No More Weakly Warriors Part 1 - Aerobic Power House

Words: Chris Kilmurray / Point1 Athletic Development

Let’s start from the beginning. We’re not going to flounder around the deep end of fitness in our first installment, instead we are going to attack this smartly and focus on the big daddy of MTB fitness: Aerobic endurance.

Or better yet we can call it aerobic energy production as that word (endurance) may give some people the wrong impression*.

Base what?

A lot of readers may be familiar with the idea of ‘base’ training or ‘base miles’ – starting the winter season, off-season or any training program with endless hours of easy, steady road riding. But in reality (and certainly in the real world of MTB) there’s a whole lot more to the aerobic system then just cranking out the sausage mileage for a few months a year.

Chris Kilmurray dishing out the advice
Chris Kilmurray dishing out the advice “now this next exercise might hurt a little…”

Most of you have ridden with that guy or girl who just never seems to tire. They’re always ready for the next climb and when things point down there’s no thought of taking a quick breather to maximise enjoyment, they just don’t need to. They are the masters of flow and fun and just dominate the trail.

Yep you guessed it. It’s their aerobic fitness that underpins all this shredding ability. It is the body’s preferred power station. It delivers efficient, long lasting energy. It allows you to recover between climbs, sprints, technical sections or those big-eyes-brown-pants moments and all the other challenges the trail throws up. The more capable your aerobic energy system is the harder you can go all day long.

The aerobic system provides energy at low intensities and replenishes energy stores after giving it welly. If you have time to train just a little bit then you can teach the body to harness the full potential of your aerobic energy system.

Methods to this madness

So how can I go about doing a little bit of training to maxmise the potential of this amazing sounding aerobic thing I hear you ask? Well luckily it isn’t all that complicated.

The beginner (6 months to 1 year of riding 1-2 times a week): Just get out and ride, take your bike, helmet and get out riding for 45 mins to 1 hourr at a steady, manageable pace (being able to carry-out a conversation easily means your pace is pretty spot on). Build up the duration (volume) over time but a 2 hour continuous ride is more then enough to make the required changes to the aerobic system. Once you can ride for 1hr 30 + then look to increase your frequency (how many sessions a week) instead of trying to add extra volume only. Doing 3, 1hr 15min sessions a week will be of more benefit to you as a MTBer than one 4hr mega spin would be and the organisation (food, routes, water, kit etc..) is just way easier.

The Intermediate: So lets say getting out and riding for a few hours nice and steady ain’t too hard for you but you struggle when things go uphill often or the speed starts to pick up on the technical stuff. Well here’s the training method for you:

Tempo Intervals – Don’t run and hide. These aren’t your regular intervals. Less suffering involved but if done right then still highly effective. Ride for 50 seconds steadily then get out of the saddle and push hard for 10 – 12 seconds, not a maximum sprint but hard enough so you feel the change in pace. Repeat this sequence for 20 minutes, focusing on keeping each 10 – 12 second portion the same intensity and each 50 second  portion nice and steady. Concentrate on breathing in a controlled manner and pedalling smoothly to recover well between each 10 – 12 sec “interval”.

Aim for 2-3 sessions per week for 4-5 weeks adding between 2-3 minutes to the duration of each session each week. It all sounds very easy, but you’ll see leaps and bounds in your trail time fun with this method.

Tempo intervals can be down outside on your MTB or inside on the rollers or turbo-trainer if weather is bad or time tight. I really like these on the rollers when the weather is horrendous or as part of a fun ride with an added training focus. Just make sure you warm up for at least 10 minutes to get maximum benefit.

The expert: Once you class yourself as an advanced rider (someone who hammers the climbs, is fresh and focused on the descents and wouldn’t be daunted by a sudden change in route turning a ride into a 4hr epic), then making improvements in your aerobic capabilities can require more sadistic methods.

If you want to maximise how hard you can really push at higher heart rate (read intensity), then it’s the strength with which your heart can pump that can really improve how much oxygen is delivered to your working muscles. Remember, your heart is a muscle too so it can be trained to contract with more force. This is where we introduce these lovely methods:

Cardiac Power Intervals – These can be done on the bike (slight uphill is best) or in the gym using a “circuit” of MTB specific movements (we’ll talk more about this in the next installment).

For maximum effectiveness these intervals most be done at 100% intensity – MAX effort! You work for 60 – 90 seconds. Rest for 2-4 mins depending on your individual recovery capabilities, then repeat. Aim for 6-10 consecutive repetitions or two sets of 3-5 repetitions with a five-minute gap between those sets. The exact organisation of the intervals is up to you to play with depending on your current fitness, time and fatigue levels.

Get your training plan off the ground and within a matter of weeks you'll be feeling the benefits. Stay tuned for part two.
Get your training plan off the ground and within a matter of weeks you’ll be feeling the benefits. Stay tuned for part two.

Piecing the puzzle

Try to integrate the above methods into your work/school/life schedule along with your normal riding time. If you’ve never really trained before then start by adding in whatever method applies to your level once to twice a week and build from there. We’ll look at how to build yourself a four-week training program in a later installment of this series. But having adequate time to recover before the weekend’s riding is key, as at the end of the day smashing the trails is what counts. By adding in the above methods you’ll see fun, safety and enjoyment on the trail increase as your Aerobic fitness does.

Point1 tip-top tip:

Use a heart rate monitor for your aerobic training. They can be used to make sure you are staying in an aerobic “zone” during longer training rides. Or better still, use it to monitor your recovery rate (how fast your HR drops down to around 130-145 beats per minute) between Tempo or Cardiac power Intervals. This way you can really see the progress in your Aerobic fitness.

Until next time, enjoy the skids.

*Lycra sausage tucked away for 4 hours at a time..?

  1. massmoor

    Its nice for someone to point out the obvious for once.
    If you can’t get enough air in quick enough the rest of your body won’t work in any sport.

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