How Do You Train For 4 Days Of MTB Racing?
Action Plans & Analysis
We've had a few people ask us, just this week alone, how they should get serious about training for the upcoming Port to Port, 4 day, 4 stage race in May. Wow... how long is that piece of string? So many factors to consider.
First of all we really need to divide this thought process up a bit.
We'll start with the persons asking. Each of them are different people, with different time constraints, different goals, different physical capabilities, different riding/racing experiences etc etc. For these reasons, we aren't particularly inclined to provide generic training programs. If you have one, it could be a great place to start but we believe each individual will need to tailor their own training regime around their work, home life and other factors such as their own physical and mental capabilities.
Our article on setting goals recently gave an outline on how to go about building an action plan for training for a race. For those asking about training for the Port to Port, it's worth reading that article again, or now, if you haven't before. You can find that here https://www.momentumisyourfriend.com.au/training/setting-mtb-goals/
Something else to consider is what your actual race goal is to be come race day. Will you be racing for a category win? Maybe you want to keep up with a friend or rival? Perhaps just cruising along and enjoying the race course is your goal? You may just want to survive 4 days racing. Whatever your goal, being clear about what that goal actually is will help you devise a sensible training schedule for the months you have left.
Dissecting The Race
In order to properly plan out your training regime for a race of any description, you also need to break the race down into it's various elements. In the case of the Port to Port, here are a few important factors to consider.
4 stages (riding for 4 days approx. between 40-60km consecutively)
So then, by the time the Port to Port rolls around, you need to be able to ride these sorts of distances for 4 days straight, on a mountain bike, in difficult terrain. A good way to start is by building up to doing 2x 45+ kilometre days, riding back to back. How you build up to this will depend on your current fitness. It’s about progression, steadily building up the required fitness you need. If you aren’t very fit now, you might use fairly flat trails to begin with, and start with back to back 20+ kilometre rides and increase this every few weeks. As much as you are training your butt to handle the seat time, you are training your back, legs, lungs and your mind to deal with it all as well. Those with road bikes may be able to utilise those to help reduce time away from home and begin to get some base kilometres and butt in seat time behind them. Pun intended. Once capable of doing 2x 45+ km days on less challenging trails, start doing those days on tougher courses. There’s usually over 1200m elevation on Stage 1 and over 500m in stage 2 so it’s worth at least replicating those challenges as best you can. At some point before the race in late May, you need to be certain you can do at least 3 hard days consecutively, if not 4.
1st 3 stages have monster climbs in them
The big climbs are anything up to around 10 kilometres long and have steep sections on them as well. This is going to be a low cadence, heavy gear effort and it’s going to require as much physical fitness as it will mental toughness. There’s only one way to prepare for climbs of this magnitude… do climbs of this magnitude! Again though, build up to them. Start with climbs that challenge you now and get comfortable riding those. Make sure you can top the climbs and keep riding, even if it’s slowly turning pedals to recover for a while afterwards. Resist getting to the top and simply stopping. Build up to those bigger climbs and conquer them so both your body and your mind know you can handle them. It’s about being able to slowly dish out the energy required to climb the big ones and sustain it for long periods of time. No point smashing up a 10 km climb and stopping for 2 minutes several times up the thing. Extreme efforts take more out of your muscles and leave more damage in the process. Your muscle fatigue can then take hours or days to recover properly. Your heart and lungs can recover much more quickly than muscles, if they aren’t stressed beyond reasonable limits. Learning to spin the pedals to reduce load on the muscles and condition the heart and lungs to handle the faster cadence is advised.
TIP: As you get tired you will physically sag. Its human instinct at work, which sucks when it comes to mountain biking. Sagging in this case means you are dropping your head towards your chest and tucking your arms in toward your body. You have just compressed your lungs and restricted your airways. Not good when you are struggling to breathe. You need to fight against those crappy, human instincts and lift your head and throw those elbows out wide. You’ll feel the difference in airflow right away.
1st 3 stages have significant, steep descents
Some of these are on dirt, and some are on slippery gravel. The desire to race down these should be tempered with the penalty for failure they offer. You can maybe gain a small amount of time on descents but it will never be as much as the time you can gain or lose on long climbs. Without doubt, your race can end badly and painfully on a descent, so learning how to descend and finding what’s within the realms of safety for you is well worth doing before race day. Factor in a few gravel road descents and start slowly and build up. To finish (first or otherwise), you must first finish.
TIP: Making sure your advanced cornering is solid is a big advantage on slippery descents. Having your body weight in the right place to aid your tyre’s adhesion makes descending (particularly gravel) much more sure footed, so to speak.
4th stage has multiple pinch climbs
This is about short, hard efforts… and then recovering quickly before the next one. After 3 tough days of big climbs, big descents and loads of exciting yet taxing single-track, day 4 provides a much flatter day. It’s still loaded with single-track and there’s still climbs too, but they are measured in metres rather than kilometres. Some of them are quite ‘pinchy’ and often come quickly again and again after brief patches of single-track. This means training at high intensity and learning to recover quickly. Factor this sort of training into your regime. Find a course that offers high efforts for short distances over and over. Concentrate on getting to the top of each pinch climb and rolling on slowly focusing on recovery. Once you can speak sentences again without gasping, go again and repeat. You are looking at reducing the time it takes to recover at the top of climbs and extending the power you can put down on the climbs themselves.
All 4 stages contain difficult technical sections
Although you don’t require a lot of technical ability to get through the Port to Port, we’d definitely rate it as an intermediate skill level race. Those lacking strong skills will find themselves walking many sections throughout the 4 days of racing. Therefore having good skills goes a long way to keeping your flow going, and you enjoying the race more. In particular, being able to corner well and quickly, as well as your ability to roll over and down rocky steps, logs etc are very handy skills to process. Definitely practice these skills and get to where rocky terrain doesn’t frighten you.
Ready to make a training schedule
After analysing the race and deciding on the physical fitness training and skills you need, you can then look at your calendar to determine what days and time you have to actually get out and train. Once you have that sorted you can begin to piece together your training action plan. Remember to make it progressive and achievable. Failing to meet your expectations regularly due to setting training tasks too difficult too soon will undoubtedly erode your confidence and drive to continue.
Recovery is part of training
Over-training is a thing. And it can be an insidious thing, slowly creeping up on you and causing lasting effects. It’s very easy to get all gung-ho and train so hard that you find yourself constantly fatigued both physically and mentally down the track. Hard training efforts cause muscle fatigue from micro-tears within the muscle’s tissue. Inflammation is the natural byproduct of our body’s repair process. Sometimes this takes overnight to be completed and other times we add more and more muscle tissue damage to existing worked muscles as we pile on day after day of training.
Mentally also we cause a build up within our minds. Initially, all excited about our new training regime we might not suffer any mental fatigue. But as weeks and months go on, the fun becomes more chore like. Both our muscles and our minds need regular rests to recharge.
As a general rule of thumb, a week of no training shows very little reduction in performance. It’s the following week of no training where we start to loose ground on what we’ve gained. Obviously, everyone’s different and there are many other factors that influence this but the point is, having a day or two off the bike can actually be beneficial to your training. For some, days off from training won’t be a problem because their time poor lives or dedication to the task won’t allow weeks of training every day anyhow. But for those who do train most days, be sure to factor in a rest day or 3 over a fortnight period at least, with a few 3 day breaks over many months of training. You often find yourself stronger and more motivated for doing so.
Nutrition & hydration before and during the race
Nutrition and hydration for the race needs to start months earlier. You need to be testing out what food and fluids work well for you and which ones don’t. The races all start fairly early in the morning so you need to be testing what to eat for breakfast each morning as well. Does cornflakes keep you going for several hours after on the bike? Or is your ‘get up and go’, getting up and going away way too early? Maybe eggs on toast with baked beans and fried fur seals works better? I hope not, but you get the idea. What breakfast gets you feeling strong on the bike for the longest time? Figure it out months ahead and then find the snack foods that will then sustain you best on the bike for hours later. Some energy bars are easy to eat and some are like shovelling down clay mixed with sand for instance. Like some breakfasts, some leave you feeling hungry soon afterward. Test all these things out many months ahead to find out what works for you. It might be jam sandwiches or condensed milk in a tube. You don’t know until you test. Same goes for drinks you carry. Water in a pack and staminade in a bottle might be the golden elixir for you, whereas water and whey protein powder mixed with powered milk might be the go for someone else. There’s a lot of choices out there and different people seem to respond to different fluids. You might be 45 kgs and get enough water by licking the condensation off the plants and your own armpits as your ride for all I know. Your nutrition and hydration can have a large bearing on your training, so it’s important to put priority on this early in your training regime.
Your battle pack
One of the biggest traps in a big race is getting to a few days before it and suddenly changing stuff. Train in the riding kit you are likely to race in. This means knicks (including anti-rash creams), shorts, jerseys, shoes, gloves, glasses and helmet. Use the tyres, seat, bar grips etc to train with that you will race with. If you are going to use a hydration pack, train with that too. Make sure well before the race that each piece of equipment is set where it needs to be. Changes to anything a few days before the race, such as seat height/angle, or the way you pack your hydration pack, or how and where it sits on your back, can be disastrous and easily the cause of soreness, rashes, fatigue etc you weren’t experiencing beforehand.
So then, looking back through all that we can pull out the highlights…
- Be clear on what you want to achieve in the race,
- Make sure you understand what an action plan is and use it,
- Break the race down to understand what you need to actually train for,
- Time off the bike during a training schedule is as important as time on the bike,
- Nutrition is an important part of training, not just racing,
- Your bike, clothes and equipment should be sorted out well before race day,
- Don’t make late changes.
Ok, hopefully that has given those who have asked, and those who have wondered the same thing, a few things to think about and some better tools with which to structure an effective training plan for the race.