|Workouts That Build Strength and Enthusiasm for Each New Season.
In mountain bike heaven we'll be riding endless singletrack all year round in
perfect weather. But here on Earth we have winter. It gets dark before dinner
and numbingly cold for those of us who live in northern regions. Trails get
buried by snow. Even road riding is difficult because of frigid windchills and
treacherous patches of ice. Yeah, it's tough being a bike rider from December
I have a simple philosophy: Don't fight it. Winter is nature's way of making
us take a break from routine riding, and that's good. Even heaven could get
boring without some variety. My approach in the off-season is to reduce saddle
time, and Durango's winters force me to. But even where it's warm in midwinter
you should voluntarily cut back on cycling.
The challenge then is to turn the off season into a positive period. We all
love to ride and we're used to doing it every day. It's easy to feel deprived
in winter. The key is to devise an alternative program that's fun and
satisfying, and that will help you enter spring ready to ride or race even
better than you did in the year just past. Done right, this training will be
as refreshing for your head as it is productive for your body.
A smart winter program also builds reserves. Here's how I think of it: Imagine
you have a full tank of gas when you start the season. Gradually, through the
year, you will use most of it. But after the last race is ridden, you must
still have something left. I'm not talking only about physical energy. I also
mean the motivation to continue riding and racing. If you've emptied your tank
completely you'll be off to the side, unable to make it back to the station.
Winter is where you refill your tank with enough gas to last until the next
There's no doubt about the benefits of winter training, but before we go
further I must warn you: It also can ruin your season. I've seen coaches
prescribe intensive programs, and I've seen riders follow them
enthusiastically. They go into the season absolutely flying. Then in July
they're dead-physically and mentally burned out. They've been training hard
since January. There's nothing left for the heart of the season. If you look
at the winners of the Cactus Cup held early each spring in Arizona, you'll see
that they are generally not winning the important races in July and August.
Here's another example: I knew an Expert-level racer with lots of talent who
trained enthusiastically in winter. He watched his diet, spent time in the
weight room, and doggedly rode every day right through the gnarly Durango
weather. He did intervals in February and was flying in April. Two months
later, he actually retired from the sport. He's not the only one this has ever
happened to. I see riders of all skill levels drain their tanks. The only
solution is to stop riding long enough to recover and restart. But just try to
convince anyone to take a week off.
My winter approach is different. I train with weights to get overall body
conditioning. I want to strengthen the muscles that mountain biking misses as
well as the muscles it uses. I do other sports for fun, variety and their
aerobic benefits. I take some casual rides to keep me accustomed to pedaling.
Sometimes I ride indoors when the weather prohibits getting out on my bike for
an extended period. But I don't force myself to follow a rigid program, and I
make sure <never> to get tired. Using this approach I feel refreshed and
hungry for harder training when spring begins.
In the early season I want to have good performances but not top performances.
I want spring training and racing to be stepping stones toward great rides in
mid to late summer when the most important events take place. On the other
hand, when you're near top form early, you'll see only small increments in
improvement as the summer progresses. The guys you were beating in May could
start beating you in June. This can be very discouraging. You think it's your
problem when actually it's they who are coming on strong. So you train harder,
become overtrained, and really go backwards. It's much better for your
enthusiasm and motivation if you can see significant progress all through the
season. I'm a come-from-behind racer, and I guess you could say I'm a come-
from-behind trainer, too.
In winter I like to crosstrain with running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing
and swimming. All these sports, combined with some cycling, help maintain my
cardiovascular system. Skiing and swimming have the added benefit of working
my upper body. Snowshoeing, with its emphasis on the low back, quadriceps and
glutes is probably the most complementary to cycling. It can be a real power
workout on days you're feeling energetic.
These sports can actually open new competitive opportunities. Now that I'm no
longer racing full time as a pro cyclist, I've begun competing in the new
multisport event called X-terra. This is like a traditional triathlon except
the running and cycling take place off road. I've been doing well because most
other competitors don't have my mountain biking background. They lose time to
me riding the trails. I need this advantage because I usually give a few guys
a lead in the water. In the run I rely on my background in track and cross-
country. I can't run a 4:19 mile anymore like I did in high school, but I can
hold my own.
Except when competing, my main objective in these other sports is to enjoy
the exercise. I'm not doing them specifically to improve my cycling, but of
course they do help by keeping me fit through the winter. I like the way they
work different muscles and rejuvenate my body.
It's essential to be able to run if you're a cross-country racer, so use
winter to stay in condition for it. A good way to introduce running to your
program is with uphill "slog jogs." The leg action is similar to pedaling, so
it doesn't stress your muscles in unaccustomed ways like the long strides of
regular running. Walk, don't run, down the hills or the pounding will have you
hobbling the next day. Uphill running is the most common type you'll do in
off-road racing. It's a great cardiovascular workout, too. Just be patient to
start. Once your legs have adapted you'll be free to run in any terrain, but
always go easy on descents to reduce stress on your knees.
Other sports? Whatever you enjoy. Soccer can be a good workout and it's a lot
of fun. Same for basketball. I also like sports such as table tennis that
improve hand-eye coordination. That's a key talent in mountain biking. You
encounter something with your eyes, then you react to it with your hands. The
martial arts are good for this, too, and they'll improve your flexibility.
Swimming is helpful because it teaches breath control. You expel all of your
air underwater, than refill your lungs during the brief moment your head is
turned. To improve in swimming you need to relax, and that's a good lesson for
mountain biking. You can't have tense muscles and swim or ride your best. When
we remember this while climbing, for instance, it's a big help. Swimming can
give you a fine workout in 30 minutes if you're pressed for time. It's good
exercise for the shoulders while being very gentle to the body overall. Give
it a try even if you're a hacker in the water. After all, poor form makes it
that much easier to get your heart rate up.
Cycling Indoors and Out
In winter I ride about three days a week. I say about because I don't force
it. For instance, let's say I've planned a two-hour ride but it's snowing or
20 degrees with a hard wind blowing. That ride is going to be very unpleasant.
I could do it, but the intensity will be so low that I wouldn't miss much by
bundling up and skiing or running instead. Always remember: You want to enter
spring hungry for riding. This won't happen if you force yourself to get on
the bike in winter.
Winter is an excellent time to improve technical mountain biking skills
without feeling any pressure to get in a hard workout. I spend lots of time
doing what I call "crash avoidance" drills, working on balancing, trackstands,
unweighting, tight turns, clipping in and out of the pedals, etc. Even when
you're snowed in, these skills can be practiced in the basement or garage.
There's another cycling alternative, of course. You can clamp your bike into
a resistance trainer and pedal indoors. I can't say I'm a big advocate-I'd
much rather be doing <anything> outside-but I realize it's the only way that
many people can fit cycling into their winter weekdays. But even if you're not
forced indoors, a trainer does have some advantages. For example, let's say
spring is approaching and you'll soon be increasing your on-bike training.
Suddenly there's a spell of bad weather. Instead of missing rides or suffering
in miserable conditions, you can use the trainer to stay on schedule.
Many people (myself included) find riding indoors mentally difficult. The
first pedal stroke is usually the hardest-climbing on the darn thing and
getting started. It helps to listen to fast-paced music, watch a race video,
keep changing your gears, cadence and effort, and limit workouts to an hour.
Don't just sit there and grind at a steady pace. Nothing makes a clock run
slower than that, and it won't do nearly as much for your fitness as interval-
type workouts. If you use a trainer for your main aerobic activity in winter,
don't overdo it. An hour every other day is as much as I would recommend.
Remember the all-important refreshment you need. Use alternate days for weight
Rollers are another option. I actually like them better than a trainer because
they make you balance the bike. This gives you something else to think about.
Rollers help develop a smooth, round pedal stroke, and this has carryover when
you ride outside.
I've spent some time on a CompuTrainer, too. This high-tech resistance trainer
is probably the most effective device for riders who are either confined to
indoor cycling for long periods or who actually prefer it. Among other
benefits, a CompuTrainer simulates outdoor riding by automatically changing
pedal resistance in synch with the terrain of courses displayed on your TV
screen. You can get a very good workout by racing against the internal
computer or your own best previous performance. Another feature, called Spin
Scan, shows you how much pressure you're applying to the pedals all the way
around each stroke. This helps you identify and correct poor technique and
imbalances. A CompuTrainer makes indoor cycling about as interesting and
effective as it can be.
Although I had trained with weights during much of my cycling career, I
discovered I wasn't doing it well enough. Like many hard lessons, this one
arrived in the form of a racing experience. I'll tell you about it.
After our classic battle at the 1990 World Championship in Durango, Thomas
Frischknecht and I were at it again in 1991 in Luca, Italy. Only this time we
were fighting for the silver medal. John Tomac, who never climbed better than
he did this day, was long gone and about to win his first rainbow jersey.
This year Thomas turned the tables on me. When he dismounted to run up the
steep hill in Durango, I stayed on my bike and beat him. In Luca we both had
to run through a long section that torrential downpours had turned into a
quagmire. Thomas is a strong, powerful guy who excels in cyclocross as well as
mountain biking. I did my best, but it was no contest. Our bikes weighed a ton
because of all the mud covering them. Thomas had the strength to hoist his
awkward 35-pound piece of machinery and run like a deer. I felt more like a
guy struggling in quicksand. As I watched him disappear it became clear how
important extra strength can be in mountain biking, When all else is equal,
the guy with the stronger body has the advantage.
Balance and Flexibility
As important as strength is, there's another key benefit to weight training:
muscle balance. The problem with riding a bike is that it builds some muscles
very well while ignoring others. Weight training turns cyclists into whole
athletes again. For instance, pushing on the pedals is great for developing
the quadriceps on the front of the thigh but it does nearly nothing for the
hamstrings on the back of the thigh. Leg curls will improve the balance and
reduce the risk of hamstring tightness and injury. In a similar way, cycling
stresses your lower back much more than your stomach, so it's important to do
crunchers to strengthen the abdominal muscles. An uncorrected imbalance can
result in low-back pain and poor posture.
Flexibility is a third benefit. Although traditional weight lifting can
shorten muscles, my approach of many repetitions with moderate resistance
tends to stretch muscles and keep them supple and elastic. When riding, this
helps me move all over the bike for better control, and it reduces the risk of
muscle pulls during crashes. In this sense, weight training is a way to
prevent injuries. To develop flexibility (and prevent getting hurt in the
weight room) you need to do the exercises with proper form and full range of
Toned muscles also protect you in a way that's often overlooked. When muscles
are larger and denser, they put more tissue between your bones and whatever
you're crashing on. A bruised muscle heals a lot faster than a broken bone.
Think about football players. They don't bulk up in the weight room just to be
stronger. They know how muscles give protection in a contact sport.
My program includes about 20 different exercises. That's a lot, but I go to a
well-equipped health club so I make the most of it. You don't need to do so
many. There's a lot of redundancy in the muscle groups strengthened by weight
training once you get past the basic lifts. Depending on the equipment
available, design a routine that gives some work to everything. If you're
unsure, there are many books on the subject. Even better, get advice from a
professional instructor where you work out. He or she also can coach you on
proper lifting form-crucial for maximizing results while minimizing the risk
A good upper-body routine for mountain bikers will include crunchers, back
extensions, bench presses, military presses, bent rows, upright rows, lat
pulldowns, dumbbell flies, triceps extensions and curls. For the legs, include
hamstring curls, short-arc leg extensions, calf raises and leg presses (or
squats if you have a rack and spotter). I also like to use the
abductor/adductor machine to strengthen groin muscles and expand my legs'
range of motion. This exercise and some of the others won't necessarily help
you ride the bike better, but they develop lateral strength that can
counteract twisting forces in a crash.
If you have access to the equipment, seated rows are a great cycling-specific
exercise for the upper body. I do them two ways. First, I position my hands
and arms like I'm holding handlebar grips and pull straight back to my chest.
Then I turn my arms to the position they're in when gripping bar-ends. I'm
careful to space my hands the same as they are on my bike's handlebar. These
rows develop strength for climbing and lofting the front wheel.
Hit the weight room two or three times a week, always with at least one
recovery day between workouts. I warm up for about 15 minutes on a stationary
bike until I break a sweat, then begin. I use the circuit training technique
of moving directly from exercise to exercise without rest between. I alternate
upper- and lower-body exercises so half my body is recovering while the other
is working. This brisk pace is intended to make efficient use of time, not to
turn weight training into an aerobic workout. My goal is to be in and out in
an hour. Most cyclists are beyond the fitness level where hustling through a
circuit workout will give them any cardiovascular benefit.
In my experience, cyclists get a good balance of strength and safety by using
moderate resistance that allows two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions in each
exercise. I go through one complete set, then go through again. This gives me
about 30 total reps for muscles throughout my body. This high-rep approach
tones muscles without adding lots of bulk. Strength is good, but more body
weight isn't desirable for hilly cross-country racing. On the other hand,
power-oriented riders such as downhillers, trackies and road sprinters don't
have to worry about a few extra pounds. They bulk up with greater resistance
and fewer reps to maximize strength.
There are two other reasons to use less weight and more reps. One is injury
prevention. I've learned first-hand how easy it is to get hurt at the health
club. If you're not lifting year round, you run a high risk of muscle strains
and pulls early in a weight program. Shoulders and hamstrings are particularly
vulnerable. Lighter weights reduce the danger. The second benefit is
psychological. It's a mental as well as physical strain to use heavy poundage.
You know each exercise is going to be very stressful. It won't be long before
workouts become distasteful. Then you quit.
Remember, our sport is mountain biking, not power lifting. I've learned over
the years to start each winter program like Pee-Wee rather than Arnold. You
need to swallow your pride in the weight room. When that 100-pound woman gets
off the machine, reduce the weight before you take over. Machismo will only
get you injured. Err on the side of using a bit less weight than you can
handle rather than too much. I'll admit this isn't the way to get absolute
maximum benefits, but it's fine for our needs as cross-country riders.
Continue with 12-15 reps in upper-body exercises throughout the winter.
Increase weight only enough to continue making yourself push pretty hard as
you do the last two reps. As when interval training on your bike, stop one rep
short of absolute maximum. Always pushing to the limit in each exercise raises
the risk of injury if your form breaks down. You're using too much weight if
you can't reach 12 reps on the second set, or if the effort is causing bad
It's different for leg exercises. After your muscles have adapted, begin
adding weight and decreasing reps as a way to build power and strength. Don't
go overboard, though. The weight should never be so much that you can't do at
least ten reps. The one leg exercise I really emphasize is hamstring curls.
The hamstrings are developed much less than the quads by cycling, so this is a
potential injury area. Once you can do 15 curls, add weight and build toward
15 again. Keep this up throughout the winter.
TRANSITION TO SPRING
As the season gets closer, I reduce or eliminate redundant upper-body
exercises, especially those that aren't cycling specific. Something has to
give when riding increases because there's only so much time and energy for
training. I spend what's left of my weight sessions on exercises for my legs,
such as step-ups, lunges, hamstring curls and leg presses. I also continue to
do crunchers and back extensions. In fact, I do them daily year-round. They're
essential for the body's core support system-the balance between the low back
and abdominal muscles.
Do this maintenance program twice a week throughout the season. You need it
to retain the strength and flexibility built in winter. During some weeks of
hard training or racing you may have only enough energy to hit the weights
once, and that's OK. Just don't stop weight workouts completely.
Back on the Bike
After enjoying other sports from December into February, start to rebuild your
cycling base. A great way is by taking social rides with your buddies. Don't
go hard, and don't worry about going long if you live in a cold climate. It's
tough to do three-hour rides in freezing temperatures. Your legs will feel
like wood. Consider using your mountain bike until the air gets warmer. It's
slower than a road bike so windchill is reduced.
This is also the time to increase what I call the body's "support mechanism."
As you start to ride more there's more stress, which means more chance you'll
get sick. To fight this keep your immune system strong with sleep, good
nutrition and plenty of fluids. And if you start to come down with something,
back off. I once made the mistake of trying to train through a cold and it
turned into a nasty sinus infection. Now I always back off. The same goes for
a tight muscle or sore tendon. Reduce riding and treat it with ice and
massage. It's a juggling act. Although you're trying to train more, you need
to combat all the little things that go wrong.
By the end of February I'm riding the road or trails five or six days a week.
March is usually my biggest training month in terms of time spent on the bike.
The main goals are overall conditioning and stamina. I put in 15 to 18 hours a
week, which is a lot-and a lot more than recreational racers need to do.
There's still no forced intensity. Sometimes the pace gets a little faster if
I'm riding with other guys, but there are no jumps or hard efforts. It would
be different if there were an important race in March, but my schedule is
aimed at good performances in May, June and July. Traditionally I've made the
Iron Horse Classic, held in Durango on Memorial Day, my first serious race of
Training intensity increases in the form of minor races at the end of March. I
use these to start my speed work for the season. Racing is a great way to get
going because you don't have to motivate yourself. When you're chasing guys or
guys are bearing down on you, you just go. You learn real quick what your
weaknesses are so you can begin to work on the right things.
April's training is pretty specific. The quantity is down a bit from March,
but the quality is higher. Now I'm interval training, climbing, doing fast
group rides, and sharpening bike-handling skills. This month finishes my
foundation work. In May I start traveling to races and this reduces training
time. I back off from endurance and emphasize power. In June and beyond I'm
circling the dates of big races and training specifically to do well in them.
If I'm riding up to my potential in August and September, my season has been a
Autumn is a beautiful time to be on a mountain bike, so I make the most of it.
All the major championships are over, but there are still a few races and
festivals. Festivals are great because they take you back to the reasons why
mountain biking is so much fun. I look forward to riding at them. By October
I've had it with the physical and mental stresses of hard training, so I rely
on my residual fitness and the events themselves to keep me performing
respectably. The only intervals I'm interested in are the ones between where
I'm staying and the restaurants.
I also begin the transition into crosstraining. I'll do some trail running to
enjoy the fact that snow has yet to cover the ground. If I feel like a total
break, I'll take it. A couple of weeks off in November or early December puts
closure to the season and makes me really want to get started again. By
training this way I know I'll keep my enthusiasm for years to come. I hope you
Because I travel a lot it's hard to maintain my weight-training schedule.
Perhaps you're in the same situation, or maybe you occasionally get stuck at
home or work on a day you're scheduled to be at the gym. My physical therapist
turned me on to a neat product that has saved my workout many times. It's called the Sport Cord.
It's a simple length of elastic with handles and a hook that you can
fasten to a door. It lets you perform various
resistance exercises in a motel room or wherever you're stuck. Add some
crunchers, pushups and lunges or step-ups for a workout that you can feel good