Training for the Time Poor Mountain Biker

I’ve heard that everyone in Hollywood would like to be thinner and richer. I am not sure if this is actually true, but in that vein I am certain that everyone who loves mountain biking would like to be faster and have more time to ride. This is one of those ‘good news/bad news’ situations. I can offer absolutely no advice on how you are going to get more time to ride (the bad), but I have lots of experience in helping people go faster on their bikes (the good).
 
Not all that long ago I devoted up to 25 hours per week to training for bike racing. It meant that I spent all of my time at home either eating or sleeping. These days, with a more demanding job and a desire to actually see the people I live with, I feel lucky to spend 10 hours a week training. Now even that may sound extremely generous and I should consider myself quite lucky (no matter how restrictive it might seem to me).
 
In this article I’ll present some ideas for the really time poor enthusiast that will improve your performance. Maybe you’ve agreed to join a mate in an eight or 12-hour team’s race or perhaps you’ve booked in that long-considered biking holiday; a week in Rotorua, Mt Buller or on the trails of Canberra maybe. Whatever the case, you really need to do something to ensure you survive the experience and/or hold up your end of the bargain.
 
So how ‘time poor’ are you? Let’s break it down into the following groups:
Level 1 – Our most time poor category; you may get out once or twice a week and a four-hour week of riding would be considered a pretty big one.
Level 2 – To attain this level you’d routinely log four to six hours of saddle time in a week.
Level 3 – This group would typically spend seven or eight hours a week on the bike. This may be divided across a couple of shorter pre or post-work rides as well as weekend riding.
 
One option for all time-poor cyclists is indoor training. It is hard, boring and definitely not mountain biking, but it works for many people and helps to get them fitter and faster. Five time world 24-hour solo champion Jason English often speaks of big hours on the trainer at home. If you hadn’t considered it but now think a stationary trainer may work for you; well terrific! However this article isn’t really for you. See ‘Six Weeks to a Faster Ride’ (page 60) if you are willing to work really hard using an indoor trainer to get ready for your key event.
 
A few skills lessons can also help any mountain biker with a competitive urge (or even those of you who hate the idea of racing). Every time you slow down for a corner you lose momentum and have to pedal up to speed again. Learn to corner faster and you’ll gain ‘free speed’ – but this article isn’t about skills development either.
 
Our real focus involves devoting some of your limited ride time to focused training sessions that are specifically aimed at increasing your fitness level, and hence your speed on the bike as well as your ability to ride further. These drills are best executed on non-technical fire trails or on the road if getting to the dirt is too much trouble. If you choose to pound the tarmac, you can still do it on the MTB; it’ll just wear your knobby tyres faster.
 
GET FOCUSED
There is an age-old saying that really works well: train your weaknesses and race your strengths. This means that you should
work on the aspects of riding that limit your performance, but put your race-day efforts into the stuff you are good at. For example, most regular mountain bikers challenged whenever the trail points uphill. Unless you are a naturally gifted 55kg climber, you will see a big improvement in your overall lap times by working hard on your climbing ability. Once you have done this you are still going to get smoked by the natural climbers in the race, so use your improved climbing ability to limit your losses and take it to them on the flatter terrain, or in the technical sections—wherever it is that you excel.
 
Some of the people I coach haven’t done enough racing to know what their strengths and weaknesses lie. That’s okay too. Whenever
training time is limited, it’s a given that you should work on your climbing as the first priority (except perhaps the gifted climbers). It is *mountain* biking after all; the name implies there will be climbing! As you add to the number of training sessions per week, and once you’ve been training for a long period, you can target other things.
 
Level one riders might have to take exception to my rule-of-thumb because climbing drills typically take around 60 minutes to complete—you may need to look to more time effective sessions. Instead focus
on short but intense interval work to progress your fitness.
 
If you are a level two or three rider, you should be thinking about doing the intensity and the hill work in two separate sessions each week. With this, the intensity work should always come before the climbing if the sessions are within two days of each other. If you are particularly devoted to training, you should consider adding in a
third drill each week (see ‘Training Sessions’ table above).
 
A rider has three enabling factors in their performance abilities: strength – the ability to push a big gear; endurance – being able
to pedal for a long time; power – essentially the ability to accelerate.
My favourite exercise for cyclists is the climbing repeat—see ‘Suggested Drills’ (page 60) for details on each drill and which
factors are targeted. Climbing repeats not only work the strength and endurance abilities in almost equal measure, but also work on technique and mental toughness.
 
A nice counter to the climbing repeat is the climbing interval—it works on both your power and endurance abilities. A very solid level of ascending performance can be obtained just from these two drills.
Climbing intervals seem to count more as climbing work than as interval work so generally you should still put an interval session in your week if you have two or more sessions planned.
 
Short intervals are good both because the entire session can be very quick and because it works purely on power. This fits in nicely with the climbing repeats to round out a rider’s abilities. If your climbing ability is particularly suspect and you really want to concentrate on getting better, by all means use the climbing interval as your second session.
By mixing and matching drills, you can either supercharge one limiting factor or spread the love around. Combining climbing intervals with long intervals in the week targets endurance. Swap in short intervals
instead of long and you are targeting power.
 
Most cyclists progress best on a four-week cycle. This means that after three repeated identical weeks you need to have an easy week; this is your recovery week. It is during this easier period that your body rebounds from all the stresses placed on it by the preceding three weeks and gets stronger, fitter and faster. If you skip the recovery week for any reason you are minimising the gains that you can realise. During recovery week you should ride the same number of hours but you do not include any tough sessions— try throwing in a recovery ride instead.
 
While indoor trainer sessions are both boring and painful, they can offer a solution if you need to get fit in and around a busy lifestyle.

After three or four cycles it is time to switch things up. Like the changing seasons of the planet, I call these 16-week periods seasons.
Over a year you can spend one season on each enabling factor and have the fourth season more generalised. Keeping things fresh keeps your body adapting, maintaining progress over the months and years.

So if you’re strapped for time but still want to improve, don’t despair. Formulate a plan, structure your riding as I’ve outlined and you’ll gain far more out of you riding time. Combine this with a sensible diet –
balancing the calories that go in and out – and you’ll be shocked by how much you’ll improve. Don’t just ride, ride smart and you’re sure to reap the rewards!

Suggested Drills

Climbing Repeat (for strength and endurance): This drill involves riding your bike in a good position (don’t let yourself slump or twist) and grinding up a non-technical hill, pedalling at around 60 rpm (one complete pedal revolution per second if you don’t have a cadence meter). You should remain seated the whole time. The ideal hill is about 10 minutes long (obviously you can stop early if your local hill is longer). Start with two 10 minute efforts and work up to several over the course of a few months. Try to quit each session before exhaustion sets in completely.

Climbing Interval (for endurance, power): This climbing effort uses a smaller gear and therefore a much higher cadence; around 90 rpm. You remain seated and ride up a hill for four minutes and 45 seconds. This first ascent establishes the baseline for the day by climbing for 4:45 and for each subsequent ascent you will ride to the exact same point. When it takes more than 5:00 to get up the hill, you are done.

Short Interval (improves power and strength): Find a straight section of flat to slightly descending trail. Aim for an extremely hard effort that takes between 30 seconds and three minutes. After each go, take a set break between 30 seconds and five minutes to recover. Try to start out too slow so that you can finish evenly. Most people go out too hard and have to ease up part way; it takes several sessions to learn just how hard you can go. After several repeats, when your effort feels like rubbish, quit. There’s absolutely no point in doing poor quality efforts. I like to start at one minute ‘on’ and three minutes ‘off’ and vary things once you really nail the execution.

Long Interval (works endurance and strength): On a flat to undulating bit of trail begin with five minutes of hard ef­fort followed by a five minute roll down to recover. Use a loop trail if possible with no tight corners or steep slopes. 

Note that these will be quite a lot mel­lower than the ‘Short Interval’ because they last much longer. When you can do several of these at the same effort level in the one session, double the ‘on’ times to 10 minutes. You may even want to go to 20 minutes ‘on’ when you get good at doing the 10 minute efforts.

Endurance: Work in some longer dura­tion, moderate effort rides to build up your endurance abilities. Your endur­ance target heart rate (or power) is ap­proximately 70-90% of your threshold heart rate (or power). In basic terms, you can ensure you are in the ‘E-zone’ if you can at least speak in short phrases. But make sure you aren’t slacking off either—see ‘recovery’ below. Start off with 30 minutes and work up. The longer these go (within reason), the better, so make the ride as long as your schedule will permit.

Recovery: Quite gentle rides that promote active recovery. If the ability to speak means you are in the E-zone then the ability to sing out loud means you are in the R-zone. Try it! As you pick up speed you will lose the ability to sing, but will still be able to talk—this indicat­ed that you’re going too hard and have gone from ‘recovery’ to ‘endurance’.

Six Weeks to a Faster Ride 

Absolutely time strapped but still need to get fit? Well there’s one drill I know of that can dramatically increase your fitness with only six weeks of riding a mere 15 minutes per day for five days in a row and 45 minutes on the sixth day.

It requires a trainer, a speedometer and a load of dedication because it is tough. Called the Tabata Protocol, it is named after Dr Tabata who built a team of winning speed skaters in Japan.

With a 10 minute warm-up, get your heart rate slowly up the point where speaking is a bit difficult (about 75% of threshold if that means more to you). Then you put it in a fairly large gear and pedal at around 100rpm for 20 seconds keeping the speed constant (I suggest trying 40kph if you don’t know where to start). You then take a 10 second break.

Next you repeat the 20 seconds ‘on’ and 10 seconds ‘off’ until you fail. By ‘fail’ I mean that you can no longer achieve the original set speed or you couldn’t hold it for 20 full seconds.

Then have a couple of minutes to cool down before calling it a day—you’re done and it only takes 15 minutes!

If you didn’t achieve five full intervals then drop your speed by 2kph for next session. If you finished between five and nine efforts, then your efforts are on track and you should aim for the same speed next time. If you did more than nine efforts, increase the speed by 2kph for the next session.

This advice applies to the five short ses­sions. For the one longer weekly session do the same warm-up, then ride for 30 minutes at 60% of the speed you were us­ing the day before. Finish off with exactly four intervals at full speed with a five minute cool down to finish. Have the last day of the week completely off the bike.

Training Sessions

Dedicating large chunks of time to riding isn't always the key to improvement. You'll get more from less by training smarter.

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