Words: Chris Kilmurray / Point1 Athletic
Carrying on from or last chat in part two (read it here) about strength, what it is and how best to train it, we are going to talk here about its firstborn offspring, power!
I say offspring because really power in many ways is a skilful application of strength. Without adequate strength, power or powerful movement will not happen. That’s why we talked about strength first I suppose!
The word power itself actually doesn’t mean too much or more accurately can mean different things to different people, so the focus for us in this article is to lay out what I think power means to the mountain biker, why it’s important and how best to train it.
What is it?
First off, just to clarify what it is not, we are not talking about power in its SI unit version of Watts, I’m not going to discuss power metres (think SRM, Stages, Quarq etc…) or measuring wattage in any great detail. We are talking mainly about muscle power; the ability your muscles have to produce large amounts of force very quickly over relatively short periods of time (in one or multiple bouts/bursts).
If we go back to school for two seconds, Power = Force x Speed. Remember from our last instalment that strength was how much force your muscles could produce at a given time, well that’s why strength (force production) is so integral to being powerful.
In its purest form, being powerful allows you to achieve high speeds or move very quickly in a very short amount of time. Think about a single lap of 250m velodrome (10 seconds) the 100m sprint in athletics or even more “pure", the hammer-throw in field athletics. Within those individual events, even though they are all “power" events, you have varying demands, while the hammer thrower (is that the term?!) needs to be powerful just once to get all that weight to fly in one go he needs to repeat that effort many times in a day, likewise the sprinter on the velodrome may need to replicate multiple 250m in a given day to qualify and reach the finals but will also need lots of speed in that “power" to keep spinning that gear over once they actually reach their top speed.
You can see how seemingly similar “power" events can actually have quite different demands and likewise power and power training for the mountain biker have to meet some pretty specific and sometimes crazy demands depending on the exact event/s, race or rider.
To try and explain that a little better we can look at what some coaches call the Strength – Speed Continuum. I’m not sure who came up with this idea, maybe it’s just always been there as it is pretty logical way of thinking about what “power" demands your sport has, from pure strength to pure speed, and therefore you can decide how often and when to train the different components of power along the continuum:
Clearly the more force or tension you must create the slower you are going to move and inversely the less force you need to produce the faster your movements can be.
Having established that once you’ve covered strength or max strength and have an appreciable amount of strength built up (think a double bodyweight deadlift, 10 perfect pull-ups, 1 x bodyweight bench-press etc.) you can start thinking about building some power and once you can coordinate those muscles to move your body or your body and bike quickly, then you can think about training to do that quick movement repeatedly (but how far along the continuum of “quick" that movement actually is depends greatly on the event, track, trail etc.)
Instead of losing you now in a muddle of terms and jargon, let’s try to pull it all together and make sense of power and the strength-speed continuum for the mountain biker.
Losing the either/or attitude when thinking about your training is crucial for success, same applies here. It’s not a case of either strength or speed for the mountain biker. As a non-classical sport, like many modern sports, you need to train and acquire qualities across the full range of the strength – speed continuum.
Why is it important?
Max strength is the foundation, but a downhiller exploding out of a turn with hips, torso and shoulders holding good form, traveling 30km/h at the bottom of a steep chute while gravity compresses him/her and turning forces try to rip the bike away requires pure POWER, right in the middle of the continuum. But just after “popping" out of that turn there is 45m of straight track and the rider needs to pedal ASAP to gain milliseconds, well that quick change of cadence needs pure speed right on the extreme of the continuum, then having got that gear up to speed the rider changes down two, three, four gears and now needs speed-strength to keep increasing velocity.
We could list examples all day long, the strength-speed requirements of the enduro rider on the gnarliest rocks in Finale or Val d’Allos, holding a line while making slight adjustments in body position, but knowing a real broad range of athletic abilities is needed as a mountain biker is the bottom line. Finding out exactly where you and the demands of your event lie on the strength-speed continuum is the job of the clever rider or a good coach, and pinpointing what you need to train to improve your power, when and how often is the real job of a good coach.
[part title="How to Train Power"]
How to train it?
As our example of the wild downhiller above shows, almost the whole continuum needs to be trained for most events. Losing the pedalling ability = fitness mind-set helps achieve this also. You need to be powerful while pedalling yes certainly, but also powerful while standing tall and executing bunny hops, railing a turn, guiding and quickly re-directing your front-end out of the rocks on your 150mm trail bike etc; these scenarios all require power or some variant of it that falls along the strength–speed continuum. Your training should reflect that.
To keep things concise here I’m going to give you some ideas for both gym-based power training and on-the-bike based power training.
Exercise selection is always a debatable topic. So once again drop the ‘either or’ attitude and focus on results. Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk and their parts), plyometrics, dumbbell or kettlebell based moves, speed and quickness drills or medicine ball work; it’s a long list of tools and means you can use to achieve your goals, so make sure you take your goals, experience level, event, and current fitness into hand when choosing.
Olympic lifts are amazing power builders, they are a full body exercise, using every last square cm of muscle, triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip as well as the upper body and torso but they need lots of practice and specific skill to get the most from them, so maybe not the best option for beginners.
Using the key parts of the Olympic lifts (hip hinge, explosive triple extension) with kettlebells or dumbbells in the form of snacthes, swings and hang cleans is a fantastic idea for athletes of all levels to build power. Heavier weights build power and strength-speed; lighter weights can be used at greater velocity to build speed-strength or speed. Lighter weight used repeatedly in a circuit type fashion can then be used to build power repeatability or endurance!
Likewise plyometric exercises can build huge amounts of power and explosiveness but need to be introduced slowly for beginners and used cleverly and sparingly in those racing or riding a lot. However, depth jumps, tuck jumps, explosive push ups, single leg bounds etc… are all great ways to build power and require next to no equipment.
Medicine balls offer amazing versatility and fun options and depending on the weight of the ball used can be used to develop power along the full range of the continuum (see the pattern?). Medicine ball routines (overhead slams, med ball explosive chest throw, sidestep wall throws, exercises with a partner) are maybe one of my favourite tools to use with athletes for power development as they are cheap, simple and can cover so many movement patterns that transfer over to your bike riding as well as being less risky than Olympic lifting for the beginner!
Med balls bring us on to our last point for your gym-based power training and an often overlooked one: training in more than one plane of motion. With things like Olympic lifts, kettle-bell swings, or classic/standard plyometrics you train by either moving your body or a weight up and down or forward or back. That’s all in the same plane of motion which isn’t what the characteristics of the sport are; in MTB we have to rotate the hips and shoulders and power through one foot at a time to hop and change line. We must be powerful up and down and forward and backward but also in rotation and laterally, so your training should reflect that with lateral explosive movements (lateral lunge, lateral bench jumps), rotational med-ball moves, single leg power (plyos, jumps etc…).
[part title="On-the-bike Training"]
Ahh the pedal-based training! Maybe a little bit simpler to implement and understand for the average mountain biker, training power on your bike is pretty straightforward but there are still, dos, don’ts and clever approaches.
Like we said before, you can’t maintain what you don’t have and that seems to be a difficult thing for many riders to grasp. I hear of countless intervals, tabatas and all sorts of other pedalling based training but very few mountain bikers ever take the time to work on the basics: power.
Right smack-bang in the middle of the continuum, 6-10 secs long, standing start, using strength to overcome the resistance of you, your bike and its tyres, then digging in deep to move fast and add in that speed component to make it a powerful movement. It’s a basic thing that riders often don’t work on. As long as you have good strength then training your basic sprinting abilities with power as the focus will help coordinate your pedal stroke and upper body movement, it will build more fast muscle mass and undoubtedly improve your enjoyment on the trail or race times between the tape.
2 sessions a week of 5-8, 6-second all out sprints from a standing start with 3 minutes recovery between them for 1,2,3 or 4 sets (whatever matches your level and needs) for 4-6 weeks can lead to huge improvements in performance.
Powering out of slow turns, hammering the first few pedal strokes up a steep climb or the start effort in your next enduro race. Powerful pedalling is a crucial and an overlooked part of training for nearly all mountain bikers in my experience.
The continuum you ask? Well it’s pretty simple really: grinding a big gear uphill is strength, spinning super fast (e.g. speed or cadence and cadence change) is speed work and everything else in between falls where it falls. Using the same training plan as above if you just modify it and change the standing start for a fast rolling start then straight away we shift more towards the speed-strength end of the continuum.
Train what you need to excel at your event or discipline. Frequently though the ability to repeat sprints that are either in the power (getting up to speed out of tight turns) or speed-strength (quick, powerful pedalling while travelling fast) categories of the continuum are characteristic of MTB, especially enduro and trail riding. So that’s the focus: build powerful pedalling stroke by strength, speed and direct power work and then work on building the ability to repeat that power over 2 to 15 minutes or more at a time. Obviously your last sprint will not be as powerful as your first but improving the power of the first sprint and reducing the deficit between the first and last are the goals!
Years of road influence on training for MTB has led to power being neglected or misunderstood by many, so hopefully you can take my ramblings above onboard and implement some change in your own riding and training and remember you can’t maintain what you don’t have, so start simple and at the beginning!
Finally, don’t forget to transfer all that powerful gym work over to your bike by aiming to be powerful on the bike as well. Whenever the opportunity comes up, move fast and with purpose. bunny hop, explode out of turns, hop and transfer across the hill. Apply that power to your bike riding.
Point1 Top Tip
Warm-ups are a critical part of the training process, especially for Point1 athletes. I almost always include a leg speed, high cadence or short power portion in the bike warm-up of my athletes; not only is it a great way to “prime" the system in your warm-up but it also serves to maintain or improve leg speed, a key component to powerful pedalling. As speed is one of the quickest traits to suffer if not trained I always include small amounts of speed work in our training.
Try 3-4 high cadence (155 rpm +) 6-8 second seated efforts in a very light gear while travelling downhill in your next warm-up (2 minutes active recovery between efforts). Add that in for 4 weeks to your warm-ups and see some big changes in your leg speed.