By PCG Elite / Master Coach Brig Brandt
Very often, mountain bike racers train nearly exclusively on the road, performing intervals that simulate the demands of road racing, while neglecting some of most important characteristics of mountain bike specific training. I’m not suggesting mountain bike racers train exclusively on the trail (far from it), only that some of the physiological demands of mountain bike racing can be very different and hard to simulate on the road. Generally speaking, mountain bike racers tend to race at lower cadences, the opportunity cost of having below average handling skills is larger, and the racing tends to be decided over the course of the entire race (as opposed to at a decisive moment or key terrain feature). With these differences in mind, here are three mountain bike workouts you can add to your program to better simulate the demands of racing in the dirt:
MTB circuit (2.25 hours and ~125 TSS) - Pick a short loop that takes ~20 minutes to ride at tempo pace. Ride the circuit at just sub race pace for approximately 60 minutes. Begin this workout with a 45 minute warm up and finish with 30 minutes light pedaling. Recovery drink ASAP.
Why? The goal of this workout is to improve handling skills at race speed, improve pacing (review lap times), and maintain high power outputs across a wide range of RPM's- especially at lower cadences. This workout is also a great way to test new tires, equipment, or suspension set up at speed before race day. Power for this workout will be variable, however, normalized power for the 60 minutes should be 85-95% of functional threshold power. Remember to stay focused and maintain speed on the descents as well as the climbs. Done correctly you will “learn” the track and times will decrease even if power is stable.
When? When to perform this workout depends on the terrain and the energy system you are wanting to target. If the loop is a sustained climb with a short descent it will be more of a threshold workout. If the terrain is especially technical or punchy it will target the anaerobic system.
Sweet Spot 2x40 minute (2.6 hours and ~165 TSS) - WARM UP: 30 minutes zone 2, ~65-70% of FTP. MAIN SET: 2X40 minutes at ~90% FTP with 30 minutes easy between each effort. COOL DOWN: 20 minutes light pedaling.
Why? The purpose of this workout is to increase functional threshold power. These are longer FTP efforts so make sure to stay fueled during the efforts. Try to consume 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour (after warm up). This is a classic threshold workout. Road, MTB, and CX racers should have this workout in their quiver. However, for MTB specialists, I’d suggest doing this on the MTB on steep terrain to better simulate the cadence and force demands of mountain bike racing. This workout is especially applicable to MTB racers doing marathon style races in the western US, where MTB racers tend to have long sustained climbs.
When? More advanced riders might perform this workout in the winter and summer during threshold training blocks. Other riders might want to wait until summer (perhaps between a spring and late summer racing campaign) to do this workout. This is a great workout for anyone preparing for races that involve long sustained climbs (Leadville, Downieville, Whiskey 50, etc.)
LT Build 1 w/ VO2 3x15 (2 hours, ~120 TSS) - This workout has 3 functions: It develops VO2 and threshold power, and mimics the first 3 minutes of a cyclocross and MTB race. It can also simulate a race winning move in many road races. Warm up: 30 minutes zone 2 (~65-70% of FTP) and make sure to include 3 to 5 minutes at FTP to open the legs. Main Set: 3 minutes at 110% FTP followed by 12 minutes at 85-95% of FTP. Recover for 7-10 minutes easy between efforts. Repeat twice more (3 efforts total). Cool Down: 20 minutes zone 2 light pedaling.
Why? Very often in training we build into efforts (which is usually good) but most mountain bike races have fast starts and then settle into a sub threshold pace. This workout attempts to simulate that. Some riders may want to start each effort with a foot on the ground to practice clipping in and accelerating as fast possible. This is a challenging workout and some riders might want to start with only 2 efforts.
When? This workout is best performed after graduating from more traditional threshold work (i.e., 2x20 sweet spot).
A final word - Most of these workout can be done using heart rate. However, having a power meter on your MTB will allow you to more accurately perform the workouts, track your progress and training load, and review the demands of your key events and better prepare for it next year.
Brig Brandt is a Peaks Coaching Group, USA Cycling level 1 coach who has worked with athletes of all abilities - beginner to National Champions. He competes and coaches in road, cyclocross, and MTB events.