire to understand the “Spirit of the Thing Itself” (to quote Miyamoto Musashi from The Book of Five Rings) and, more importantly, a desire to understand how you suck and can tap into that spirit to get better. A humble attitude is needed to really train and, to be honest, is probably the biggest obstacle for most riders to overcome – knowing that you simply aren’t that good no matter how you stack up with the riders in your local riding group is tough for a lot of riders to accept.
Next I want to delve into Playing (I’ll get into Working Out in minute)…
Playing is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Training, when you don’t think about or worry about how what you are doing is going to help you improve. As you can see from the definition above, true training requires as much mental as physical effort and no one can do it all of the time without burning out, meaning that playing is also in integral part of a program.
For a mountain biker this means simply going out and having fun riding your bike, playing another sport or even goofing off with your family. Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of us have forgotten how to do this – we want everything to count towards our fitness goals.
I get questions all the time from well meaning riders who are trying to calculate how their morning bike ride to work or weekend hike with the family is going to count towards their fitness goals and how to fit it into their program. While I will admit that a pro rider who is “peaking” (an overused term that I really hate) for an event needs to make sure that they don’t overextend themselves in the days leading up to it the vast majority of us need to relax and just have – gasp – fun!
Remember that bike riding, and on a larger scale life, is supposed to be fun and that adults have the uncanny knack of taking the fun out of everything. Most of us can simply relax and enjoy most of our rides and extra-curricular activities without having to worry about how it will impact our training plan.
Don’t feel that every ride you go on has to take your overall training goals into account. Don’t pass up a chance to play with your family and friends because you are afraid that it will affect your “mileage” or “training hours”. If you can’t go on a ride with your wife because waiting for her at the top of a hill lets your heart rate drop and interferes with your “training” so you can finish 15th instead of 18th in Cat 2 in your local race series then you need to chill out. If you can’t go on a hike with your kids because it might kill your legs for your big “training” session at the gym the next day then you need to get a clue.
No one will be lying on their deathbed wishing that they had trained or worked more but countless people realize – too late unfortunately – that they did not have enough fun when they had the chance.
Now, I’ll dig into the worst of the 3 – Working Out…
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate what Jesus meant when he said “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out.”
Working Out is the lukewarm area of a program and the one that we should spend the least amount of time in but, unfortunately, where the vast majority of riders end up. They know they need to be doing something but they don’t really know what and so every time they hit the gym or the trail they are neither training (with a specific understanding of what they are working on and how it applies to the trail) nor are they playing (just having fun with no thoughts as to how it applies to the trail).
Most training rides are not really “training”, they are hammerfests with riders going as hard as they can for as long as they can with no real plan or idea of how their previous ride set them up for this ride or how this ride is going to set them up for the next one. Most gym time is not training, it is a list of exercises that was acquired from a magazine or off the internet that riders rush through in an attempt to build up their “cardio” or “fitness”. And don’t get me started on skills training – the epidemic of riders on $5000 bikes with $5 skills is out of control.
Being able to differentiate between Training, Playing and Working Out is vital to your ability to improve on a consistent basis while also staying mentally fresh and keeping your passion for mountain biking. Understand that being lukewarm in your approach is the worst thing you can do – you either need to be training or playing, which means having a plan that you have confidence in and execute with a purpose and also being able to chill out and have fun.
In conclusion, the real key to this is having a coach. We are both our own worst critics and our biggest cheerleaders and relying on ourselves to evaluate what we need to improve on and how to do it leads to a lot of the mental stress and lukewarm working out that most riders find themselves caught up in. Remember that the rider who has himself for a coach has a fool for a client, myself included. Being humble enough to seek help, and actually pay for it if necessary, gives you the peace of mind that you need in order to train when you needed and be able to play when you can.