Now that you have your yearly schedule mapped out and you know what types of training tools you will use as well as when to be tested and how, it is time to start training. In this chapter you will learn about the four phases of training—preparation, specialization (I and II), competition, and transition and recovery along with the benefits of overreaching and the dangers of overtraining.
It is important to work on your technical skills and any weaknesses that you may have. This is also a good time to take part in some training races as well as practice your starts. The start of a mountain bike race will determine how you will finish. If you don’t have a good start, you will have only a slim chance of making the top 10. Doing a few practice races in your area is a good idea. This will give you some feedback on how your training is going and most likely push you to train harder.
The start of your training year, or early season, begins with your base training or preparation phase. This means long, slow riding, keeping your heart rate down, riding on road bikes, group rides, building your endurance, training your diet, practicing your pedal stroke by doing some drill work, and cross training.
Taking Long Slow Rides
The true purpose of the long slow rides (LSR) is to increase your body’s ability to tolerate sitting on the bike as well as to increase your body’s fat-burning capability. Most coaches agree that the early season is the best time to build endurance. If you question your training at all, you should find another coach or training book, because if you do not believe that what you are doing will help, it won’t!
The only way you will tolerate racing long hours on your bike, both mentally and physically, is to spend long hours on your bike. I generally say that your long rides should be one-fourth to one-third longer than your longest race. So, if your longest race is 3 hours, you better be able to tolerate 3.75 to 4 hours on the bike. This does not hold true for riders who are planning to do ultra-distance or 24-hour races. That’s a different form of torture that will not be covered in this book.
When you do long slow rides, your body becomes more efficient at taking up oxygen, pumping it through your system, and getting it to the muscles. Your body also learns to fire the muscles more efficiently and use those muscles that need to be working. It is also said that at this intensity of training, your body primarily uses fat as an energy source and therefore learns to use it more efficiently. I don’t know that this has been scientifically proven but let me tell you, it is a good motivator. There is also a huge mental component to cycling and racing. People often have problems in riding or racing for an extended period. By doing these long rides, you will know without a doubt that you can tolerate being on the bike for 3, 4, or even 5 hours and therefore will have no problem with a 2.5-hour race.
When I started mountain bike racing I was racing for 1 to 1.5 hours at a time. I had no problem racing for that amount of time because that was the average amount of time I would spend on my bike. Once I moved up to the expert and pro class, all hell broke loose. I was then expected to be hammering up to 2.5 hours. I would go out hard and then perish at about the 1.5-hour mark because that is what I was used to and could tolerate. I then got a coach (hint, hint) who put me on a schedule where I would ride for 4 to 5 hours on a hard week. That does not mean by the next season I was able to race my heart out for 2.5 hours, but I knew that I could tolerate that distance without hitting a wall. It took me several years of training before I could race all out for 2.5 hours.
Gauging Heart Rate
Your heart rate for a long slow ride should be between 66 and 72 percent of your maximal heart rate. Because you have already calculated your maximum, you can come up with the appropriate numbers. For example, if you have found through testing that your maximal heart rate is 190, you will want to stay below 140 beats per minute while doing your endurance riding. Or, by looking at the chart in chapter 9, you will know that you should be able to have a conversation and your rating of perceived exertion should be “easy.” If you are using a power meter, you should disconnect it, or make sure that you are staying below 72 percent of your maximal power output. If your power output at maximal heart rate was 350 watts, when doing long easy rides your power should be below 250 watts. During this phase I tell people not to use their heart rate monitors or power meters. You can do a few of the early rides with a heart rate monitor or power meter to make sure you are not going above the level you need to be at; otherwise just take it easy and enjoy the scenery.
Hitting the Road
All of the early-season riding should be done on a road bike. If you don’t own a road bike you should purchase a pair of slick tires so that you can ride your mountain bike on the road with less resistance. Riding a road bike to do long slow hours is less taxing on your body. This is not the time to be overstressing your body. Riding your mountain bike on the road is a great idea, especially if you have slicks on, because it will get you comfortable on the bike you will be racing. The disadvantage is that the mountain bike is heavier and less aerodynamic, so it will slow you down.
Group riding is a great way to get in a long slow ride without getting too bored. You have people to talk to and wheels to sit on in order to get a draft. The problem with group rides is that the rest of the group may ride harder than you need to go. In general, when you get a group of cyclists together, there is a tendency to push one another. This will mean that the pace is higher than it needs to be for that time of year. I think one or maybe two group rides a week during this time of year are fine. The best plan is to find a group that is going at your pace. As a mountain bike racer, you should do some of the long rides on your own. In a race, you will spend some time with no other racers in your sight, so you’ll want to get used to riding on your own.
You do not want to go out on a 5-hour ride if the longest ride you have ever done is 2 hours. Your body will rebel and you may end up with tendinitis or bursitis and have to take time off from riding your bike. In any type of training you do, you’ll want to slowly ramp up to give your body time to adapt. You need to take into account how long your rides were the previous year and even the year before that to determine what you can tolerate. I would suggest increasing your time by 1 to 1.5 hours each year. For example, if your longest ride the previous year was 2 hours, your longest ride this year should 3 to 3.5 hours. When building your endurance using the 4-week ramp-up, the weeks should look something like this:
Week 1: Two rides of 2.0 hours each
Week 2: Two rides of 2.5 hours each
Week 3: Two rides of 3.0 hours each
Week 4: Two rides of 1.5 hours each
You will be doing other rides in these weeks, but this gives you an idea of how to increase your endurance rides.
Rest is the most important part of training. Rest does not mean going to work, playing with the kids, or going shopping. Rest means lying on the couch or in bed with your legs up. Just like stretching, rest is highly overlooked. As a racer, you will never get stronger unless you allow your body some serious rest. Resting is not something that we all have the luxury of doing, so you’d better build it into your riding schedule.
It is said that you need to rest as many hours as you train. This does not include the hours you sleep at night; this is in addition to the hours you sleep at night. But I wouldn’t say that if you do a 5-hour ride, you’d need to take a 5-hour nap. I would suggest that any time you do a ride of 2 to 3 hours, you should give yourself at least 30 minutes of downtime during the day. For any ride longer than 3 hours, you should give yourself 1 to 2 hours a day with your legs up. Consider this training time. If you do not rest, your body will not be able to tolerate the ride the next day or you will not continue to make gains in your training. The last little tidbit on resting: When you sleep your body secretes a hormone that helps your muscles to heal. So, make sure you get a good amount of sleep at night (8 to 9 hours), and take a nap or at least put your legs up during the day on those long training days.
Training Your Diet
The preparation phase is also a good time to get into the habit of training your diet by eating and drinking well. If you are going to do a ride over 1.5 hours, make sure you are well hydrated. Not only should you drink water, but you should also drink a beverage that replaces carbohydrate and electrolytes. This is a good time to experiment with drink mixes and find one that you like and one that your body will tolerate. The bottom line is that if you don’t like the taste of the drink mix, you won’t drink it. I can remember seeing one of my fellow racers off her bike on the side of the trail getting sick during a race because her body was not tolerating the drink mix she used.
I often have my athletes practice drinking during their rides. Set your watch to beep every 15-20 minutes and take a good swig every time it goes off. Or every time you go by a sign on the road, take a drink. It doesn’t matter what type of signal you use to motivate yourself to drink, but you should get in the habit of drinking at least one water bottle for every hour that you ride.
A good diet is important when you’re training and riding. You may want to talk with a nutritionist, who can give you an idea of what will work for you. You should get adequate protein and fat in your diet. Carbohydrate is the basic fuel we use to propel us forward on our bikes, but our bodies also require protein and fat for muscle repair and hormone production. Try to have protein and fat in every meal. Make sure it is high-quality fat and protein (such as nuts, vegetable oils, soy products, dairy, and lean meats), not fat and protein from fast food. You probably know what is good for you, but you might not practice good eating habits. If you have limited time to make good meals or to eat snacks, find a drink mix that contains carbohydrate, protein, and fat, and have that as your snack. Plenty of good meal-replacement bars are also on the market. Because many of these products contain preservatives and artificial ingredients, they aren’t as good for you as actual meals, but they are better than greasy fast food or no food at all.
Practicing Your Pedal Stroke
During the preparation phase, you also want to get started on your pedal stroke drills. I have gone into depth about pedal stroke drills in chapter 2, so go back and get familiar with them. I generally start people off with single-leg drills and work in some high-cadence drills after the first 4-6 weeks of the preparation phase. I have my athletes continue with some form of pedal stroke drills up until the competition phase, tapering off of the single-leg drills and high-cadence drills and going into strength and endurance drills in the specialization phase. Don’t scrimp on the pedal stroke drills, they will help in all aspects of you training.
During the preparation phase you should also be doing some weight training. Sign up at a gym and have one of the trainers get you in to a weight training program that is geared around cycling. As with everything, some trainers are very knowledgeable and some are not. The most important thing is to get a well rounded strength program as this will help keep you from getting injured when you begin doing harder efforts on the bike.