Building Endurance

MTB Endurance

Endurance is the ability to keep on going and ride all day; up hill, down single-track and everything in between.  It is an important physical attribute whether you just want to ride laps of a trail centre with your mates or race an XC or enduro event.  At the extreme end of MTB endurance are 24 hour and marathon races, as well as multi-day stage races requiring consecutive long days in the saddle at high levels of effort.

Endurance can mean a few different things, depending on your goals and your ability as an athlete.  For a beginner, new to exercise and MTB, increased endurance could mean being able to ride for over 2 hours with minimal stops.  A more experienced rider may work up to their first 60km off-road ride, including 2000m of climbing and plenty of descending.  An XC racer may only race up to 2 hours at a time, but needs ‘speed endurance,’ which is the ability to maintain a high pace for a long period of time.  The marathon rider needs to be able to ride almost non-stop for 8-24 hours at a time.  For the purposes of this article, endurance will mean the ability to ride further or for longer periods.  Speed and power endurance will be covered in future articles.

Here are a number of factors that affect a rider’s endurance and some tips to help you improve them……

1. Genetics:  Some of us are built for explosive, powerful movements, and others for long, endurance type events.  Usain Bolt will never make a good endurance athlete!  You can work to reach your genetic potential for endurance, but you can’t beat nature.  If you are naturally a more explosive rider you can still make good progress with a proper training plan though, so don’t be dis-heartened.

2. Bodyweight:  Power to weight ratio plays a part in how far you can ride, especially in hilly or mountainous areas.  Quite simply, if you are carrying excess body fat (or too much muscle bulk from the gym) then you are using loads of extra energy, meaning you can’t ride as far or as fast as you would if you were leaner.  The best way to improve your body composition is to cut down body fat levels through good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.  There are lots of ways to do this, but on the whole you should keep your diet as natural as possible, drink lots of water, eat loads of veggies, and cut out sugar and processed foods.  In the MTB Strength Factory Nutrition Guide I take you through a 4-week experiment where you learn about which foods work with your body and which don’t, allowing you to make a personalised nutrition plan to improve performance on the bike and help you loose excess body fat.

3.  Fuel:  Chances are that if you can’t ride longer than 2 hours, then you are not fuelling your body properly.  You will need to have a meal that is high in carbs, with some protein and a little fat before you ride in order to fuel your efforts.  You may also want to use energy products or just carry some water and a bar or two to keep you going.  Either way, you will need to plan and prepare your food for long rides.  A great way to improve your endurance is to become more efficient at using stored carbohydrate from your body and to use more fat as fuel instead.  One of the best ways to do this is doing ‘energy work’ where you ride at low intensities for increasing durations whilst in a fasted state.  A great way to incorporate this is on a morning commute.  Ride in at a steady pace and have brekky when you arrive instead of before you leave.  Just be careful not to, ‘Bonk’ and build up the distance gradually.

4. Programming:  How do you expect to go out and ride for 6 hours if the longest you have ever ridden is 3?  This is the harsh reality that a lot of people find when they go to the Alps for the first time and they get knackered on the first long day of riding and end up having a silly crash!  You need to build up your distances gradually.  Write a basic programme where you build for 3 weeks and then have an easy week.  Do a short ride after work one day where you do some intervals and some skills work and then a long ride on the weekend……. Week one: 25km, Week two: 30km, Week three: 35km, Week four: 20km.  You then repeat the 4 week cycle with longer distances, so Week five would be 30km and so on until you reach the desired distance or time that you need to ride for.

5.  Efficiency:  We can become more efficient on the bike by improving pedalling technique, body position and even bike setup.  When we are more efficient we can ride further or faster for the same amount of effort.   You can get professional help for your bike setup at your LBS who should help you out unless you are a bit of a dick.

6.  Flexibility:  If you are really tight with poor flexibility and mobility then you will be restricted on the bike, affecting your efficiency, speed and endurance.  You may also pick up injuries or suffer from lower back pain, meaning you can’t ride as far as you would like.  My approach to flexibility is ‘little and often.’  Do some stretching most days, and always do some basic mobility before a ride, especially if you are straight out of the car or straight from your desk.  The best athletes are supple, and can move freely.

7.  Weakness:  The further you ride the more likely it is to expose your weaknesses.  If you always get the same pain on a  long ride then that is a clue that you should listen to.  Maybe the muscle in that area is weak or not working properly?  You can use your bodyweight or go to a gym to get stronger, just make sure that you work with good form and that you integrate it into your broader training plan.  Also check out my MTB specific Bodyweight Strength Programme to put you on the right track!

8.  Mental:  Don’t be intimidated by a long day riding.  Just ride at your own pace and take sensible precautions like having enough food and water.  Ride with more experienced and fitter people to give you confidence.  Finally, remember that endurance is very trainable, even in older riders , so get out and ride!

Stay Strong

Ben