As mountain bike racing becomes more diversified it has become increasingly more difficult to excel at multiple disciplines throughout the course of a season. So we asked elite Carmichael Training Systems coach Andy Applegate to break down four of our favorite MTB racing disciplines – XC, Enduro, Ultra-Endurance, and Stage Racing – and give us the secrets to breaking through in each.
In this 4-part series Andy starts with XC racing.
Question: “What is the most important ability to work on for cross country racing? What is the focus during training and why?”
Answer: The standard answer for this question as a coach is: it depends on where you are in the training season and how long you have until your goal races. These questions would be followed by a few statements like: You need to follow a periodized training plan, and work on different aspects of fitness at different times. You need to build from less specific to more specific training.. etc, etc. While this is all true, let’s strip that away for a moment and answer the question: what is the single ability to work on that will get you the best results in a cross country race?
To answer this, let’s look at the physical demands of a race. We know that most xc races are between 1.5 and 2 hours long. We know that the start is extremely important and explosive. We know that you will have to make repeated anaerobic efforts with minimal recovery. We know that you will need to be able to handle obstacles and maintain speed around the entire course.
Before the days of power meters, we primarily used heart rate to look at training and racing intensity. A heart rate data file from an xc race usually looks like a flat line about 5 bpm above lactate threshold heart rate. Sure, there are some undulations in heart rate throughout the race, but for the most part HR is very steady for the entire duration of the event. When we looked at these files, most coaches and athletes thought: “ok, so if this is what the race HR looks like, I should gear my training to that and do long steady efforts at or just above lactate threshold.” While this is an effective way to build general fitness, and raise power output at lactate threshold, it does not address the demands of cross country racing as specifically as we thought.
Enter the power meter. I remember the first time I saw a power file from a mountain bike race. I was blown away by the immense variability of power output throughout the event. Huge power spikes way above threshold power for very brief (seconds) to moderately long (several minute) durations with short periods of recovery. These facts let us answer the original question. Working on anaerobic, VO2max type intervals of durations between 1 minute and 3 or 4 minutes would be a prime area to focus on for xc racing. This type of interval work is quite specific to the demands of the event, training your body to be able to handle the repeated anaerobic work bouts with very little recovery between efforts.
I think that covers the the “what and why”, so let’s get to the “how” part. Here are some workout ideas.Start with doing 3×3 minutes of near-all-out intervals with 3 minute recoveries between efforts. Make sure you warm up well so you can hit that first effort hard.
For most intervals of this type a 1:1 work to rest ratio works well. The efforts should be done between 110-120% of threshold power or about 9 to 9.5 on a 1-10 perceived exertion scale. Heart rate is generally not a great way to gauge intensity for these efforts as it will not elevate above threshold until the interval is nearly complete.
Remember, the interval starts as soon as you put the power to the pedals. Do one or two 3×3 min workouts with at least a day of easier riding between, then start adding another 3 min effort as you feel like you are able to handle the workload. Eventually build up to a total of 6 or possibly 7 intervals per workout. Remember: these are very-near-all-out efforts, so if you feel like you could do more than 6 or 7 of these, you probably are not going hard enough!
Do 2 or 3 of these interval sessions per week and you will see some real improvements after a 3 week training block. I like to prescribe these workouts with one recovery day between interval days, however some coaches feel that doing 2 days in a row of efforts is worthwhile also. Try it, but if you feel like you are not able to hit the same intensity the 2nd day in a row, go back to putting an easier day between.
While the 3 minute efforts are very effective, it is also good to vary the effort durations (keeping a 1:1 work to rest ratio). Try doing a session of 7×2 min (2 min recoveries) or a 3-4 x 4 min session (4 min recoveries).
Another aspect to vary is how you are attacking each effort. One approach would be to nail it all out from the start and hang on as long as you can (called “peak and fade” ). Another way would be to try to hold a very steady effort throughout each interval. Both approaches are very effective at building fitness.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it is not a good idea to hit these types of workouts all year. Generally doing a 3 week block of VO2max, followed by recovery, then a block of focusing on a different aspect of fitness is best. I like to put VO2max work in between blocks of threshold work and again about 8 weeks before the beginning of the important part of the race season.
One last note. I mentioned that we were able to learn a lot about the demands of racing from power meters. However, while they are great tools, they are certainly not required for effective training or racing. Almost all types of workouts can be done very effectively using perceived exertion and/ or heart rate feedback.
Hard anaerobic efforts like VO2max intervals are very tough and painful, but the payoff from building them into your training is huge… and very specific to the needs of the cross country MTB racer.
Andy Applegate is a Pro level coach with Carmichael Training Systems. He has over 20 years of racing experience and has been coaching cyclists full time since 2001. His passion is endurance mountain bike racing. You can find out more about Andy and his training programs at www.trainright.com