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Race Training                   by Bruce Argyle
Part 1:  General principles of training.

So you want to get in shape for racing? 

Well, great. But first, you need to look at why you're racing.

Are you determined to win, no matter what? Or is the race a motivator to get into shape?

Racers can have many reasons for racing: being outdoors, fun, the glory of winning, or getting in shape.


Your approach to training may vary, depending on your ultimate goal. For example, in a cross-country race, huge upper-body muscles are just extra weight to carry up the hill. If your goal is simply to win, your workouts should not build muscle mass in the upper body (but should maintain as much power as possible). Your workouts will focus on leg strength and endurance.

But if you're racing because you want to be strong and buff-looking, you'll continue to power-lift during the race season to build upper-body muscle, and accept a slower finish.

You must also adjust your training program for "where you are now." If you're carrying a bit of extra fat, a program that safely burns off that fat will increase your racing speed much more than a muscle-building program. (But of course, you really need both.)

The desire to win is a great motivator to get in shape.

First, let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. All riders are NOT created equal. Maximum oxygen consumption, enzymatic muscle-repair systems, mitochondrial efficiency, and skeletal type are things you inherited. Blame your parents, but you can't change these things. You can improve the efficiency of your own protoplasm, but you can't swap genes with Lance Armstrong. Do the best you can with what you've got.

So here are the factors that affect your ability to win races:

  • Oxygen consumption
  • Power output to weight ratio
  • Lactate threshold
  • Aerobic conditioning
  • Mental toughness
  • Skill
  • Burst strength

There are a lot of great memories out there for mountain bike racers!

Oxygen consumption.  Maximum oxygen consumption, called VO2max, is a measure of how much fuel you can burn in a given time. If you can burn more fuel, you can go faster. But VO2max is something that improves only a little with training. What you CAN change, is how efficiently you use the fuel you CAN burn. That's where training comes in.
Power output to weight ratio.  When climbing up a hill, a 200-pound rider works harder than a 150-pound rider. Obviously. So while you want to increase your power, you need to keep your body mass in check. If you're carrying a bit too much fat, getting rid of it will make you faster, even if you don't gain strength or endurance. But starving yourself does NOT work. Losing fat is best done with long lower-intensity rides, combined with intermittent muscle-building exercise.

There are some things you can never change.
Don't let that stop you from being the best racer you can be. 

Lactate threshold.  Muscles work most efficiently when there's enough oxygen to burn sugar molecules completely. This is called aerobic metabolism. The level of muscular activity at which you can no longer completely burn fuel is called the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold. After crossing this threshold, muscles fatigue rapidly, and lactic acid builds up. When you increase the lactate threshold within your leg muscles, you can ride harder and faster for a longer time. The most efficient way to increase lactate threshold is to combine occasional short-duration intense anaerobic activity into a program of longer, paced aerobic riding.
Aerobic conditioning.  Your muscles need oxygen and fuel, which must be delivered via your lungs and circulatory system. Aerobic conditioning improves your ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. Aerobic conditioning is done by sustained riding within your "aerobic training zone." (A heart-rate monitor or a power meter are two good ways to stay in this zone.)

Long road rides are an excellent way to push your lactate threshold and develop greater aerobic capacity.

Oxygen consumption and anaerobic power.  With anaerobic intervals, you can increase your lactate threshold, improve your power at lactate threshold, speed lactate clearance, and improve your VO2-max (maximum oxygen consumption, a good measure of how you'll perform on XC races). These are sets in which you pedal like crazy above your lactate threshold, rest a while, then go again.

Mental toughness.  If you can't handle discomfort, you can't win. Mental toughness keeps you working hard when it's unpleasant, and keeps you focused. It makes you believe in yourself enough to attack, to fight off challengers, and to fly fast downhill. Mental toughness is developed through a tough training program.

Skill.  Good bike skills mean you don't waste effort. You shift smoothly without interrupting your power delivery. You pedal with the most efficient cadence for the trail. You don't brake any more than necessary. You pick the riding line that's the least work. Skills come by riding, riding, riding.

Last, and arguably least, is Burst Strength.  This is the ability to fight past other riders, or to get through sections where other riders are walking. With good burst strength, you won't waste time stuck behind a slower rider -- you find enough reserve power to pass.

A specific strengthening program, twice a week, will give you the power to attack. Develop strength with exercises both on, and off, the bike.

Assuming you have reasonable riding skills, the two factors that have the greatest impact on your ability to win are (1) power-output-to-weight ratio and (2) lactate threshold. Your goal is to improve in these two areas while maintaining your burst strength.
Test yourself. Many beginning racers make the mistake of training at things they're already GOOD at. You need to identify your weak areas, and work on them. What slows you down? Is it that you're constantly out of breath? If so, you should work on your aerobic capacity and lactate threshold. Or is it that your leg muscles just won't put out, or don't last? Work on power endurance with weights and sprints. Do you drop back from the guy you're chasing every time you hit a switchback? Then you need to work on riding skills.

So here's what you need in your training program:

  • Aerobic riding. Increase your lactate threshold, improve your aerobic capacity, and drop unnecessary weight. Aerobic riding is the most important part of race training -- do LOTS of it.
  • Intervals. Improve VO2-max and speed.
  • Power riding. Develop standing power, burst power, upstroke power, core strength. Stimulate muscle growth, so you don't lose strength along with fat.
  • Skills riding. Faster downhilling, smoother switchbacks, less fatigue on technical sections.
  • Cross-training. Exercises off the bike, including power and stretching.

Your goal in life is health and happiness, not just "winning."

In Part 2, I'll cover discuss some specific guidelines and recommendations for your training program.
Specific Guidelines Intervals Resistance Trainers Powertaps Upper Body Lower Body