I see a lot people at the local and collegiate level work their butts off in training. The results improve for a while, but then they start to plateau. It seems like everyone else is on a completely different level than them and someone hid the ladder. Whether this is pushing past a certain result, trying to bridge the gap between categories, or even bump up from regional level competition to national level. I was one of these people.
The problem is that you can train as much as Nino does but training is such small piece (an important piece but small nonetheless) of the puzzle that when you fixate yourself only on training you greatly limit your maximum capability. This is because training makes you slow, it only helps you get up the hill, and it only benefits one dimension out of the 4 or five that gets used in racing. In order to truly unlock your capabilities in cycling, you must be strong, aerobically fit, flexible, have good bike handling skills, have a good diet, and have a clear mind. Everything covered in this article was learned at the Bear Pro Team camp where we worked with some of the US’s top professionals, skills coaches, sports psychs, and performance directors, in conjunction with talking to Ken Lundgren at Elite Endurance
As race courses became shorter, steeper, and more technical, the benefits of strength training were obvious. The more strength you have, the more explosive you can be, and the quicker you can get up the steeper climbs. Additionally, increased core strength reduces fatigue as well as adding stability through technical sections. When I stay strength training, I do not mean going to the gym and squatting every 45 plate in the Gym or Leg pressing so much you need a friend to help you load the machine. While I do spend a lot of time doing squats and on the leg press, it is equally important to incorporate plyometric exercises into your strength training regimen. This includes, box jumps, long jumps, jump squats, split squats, or anything that requires explosive activation of several linked muscle in every movement. Core work is also extremely important. A strong core is just as important as strong legs, because it allows you to use all of your power. Once your core gives out, you become much less efficient because you have all this energy moving your body around on the bike as opposed to going to the pedals to drive you forward. While planks are nice and all because they target so many different muscle groups, as mountain bikers, we move around on the bike…a lot. So it is important to not only do planks but also add in dynamic movements such as V-ups, Flopping fish, sandwich crunches, and windshield wipers. Incorporating, gym exercises, plyometrics, and core work, will often yield immediate results because their benefit to your power and efficiency will greatly outweigh the negligible weight gain you’ll experience.
What was not so apparent to me was flexibility, especially flexibility in your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and calves). Back pain is arguably the most common issue among cyclists when they try to explain why they had a good race that went south. The common response is spin a lighter gear, but that only works around the root cause. The source of this pain is from tight hamstrings. If you think about where the hamstring connects (back of the knee to around the glute area) and how we sit on the bike in our racing positions, it is quite the stretch. If our hamstrings are not flexible for our hips to rotate forward on the saddle, our backs curl up and we end up using our lower back muscles a lot more than we should to push the pedals. Developing a1 daily routine of stretching for 15-20 minutes before bed is a sure fire way to end that back pain (unless there is something drastically wrong with your fit).
For mountain bikers in particular, the attack position involves putting your chest down to raise your hips (to get behind your saddle), bend your elbows out for stability, and be able to push the bike away from you instead of leaning back and getting pulled down with the bike. Many of us think we’re in the correct position, but the fact is that we are not nearly low enough because of our lack of flexibility in our posterior chain. Since we don’t get low enough, corners are tougher, and steep terrain makes us feel much more uncomfortable and then we blame the bike. After debunking some of these mysteries in myself, it was clear that I was the limiting factor not the bike. Evidently modern XC bikes are capable of riding down downhill tracks with 10 foot gap jumps and 6 foot drops without a dropper. So do yourself a favor, stretch and admire how much free speed you obtain in your descending ability.
I have already written an article for EE on nutrition, but it is very important. Basically is that you don’t ever want to starve yourself because that will only take away from performance. Always fuel properly for how you are going to train replace what you lose. For example, if the ride is recovery or endurance paced, fuel with more fat because that is the fuel source you will be burning more. More intense rides, fuel with carbs, then replenish protein and carbs. Strength work should be fueled with protein and carbs, and replenished with protein. Getting your nutrition dialed in will not only yield huge gains in your performance while training, but also you will be sick less.
On the bike, I advise crushing at least a bottle of water or electrolyte mix every hour and eating something (gu, bar, stroopwaffel, chews) every hour for training and every 20-30 minutes in racing to keep your glycogen stores topped off. I would avoid using a carbohydrate based drink and “drinking your calories” because then your body needs to draw water from your cells so that your stomach can digest all of those carbs. Eat your food and drink your fluids. #neverbonk
As stated above, being able to get yourself in the attack position for obstacles is a game changer in terms of confidence, comfort, and overall trail speed. Bike handling is one of those things that if very necessary because if you can’t handle your bike, all of your training and fitness is absolutely useless. Power numbers mean nothing if they don’t translate to speed on the trail. Once a week, do your intervals on the mountain bike. Incorporate pump track sessions if you have access to one in order to go over the fundamentals, and every so often ride a trail that is very technical with someone who knows the trail and session features until you can ride the trail without taking cheater lines or walking. There is no shame in not being able to ride something, especially if you are working towards riding it.
This is the biggest piece of the puzzle and I plan on writing an article just on this in the future. Cycling is so mental that mindset is often times what can make or break a race. The worst race I had was the Hardwood Hills Canada Cup and I believed that I wouldn’t do well because I hadn’t ridden the week leading up to it. While my loss of fitness would’ve placed me very mid pack, my mindset had me a lap down from the leaders, passed by every junior on course, and passed by the leaders of the Women’s race that started almost ten minutes back. My best race every was Windham last year. I went into it confident. Not that I was going to do well, but that I was going to have a fun time. I stayed loose and just tried to have fun. I ended up finishing right behind Derek Zanstra and was the first American to finish in the elite category as a U23. Confidence is a dangerous weapon and Kristein Keim was drilling into our heads, the formula for confidence. Confidence = Efficacy + Autonomy. Be prepared and know that you are capable of doing something and your performance will go through the roof.
These are the most commonly missed aspects of preparation for events among cyclists. Even if you implement one or two of these aspects, you will see your performance jump to the next level. Implement all of them, and I guess I will see you on the start line.