AKA ride slow to get fast. Knowing how slow to go is crucial if you want to benefit from harder sessions.
High intensity workouts are great for getting fit in a short space of time, but if you really want to make long-term improvements in your mountain bike fitness, you’re also going to need to slow down. The concept of majority of your training at a slow pace then, when it’s time, you go hard. You go really hard.
Sounds great, but in reality, most of us ride at the same pace all the time, so we never force our bodies to adapt. Worse still, we try to ride full-gas all of the time and simply burn out.
The benefits of going on longer, slower rides are well understood. These include improved fat burning for fuel, so you’re less likely to bonk or need a snack every 45 minutes, which in turn reduces oxidative stress and leads to improved endurance and health. Yes, riding slower is boring, but with the days getting longer now’s the perfect time to get out and take it easy.
Steady state cardio – this is what we are referring to when we say ride slow, at which you ride, more the physical effort you are putting in to ensure you aren’t pushing yourself too hard.
But why is it important to regulate your effort? You might think riding harder would be better to improve fitness, which may be true in some instances. However, with harder efforts comes longer recovery time, which in turn limits the amount of time you can train or ride effectively. By focusing on lower intensity training, you can spend more time improving fitness without beating yourself up. You could actually aid your recovery, once your body is used to this type of training.
There are various ways to monitor your effort to ensure you are hitting the sweet spot, not too hard but not too easy, here are three of the best ones.
Heart rate monitors
View your heart rate in beats per minute in real time, which can then be used to gauge your effort. Most heart rate monitors will display the ‘zone’ you are working in. Steady state cardio is commonly known as ‘Zone 2 training’,
which is roughly 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. This is where you should spend the majority of your time for best results with this type of training.
These measure the power you put through your pedals and can be viewed while you ride with the help of a power crank or power pedals. These aren’t cheap devices but if you’re serious about training they might be worth considering. The other alternative is a Wattbike or other indoor trainer with a power sensor. These are very accurate and programmable but the downside is you’re stuck inside.
This one is free, but can be hit or miss depending on your understanding of your own body, mood or simply how many coffees you’ve had that morning. Perceived effort has more variables than heart rate or Watts, so you should pay attention to breathing, muscular pain and other signs of fatigue to maintain a constant, low intensity effort throughout your ride. You can achieve this by riding with someone less fit than you and allowing them to dictate the pace. Another way is to monitor your breaths per minute (roughly), trying not to double your normal breathing rate. Basically, if you can’t hold a steady conversation without gasping for air you’re going too hard so back off the gas.
How to introduce this type of training into your schedule
This depends on your goals and available time but ultimately you can work up to riding or training like this for very long time periods and multiple sessions per week.
Before you take on a Tour de France training schedule though, ramp-up by introducing one session per week of 40- 60 minutes to see how you feel. If you can commute to work by bike, that would be a great way to start. Or you can use an indoor trainer and an online training app such as Zwift. Once you’re confident you can hold your effort in the sweet spot, add more sessions and/or increase the duration of the rides. Over as little as a few weeks your body will adapt and you will be able to handle more volume.
Some riders can do three to five morning sessions per week of 40-60 minutes before eating anything. Although training fasted won’t burn any more calories (if that’s your goal), it will help your body to adapt to using fat as the primary fuel source which in turn increases your ability to ride longer without bonking or constantly reaching for sugary snacks. Best of all, it spares the glucose in your muscles for those all-out efforts which ultimately makes you faster.