Sometimes a slower pace will build fitness best

A long, hard slog may feel like an investment in your fitness but polarising your riding between easy and intense can pay bigger dividends.

>>> How to survive a long distance mountain bike ride

Words by Alan Milway

Life is full of distractions that eat into our time on the bike. Work, family and the invisible shackles that tie us to our electronic devices are just a few of the things that keep us off the trails. This means that every minute on the bike is precious and needs to be maximised. Unfortunately, this often leads to us riding as hard as we can for as long as we can; the theory being no pain, no gain. I see this a lot, and quite often the guys who go off the hardest and out the hurt on the group for the first 20-30 minutes are often at the back come the end of the ride. But there is another way – sometimes a slower pace will actually build fitness more.

How does reducing all-out speed actually work?

Mountain biking is generally an aerobic sport – we ride for prolonged periods of time, and to fuel this we must effectively break down carbohydrate to produce energy and balance the rate at which we can provide this fuel with the demands for it. If we go too fast, we can’t supply the energy needed efficiently and after we reach a point we rapidly slow and fatigue (anaerobic threshold). Training our body to be effective at providing this fuel is key, and is one of the main reasons endurance athletes exercise for long periods as very sustainable levels. They don’t train to failure all the time – far from it.

Mix up your rides

Long easy ride

You can talk throughout the ride, you can ride for 2-3hours and the next day your legs won’t feel like lead or jelly. This is a great ride for building endurance, and making the body more effective and efficient at providing the energy needed for prolonged exercise. Keep it ‘easy’ and don’t think riding harder will necessarily help. Focus on flow, carrying speed on the downhills and cornering technique and speed.

Hard hills, easy flats

You can talk during the gradual, rolling parts of the ride, but when you come to a hill you go hard right to the top. Race your friends, set a time, challenge yourself. But when you get to the top give yourself time to recover. You don’t have to go hard up every hill but aim for 4-6 ‘hard’ hills during a ride. Perhaps repeating one hill if the downhill is very good back down! This will work on your ability to tolerate lactate and the fatigue associated with a hard effort. But by recovering between each one you can hit consistently high efforts. The ride doesn’t need to be too long – quality over quantity.

‘No Man’s land’ ride

This is one to avoid. But it’s all too common — no warm up, hard up the first climb, and you feel good for a short period of time before having to slow the pace as the legs feel very tired. You have a high heart rate but don’t feel fresh for the rest of it and feel very tired at the end. You haven’t prepared the body for the ride as no warm up, and are riding at a level that isn’t at your threshold, or at an aerobic level – so not hitting either area of fitness effectively.

Do some homework

Vary the pacing of your rides, even if the duration is the same. Have a clear understanding of your ‘objective’ for the ride — is it to cover more ground, to stay out or a longer duration, to work on your sprint? And so on. Get your friends on board too — if you suggest a different structure, often the group with enjoy the change. Try ‘no pedalling’ challenges on the downhills, or focus on pumping/ flowing through corners at high speed instead of pedalling.

Who is Alan Milway?

Alan is the best mountain bike coach in the business. He’s steered riders like the Athertons and Brendog to success, and helps regular riders like us get the most out of our riding.