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Real Race Training – #TopTipTuesday

Making the most of Time on the Race Bike – Real Race Training

Training I say? Squats you think? The tide is again turning slowly, but it seems for many involved in racing bicycles, at any level or discipline, when we speak about training, most people’s minds think about the “physical”. Intervals, sprints, strength training, “Vo2” and “cardio”. The specific race training, that “big bang for your buck” on your bike training comes a poor second best. In reality working on areas of weakness and specificity; aiming to arrive in any start-gate truly ready to attack any race course should make up not the majority but none the less a well organised portion of your training time. Especially if race progression is your goal. Here are some top-tips you can apply to your real deal on the bike training as all to often if you search our training advice all you’ll find is FTP, zones, barbells and box jumps.

 

1 – Set a Goal: just like going to the gym to work on maximal strength where you will try to lift the heaviest weight possible for four sets of three repetitions, having a goal for your on the bike training is critical. It sets the tone for the whole session and allows you to organise the details. This can be anything from braking points or visualisation pre-run, to bigger picture work like managing intensity over full runs or hitting top gear after only limited practice run/s. A goal should be individual to your needs but it must be defined both for the session planned and placed within the picture of your overall plan. Short range goals in the context of big product goals. More here from the Harvard Business Review.

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2 – Define Your Process: A goal is only achievable with a process to get there – take that first example of working on ‘braking points’. Without a process that goal stays pretty abstract. Aim to define what features that require braking you are truly struggling with, define if you need to brake more, harder, less or more consistently. Define two to three spots on a track where the consequences of good/bad braking points will be evident. Try different braking strategies and then try to time a section that allows you to learn from different braking approaches. Consequences & knowledge of results are a must. We deployed many of these ideas with Thomas Estaque & Hugo Frixtalon HERE

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3 – Focus: staying focused on the task at hand and your goals is a challenge as riding bikes is FUN! This however is also a  key area that many riders, even the best, struggle with at the races. Staying focused on the job of building a race run. You can try many things to improve focus during training. Key words – like “focus on” and then imagine yourself hitting a light switch. OR try riding a fun track between your focused race training runs. Nutrition can help too – planned lunch time, high carbohydrate snacks between runs and stimulants like caffeine could help.

 

4- Own your Mistakes: The best race training is training that is challenging enough that you make errors often. Mistakes are normal and are a great opportunity to learn. Instead of getting angry or upset about an error, own up to it, learn from it and take the opportunity it provides to grow. A mistake, from being a little off line to a huge crash is the outcome of many choices. So dissect and investigate where the mistake came from, see if you can change it short or long term and then move on. Move on happy in the knowledge that you’ve learned and grown as a racer because of it.

 

5 – Rest & Reflect: Rest between runs, especially timed or full runs can be an area often overlooked. Riders want maximum bike time, fun time or feel more is better, when in reality, better is better! Learning (whether emotional or motor skills) requires time for adaptation to occur. Short term and long term. Acute fatigue can be beneficial at times to help teach a rider how to adapt movement and technique for a tired body, but often the best  training happens with a minimal level of freshness and readiness. Likewise this rest time between runs allows the rider time to reflect on lessons learned and experiences gained in the session. Resting for minutes, not seconds between runs can allow you to adjust your goal and processes and make sure you are doing what’s needed to meet the goal set out at the start of the session as well as mitigate the risk of injury.

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Unstable Ideas

Unstable training is characterised by the “athlete” having to control either the position of a joint or many joints and/or centre of mass in such a way to maintain balance in the face of non specific perturbations while potential having to carry out some gross movement.
On the surface, especially from the perspective of the casual observer “unstable” training in relation to MTB performance makes sense. The MTB environment is crazy, has wild bumpy, rocky and muddy terrain and from the 3rd person perspective there is alot of swift and unpredictable movement happening. But the plot begins to thicken once you take the first hand experiences of accomplished riders. While wild moments happen that require sudden movement, MTB is often quite “calm” (from inside the helmet); especially when being done correctly. Hence its appeal, the reward our brain gets comes from the chemical environment created when challenge matches up to ability. A perfect state of competence.

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What actually happens on your MTB, at least for riders who are more than “novice” is that visual perception guides much of our action. This is why looking out of a turn early, looking far ahead enough on the trail at all times and being strong and mobile enough to keep a stable head is CRITICAL to performance. The visual and vestibular systems interact with the rest of the body to allow us to make preparatory movements, posture changes and positional changes on track so we can fully exploit the bodies visco-elastic and muscular properties to smooth out the trail, deal with the impacts and perturbations and of course, most evidently, apply the right technique in the right dose at the right time (skill)! This leads us to a position where the perspective on “unstable” training changes. While unstable training mainly challenges the muscle, joint and tendon (maybe skin too) mechano and proprioceptors & subsequent reflexes to act fast enough or the brain/spine and muscles to carry out the best course of action from that information – MTB requires us to be read the terrain to allow the body to be 100% ready to interact not just react to the perturbations of the track.

Now “reactive” and reflexive skills are needed, but these are too fast and too specific (in my experience at least) for them to be trained on a Bosu ball. Where classic “unstable” training has it’s place is in rehabilitation from injury. The proprioceptive function at injury sites or even above and below injury sites can be severely hampered after said injury so in this case general overload of balance systems and reflexes is very warranted; repetition in the safer gym environment, I even go as far as adding in unilateral and TRX type work in almost all training plans to keep a minimal dose of balance and control challenging exercises in a program. But when it comes to training that actually has a long term non rehabilitative performance enhancing effect…..well it’s all about repeatedly producing as much force as possible in the shortest time while maintaining the shapes or “posture” needed to execute technique while controlling center of mass. The more force we can produce the less “activation” a given movement requires, in theory this means less noise, less fatigue and better fluidity to your movement. On top of that the structural changes that quality plyometrics, heavy compound lifts and other high force moves create likely lead to changes across the structures that work across all joints in the body that must be controlled in order to create those key postures or “shapes” as Stuart McMillan would say.

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So while there is a time and place for unstable or instability training it’s not very often. Training to improve stabilisation reflexes or proprioceptive function is useful but alone it won’t get you very far. The mountain bike athlete can see what challenges await – the premise of unstable training is that you have no idea what is coming next and while to the casual on-looker our placed perched on top of our mountain bike looks like a balance challenge in reality it is a very stable place, especially for the capable rider.

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The magnitude and accuracy of the activation of top down controlled muscle action that is needed for sport skill can only truly be trained while doing the sport. Improving our potential to perform in the gym is what the work done between those four walls is about. The more force we can produce and the better our visco-elastic and skeletal muscle is at dealing with the demands of maintaining posture while executing technique the more robust our movement is on the bike. Basically better biological tissue function leading to true biological degeneracy. From that comes the illusion of effortless control as seen by the by-stander. We all want to ride like this but unstable surface training will not help you get there it will only help you back from injury.