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Rethinking Our Training: The Mountain Biker's Guide to Optimising Off-Season Preparation

Nov 2, 2023 at 13:58
by Jamie Read  

As winter approaches, mountain bikers often spend less time on the trails. This period prompts us to reflect on our off-season training, contemplating whether to structure our routines or select a specific program. A cursory glance at social media or a quick search through the Pinkbike archives reveals an oversaturated presence of one central message: resistance training is crucial during the off-season. Indeed, nearly all MTB-related fitness articles are built on the foundation of resistance training, a theme overwhelmingly echoed across digital platforms.
Yet, there's an inherent issue with this widely accepted viewpoint—it might be based on a misconception. Imagine if resistance training were to detract from your riding capabilities, causing a decline in your performance for the season ahead. It's worth examining why this conventional approach could be flawed.
Understanding the demands of our sport:
Mountain biking generally leans more towards that of an endurance discipline. If we look at our average rides from a time perspective, most of us ride anywhere from 2 to 5 hours, with the majority of that time spent going uphill. Of course, we embraced this hardship for the downs! That’s the exciting part, right?
You only have to look into the Enduro World Cup (EDR) to realise and gain an understanding of the demands of our sport. I have chosen the enduro discipline as it closely resembles what mountain biking is as a whole.
If we look at the graph displayed below, you will see time spent in liaison versus time spent racing. Also, you will see the average HR for liaison & HR for racing. (Based on at top 30 EDR rider)

As you can see, there is a lot of time spent in the liaisons and little time actually spent racing. you will also see that there is a huge demand on the aerobic system, percentage wise versus the anaerobic system. You would think given this little snapshot that you would prioritise your aerobic conditioning. Secondly to that you would focus on anaerobic conditioning.

The tale of two athletes.

Having established the importance of developing our aerobic systems, we will now examine the data from two athletes that I have tested and currently working with: one is a top 30 EDR rider, and the other is a dedicated triathlete.


(Enduro Athlete Left / Triathlete Right)

As the charts illustrate, we can examine both lactate accumulation and clearance rates in both athletes. This information is critical as it indicates the volume of lactate present in the athlete's bloodstream post-exertion at varying intensities, as well as the specific rate at which an athlete can efficiently clear lactate to return to baseline levels.

From the data, we observe that the enduro athlete can clear lactate at a rate of 0.5 mmol per minute. Given the demanding nature of enduro racing, it's not uncommon to detect lactate concentrations reaching 17 to 20 mmol following a downhill stage.

This implies that it would take the athlete approximately 40 minutes of pedalling at 194 watts to return to baseline lactate levels. Nonetheless, there is an added complexity; the athlete's ability to clear lactate at 194 watts is expected to decrease over the course of the day, necessitating a reduction in intensity to sustain efficient clearance.

In the liaison stages, athletes should primarily use their aerobic system for energy. Yet, undertrained athletes often mistakenly tap into their anaerobic system, causing a build-up of lactate rather than its removal. It's essential to ensure the aerobic pathway dominates during these periods for efficient moderate-intensity energy production. If the aerobic capacity isn't well-developed, athletes may overuse their anaerobic system, leading to excessive carbohydrate consumption.

If we refer back to the graph mentioned earlier, we see that at 180 watts, this athlete predominantly uses fats as a fuel source. Thus, to optimise lactate clearance and prevent further accumulation during the liaison, it would benefit the athlete to reduce their intensity to 180 watts.

When we compare this to a triathlete, let's assume they've exerted themselves to the same extent as the enduro rider, reaching a lactate concentration of 20 mmol/L. The triathlete has a superior lactate clearance rate of 0.8 mmol per minute, which would reduce his recovery time to approximately 25 minutes. Additionally, this athlete can maintain a higher recovery pace and intensity due to advanced conditioning.

Moreover, the triathlete can sustain a higher exertion level at 212 watts while predominantly metabolising fats, hence not accruing significant lactate at this intensity. This suggests a higher lactate threshold, enabling them to perform intensive work with a greater reliance on aerobic metabolism and fat oxidation before transitioning to a carbohydrate-dominant energy supply.

So, what’s the issue with resistance training for mountain bikers?

To unravel this, we need a basic understanding of human anatomy and exercise physiology. Muscles contain two primary fibre types: type one (slow-twitch) and type two (fast-twitch).
Type one fibres are the endurance specialists of our body, supporting prolonged activities by efficiently burning fat—a fuel source we have in abundance. These fibres are integral to our aerobic system, helping us during long, demanding rides. (You know what we do on the weekend)
Conversely, type two fibres provide the explosive power needed for short, intense bursts of movement—like powering out of a turn. These fast-twitch fibres rely on carbohydrates, metabolising them through a process known as glycolysis, which unfortunately produces lactate as a by-product.

But is lactate the villain here? Not entirely.
While it’s true that high lactate levels contribute to muscle fatigue, the issue lies in an over-reliance on the glycolytic system. If your body is conditioned to depend on carbohydrates even for relatively low-intensity activities, it won’t efficiently tap into fat reserves for fuel. This inefficiency leads to unnecessary lactate accumulation, even during endurance rides.
The silver lining? We can train our bodies to manage lactate better by focusing on two aspects: reducing lactate production at various intensity levels and enhancing our ability to clear lactate from our system. This brings us to the crux of the matter: why is resistance training problematic for mountain bikers?
Resistance training primarily engages type two muscle fibres, promoting dependency on the glycolytic system. Overdoing it in the gym conditions your body to prefer carbohydrates, side-lining fat as a viable energy source. This metabolic shift doesn’t align with the energy demands of mountain biking, resulting in premature fatigue and less enjoyable rides due to an inefficient fuelling strategy and excessive lactate levels.
bigquotesResistance training primarily engages type two muscle fibres, promoting dependency on the glycolytic system. Overdoing it in the gym conditions your body to prefer carbohydrates, side-lining fat as a viable energy source.Jamie Read

In summary, an overemphasis on resistance training could short-change your performance, steering your physiology away from what mountain biking demands: a balanced energy system that capitalises on fat and carbohydrates for an effective, enjoyable ride.

Looking at bad programming.
Many mountain bikers unknowingly follow training programs that inadvertently sabotage their performance. The crux of the problem? These regimens emphasise exercises that don't align with the actual demands of the sport. Let's dissect why this mismatch is a roadblock to achieving peak performance.
Let's assume the training regimen schedules three weekly gym sessions dedicated to strength exercises such as pushing, pulling, pressing, and hinging, with one session often incorporating conditioning through AMRAP, EMOM, and timed workouts. While these are branded as 'conditioning', they're primarily geared towards building muscular endurance, frequently triggering our type two, fast-twitch muscle fibres through explosive movements.

The discrepancy in exercise types becomes clear when we consider a hypothetical off-season period, defined here as the 24 weeks from October through March. Let's envision a scenario where you undertake 72 gym sessions during these months. In contrast, if you're completing two bike rides per week, you'll end up with 48 on-bike sessions throughout the same period. A straightforward numerical comparison reveals that the gym sessions are 50% more frequent than the bike sessions. However, it's important to recognise that this doesn't automatically translate to a 50% increase in type 2 muscle fibre engagement over type 1.

The engagement of type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers depends on the exercise, its intensity, and the individual's physiology. Cycling typically uses endurance-focused type 1 fibers, while gym workouts target type 2 fibers for strength. However, the exact muscle fiber activation varies with the specific details of the workout, not just the session count, necessitating a deeper look into each training element for accurate physiological assessment.

Why is this concerning? Mountain biking relies heavily on aerobic endurance (type 1 muscle fibre) due to the long, demanding nature of the rides, with occasional bursts of anaerobic activity (type 2 muscle work) for steep climbs or rapid descents. Overemphasising type 2 muscle training creates a physiological contradiction: you're conditioning your body for short, explosive sprints rather than sustained energy output.

This situation uncovers an inconvenient truth: dedicating a significant portion of your training time to routines that strengthen attributes not predominantly used in your sport may steer you away from optimal preparation. Such an imbalance in training could potentially lead to premature fatigue and inefficient energy utilisation due to the underdevelopment of the muscle fibre types that are crucial for endurance sports like cycling. Consequently, this skewed focus might not only hamper your overall performance but also diminish the quality of your riding experience
Considering this, it's paramount for mountain bikers to reassess their training priorities. The next segment will propose an alternative approach, realigning your regimen with the true rigours of mountain biking. It's time to train smarter, not harder, ensuring every drop of sweat directly enhances your performance on the trails.

I want to clarify that I'm not suggesting this reflects your current program or that anyone is necessarily taking this approach. I recognise that as the competitive season approaches, training regimens will inevitably evolve and, ideally, become increasingly tailored to the specific demands of your chosen discipline or sport.

Is there a way to redirect our training compass?
The secret lies in a fundamental focus shift: prioritise your aerobic system. Imagine flipping your routine; instead of 72 gym sessions, you dedicate those to your bike and reduce your gym time to 48 sessions. Like that, you've increased your potential to develop type one muscle engagement by 50%. It's not witchcraft; it's strategic training!
But let's address the elephant in the room: squeezing in three bike sessions a week during winter sounds like a frostbitten ordeal. Fear not, because the solution isn't merely braving the cold but being smarter with your indoor training alternatives.
Embrace activities that encourage your aerobic system. The gym can still be your refuge: engage in low-impact, high-endurance exercises on the rowing machine or the cross trainer. Better yet, diversify with swimming or indoor skiing, keeping your routine fresh and your motivation high.
And when you do hit the gym for those 48 sessions, here's a pro tip: opt for full-body workouts. Ditch the isolated muscle exercises and embrace comprehensive movements. This approach enhances overall body strength, which is crucial for the dynamic demands of mountain biking.
Dedicate your next session to stability, movement control, and—why not—a generous dose of mobility work. This trio is your golden ticket to a resilient body, less prone to injuries and more attuned to the rigours of the sport.
By reimagining your training schedule, you're not just enduring the off-season; you're strategically leveraging it. This balanced approach ensures you're not just a rider battling the elements but an athlete mastering them. So, when winter recedes, you're not just ready—you're unstoppable.


Wrapping This Up

The key message I hope you've gleaned from this article is multifaceted. Firstly, let me assert that the importance of strength training has yet to be understated here. It remains a pivotal element for those aiming to excel in mountain biking and Enduro racing. Based on our discussions today, I am eager to delve deeper into the role of strength conditioning and its integral relationship with this sports.

Author Info:
JamieRead22 avatar

Member since May 13, 2020
1 articles


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