How to Get the holeshot and/or win a sprint finish. recently ran this Q&A article and I wanted to share it here too. As always, if it raises a question or two, please feel to contact me.

Question: How do I improve my sprint to get better starting position heading into early singletrack and for trying to drop competition later in a race?

Answer: Your positioning into an early singletrack is critical and the first few minutes of racing will set the tone for the race. Likewise, a late race attack can be essential en route to besting your competition in a close finish. The sprint at the start of the race and the late race attack share some similarities, but given the context of each effort they are quite different. At the start of a race you’re rested, have little fatigue and full energy reserves available. Late in the race you are already working at or near your maximum sustainable pace, there is plenty of fatigue as a result of the high intensity that you have been riding at, and energy reserves are notably depleted.

Keep in mind that the best training, is always training that is specific. For improving your race start you’ll want to practice getting into your pedals fast and going full gas for approximately 30-90 seconds while allowing for plenty of recovery between such efforts. Races make for excellent training in this regard since you also get the dynamic of going bar to bar with other riders which is another critical element.  If you have access to a local mass start weekly XC or STXC race this is a great opportunity to work on your start.  If you’re practicing solo or looking to build some intervals into your routine to help with this type of intensity, you’ll want to allow enough recovery between repetitions so that you can do them at full speed or very close to it.  For your recovery between start sprints, stick with at least three times the duration of your efforts. For example, if you’re doing one-minute efforts, plan to allow at least three minutes of recovery between them so that you can maximize the intensity of each attempt.

Late race attacks can be harder to replicate since they’ll play out a little differently every race. The energy reserves that you have left will greatly impact how hard you can go versus your competition. Only when you sense that you’re going to approach the finish with other riders does it make sense to launch an attack. If you know that you can drop them on the final downhill, your attack might simply be making a clean pass before that descent.  Likewise if you’re climbing stronger, your move might be riding away from them on the final climb.  These attacks might not be spectacular displays of power, but they are tactical moves that give you the advantage you need when you need it the most. Look to play your strength against your competition’s weakness. Depending on the course, and your competition your best option for an attack can be different every time.

In order to improve your late race attacking prowess, the best solution is to generally arrive to the race more fit and with a higher level of sustainable power. Training to improve your threshold fitness will be of huge benefit to your last lap energy reserves. Taking advantage of a challenging group ride will provide you with an opportunity to go hard late into a ride, so consider this a good training option.

Building your anaerobic capacity will help for a faster start, but improved threshold fitness will give you the edge when you really need it for a late race attack. Both situations require a maximum effort, but training specifically for each situation will be quite different. Have fun working on these aspects of your preparation and let it rip out there!

How to start training after the off season. recently posted this Q&A article. Check it out and hopefully you find it helpful as you get back into training for the new season.

Question: In the off season, how much time is ok to spend off the bike if any?  How do I appropriately use cross-training workouts to help maintain some fitness and when do I need to transition to all ‘on the bike’ training again?

Answer: You’ve raised a couple of good questions to cover.  I’ll briefly overview how I prefer to organize a season so that choosing the right type of training (and knowing how cross training might fit in) can be an easier process.  Training works best when the daily workouts and the weekly objectives all fit into the bigger picture of the entire season.  There are lots of great ways to train, but timing it all in such a way that works well for your goals is the challenge that troubles many riders.

Off Season or Transition Phase

This will typically follow your competition season and is characterized by little or no organized training. Keep active, have fun, but don’t be concerned about training. Don’t be stressed about losing fitness here. More than anything you need the down time.

Base or Foundation Phase

This can be thought of as training to train. The goal here is to build a bigger aerobic engine so that you can effectively be in the mix with your competition. With a higher threshold power or maximum sustainable pace, you’ll be able to take your results up another notch. Depending on your goals and your training time available each week, there could be a wide range of workouts that are completely appropriate here, including cross training for strength and/or aerobic fitness. Please understand that base or foundation training does not equate to simply doing long easy rides. The foundation of your season hinges directly upon your threshold fitness, so much of this phase is directed towards improving it.

Build or Race Prep

With your aerobic systems well developed and your threshold power largely in place the goal of this training phase is to specifically prepare for the intensity that you’ll face in your upcoming competitions. You’ll want to maintain your aerobic development, but put an emphasis on including more high intensity work.  From here on in, your training should become increasingly specific to what you expect on race day.  This phase of training will be different for riders who are focusing on various mountain bike disciplines. Incorporating some racing will help you test your progress before getting to the races which matter the most for you. Cross training is less valuable here, but may still be applicable in some cases. Maintenance is often the best cross training strategy here if an athlete wants to or needs to keep something other than cycling in the mix.

Competition Phase

You’ve put in the work over many weeks and months to get here. Now it’s time to race fast and allow ample recovery from the big efforts that you’re making. Your overall training workload will be less while you ‘ride out’ the big fitness that you’ve amassed. It won’t last forever, so be sure to enjoy those days where you can really let it rip! Be especially careful with any cross training during your competition phase. With your biggest races looming there’s no need to cause undue fatigue with exercises that aren’t going to benefit your performance. The competition phase will typically last no longer than six weeks, so you can get back to your preferred cross-training once you’re wrapped up those races that matter the most.

A single mountain bike season might have you go through this full sequence of training once or twice, depending on what races you’re doing or how long your season stretches.  When it comes to the question of cross training, it’s simply a matter of specificity. If you’re looking to build basic aerobic fitness or add to your muscular strength and coordination, then various modes of cross-training can be great. However cross training becomes less valuable as you get closer to the primetime of your season when specific training is a must.

When it comes to taking a break, whether it’s a short in-season break or a longer post-season break, it’s perfectly acceptable to hang the bike up if that’s what works best for you. Such rest periods are meant to allow for physical and mental regeneration so as long as that’s the case, then you’re doing it right whether or not you choose to ride. Don’t be afraid to lose fitness during a break since taking the down time will allow you to train more effectively once you’re back at it.

Your cross training can certainly add to your season just as long as it’s not a replacement for riding when you really need to be on the bike. Please feel free to follow up with me if I can help with any further questions.  Good luck with your season planning and have fun with it!

-TJ Woodruff

Will a Professional Bike Fit make you Faster? recently ran this Q&A Article. Check it out here and get my thoughts on bike fitting.

Question: How important is getting a professional bike fit done for racing performance?  Does the bike fit change some if I focus on endurance racing vs. shorter xc races?  Does the fit change as my fitness changes?

Answer: These are some great questions so thanks for asking them. The value of a ‘professional bike fit’ really comes down to the fitter’s level of expertise. Some professional bike fits are much more valuable than others and at the end of the day you need to be confident in who you’re working with and also their fitting methodology. There are a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles in the bike fitting industry today – for which many people pay top dollar.  There are also a number of valuable bike fit related tools that can help a good fitter be more calculated with their adjustments. Each rider and their ideal fit is unique so be wary of systems that calls for a specific saddle height given leg length, for example, without some human consideration along the way. The fitting ‘system’ should only be there to assist the fitter, rather than the fitter acting solely as a technician of the system’s protocol. The human element is the real value of a professional bike fit.

While the perfect setup is going to be a little different for XC vs. endurance racing, I would encourage you to find a setup that you can be comfortable and confident using for both disciplines.  If you look at the efforts done while XC racing you’ll find that a greater percentage of the race is spent riding out of the saddle, pushing at a higher intensity, or generally riding a little more aggressively than you might in an endurance race.  These two riding styles could call for slightly different setups, but at the end of the day you’re going to race best on what you’re accustomed to. So, it’s best to keep your setup the same in training as in racing – whether that be XC or endurance competition. Be sure to discuss what style of racing is your primary focus and your fitter ought to understand the nuances as they help you dial things in.  It’s typical to see XC race setups positioned a little more forward (saddle) and low (bars) whereas an endurance-focused setup will likely be a little higher in the front (bars) and perhaps a little more rearward in the saddle position. An aggressive XC fit that might be great for 90 minutes is not the best option for 90 miles.  Strike a balance that suits your riding style and the bulk of the events that you’re doing and you’ll be set.

As for changing your bike fit as your fitness improves, this isn’t too much of a concern across the scope of a single season. However, if you’re making big jumps in fitness from one year to the next, your ideal setup will likely change a little bit too. A fit with a trusted, reputable fitter once per year is a great way to make sure that everything is looking good at the onset of the new season. A beginner’s setup is going to be different than that of a professional’s, so as you’re making progresses it’s a great idea to make sure that your bike fit is improving with you.

Unless your fit is grossly off, don’t expect a professional bike fit to make immediate, huge improvements to your riding. However, it’s the little things that have big impacts over the long term.  Minimizing your chance for overuse injury, maximizing your bike’s handling characteristics, and making sure that you’re feeling comfortable and confident is what a great bike fit is all about.  A trusted mountain bike fitter can really help you out and send you down the trail set up to perform at your best.

-TJ Woodruff

Avoid Over-training and Rest for Success posted this Q&A article and I wanted to share it here too. Give it a read and plan to improve your recovery!

Question: “How do I know if I’m training too hard? How will not having proper rest affect my overall training?”

Answer: There are two ways that someone can go about training “too hard”. First is by riding at an intensity that is too high given a specific goal for that day.  This is training “too hard” on an acute scale and is very much a function of improper pacing. On a more chronic scale, riders can train “too hard” by accumulating more workload over several days or weeks then they are able to effectively recover from.  In this situation, more hard training only leads to more fatigue and little or no training benefit. It seems as though your question is geared more towards this second scenario, so that’s where I’ll go with my reply.

Monitor your training and look for clues as to how well you’re recovering

In order to determine if and when you’re training too hard, it’ll be helpful to monitor your rides and keep track of the workload that you’re accumulating each day.  If there’s a sharp increase in your riding volume and/or intensity that is sustained for some amount of time you’ll begin to notice the ill effects of training “too hard”. There’s a fine line between creating an overload (good thing!) and remaining overloaded for too long of a time (bad thing!). A power meter is the best way to quantify the work you’re doing on the bike, but some good notes regarding how long and how tough your rides are will go a long ways too. Consider how motivated you are to go out and do each ride, your general level of stress, your sleep quality and also your general sense of fatigue.  For example, if you’re relying on even more coffee to get you through the day, this could be a warning flag to take note of. If you can note several of these factors and you’ve noticed a decrease in your performance on the bike, then it’s probable that you’re training too hard and not recovering well enough.

A quick, but important distinction to note

Overtraining is a term that a lot of riders like to use, but more accurately most of us should be saying “under-recovered” rather than “over-trained”.  There are physiological markers associated with the over-trained condition and unfortunately elite level athletes can sometimes end up there. Most of us however aren’t logging nearly enough training to be medically over-trained. Being under-recovered is a very real situation that impacts all of us at some point or another.

Hard training is only as valuable as your recovery allows

Forgoing adequate recovery will reduce the overall effectiveness of your training. Training is a process of creating an overload and then recovering from it. If you’re not resting properly, your training overload won’t offer it’s full effect.  It is while recovering that you actually get stronger, so skimping here does have a big impact on your training.  For a given amount of training, there will be a lesser response that is achieved when your recovery is limited.

Since our training doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it’s important to balance our riding with our real lives. The body can only tolerate a certain amount of stress regardless of its source so it makes sense to find a balance that works best for you. The quality of your recovery will determine the overall effectiveness of your training. If you’re going to invest the time to train hard, then it’s wise also to allow enough down time so that you can reap the full benefit of your efforts. The best mapped out training plan will be worth very little unless proper attention is given to your recovery between hard rides or block of hard training. All of the little things add up big time here. Your sleep, nutrition, hydration, general stress level, and mental focus will all impact the quality of your recovery and ultimately the effectiveness of your training. When the training gets really hard or life gets crazy busy, something has to give…

Learn to recover better

It seems as though the longer someone is committed to training over the years (regardless of their time availability or racing level) the more they realize the importance of recovery and its impact upon their performance. Even if you don’t have additional training time, you can still realize improved fitness via better recovery.

We all want to ride fast and make the most of our training. To do so, it’s important to also acknowledge when it’s a good time to take it easy. Sometimes taking one step back from the training will allow you to make two steps forward. If you’ve been training well, but begin to plateau or lose a little desire to put in your rides  – be sure to take note. If you’re feeling run down from your riding and you haven’t been getting quite enough sleep lately, then it’s likely that you’re due for a little extra recovery time.  Being just a little less overloaded, but plenty motivated will yield far better training adaptation than being chronically under recovered and unmotivated.

Timing is everything and planning your training to allow for breaks is critical.  The season can be long so it’s wise to not only plan for when you’ll be working hard and going fast, but also when you’ll be willing to take it easy and allow a little more recovery.  The best training is hard training, but only so hard that you’re still able to recover from it. Take some notes along the way and have fun with the process as you make the most of your training and recovery.

Back Pain and Cycling recently ran this Q&A article regarding back pain and cycling. I’ve posted it here too.

Question:  “What can I do to help out lower back pain when riding?  I’m finding that my back gives me problems before my legs and lungs do.  I have had a bike fit done so what else can I do?”

Answer: More cyclists than not will experience low back pain while riding at some point.  For some it might be a rare occurrence and only problematic after doing their longest and/or hardest efforts. For others it can be more problematic and affect more rides than not, regardless of the intensity or duration.

A bike fit can certainly help, but adjusting the bike setup is only part of the equation.  It is just as important to consider how you sit on the bike once it’s been properly setup for you. The best bike fitters will certainly consider your posture and how it relates to the adjustment of the bike too. Not all 5’10” riders with 32” inseams will require the same exact setup.

Much of the issue concerning low back pain is related to spinal posture.  Our spines have three natural curves, the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), and lumbar (low-back). Strong, athletic movements all originate from a ‘neutral spine’ position where the cervical and lumbar spine curve slightly inwards and the thoracic spine curves slightly outwards.  From this position we can act, react, and adjust to just about any challenge coming our way. This holds true for all activities, bike riding included. Think about the ready position that a basketball player will use while playing defense or the pose a short stop will take just before the batter makes contact with the ball.  Mountain bikers also need to be able to assume their attack position. Doing so puts you and your muscles in the driver’s seat so that you can actively ride the trail instead of simply reacting to the trail.

Without a neutral spinal position a rider’s ability to maneuver the bike will be compromised. They’re likely to suffer undue amounts of low back stress too, since this is where upper body and lower body muscular forces will find a weak link.  There are several good sources online with simple instructions to help you find your neutral spinal position. Most will apply to a sitting position, such as this set of instructions . On the bike the same principles can apply as you aim to eliminate posterior pelvic tilt which most often leads to too much rounding of the lumbar spine.

There are a couple of snags that we’ll often run into when trying for a neutral pelvic tilt.  First, cyclists tend to have chronically tight hamstrings and hip flexors.  Since pedaling is so quad-dominate, many riders don’t fully activate their glutes while pedaling. Simply sitting on your saddle as if it was a chair and then arching your back towards the handlebars won’t cut it.  There has to be some amount of anterior (forward) pelvic tilt in order for a neutral spinal posture to be achieved on the bike.  However, chronically anterior rotated hips are all too common off the bike, especially amongst those of us sitting at a desk with an office job. Chronically tight hip flexors will elongate and tighten the hamstrings. It’s often the case that tight hamstrings are really the result of tight hip flexors. Identifying the cause of your flexibility or strength woes will really help you out on the bike, so take the time to make it happen. Our strength coach, Danny Sawaya, from Evolution Fitness in Tucson has a great post relating to tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings.  He includes some videos with this link which contain some simple testing and flexibility exercises that you can use while troubleshooting your own flexibility.

First make a real world assessment of your flexibility. If your hamstrings are tight and your back looks rounded while riding, realize that you’ve got some work to do off the bike. You’ll want to figure out if it’s actually tight (and shortened) hamstrings or perhaps it’s your hip flexors that are tight, thus causing you tight (and elongated) hamstrings. Strengthen your core, learn how to active your glutes and really put these muscles to work.  Improving your functional strength will make you a healthier person and a faster mountain biker!  It’s imperative that you know what it looks and feels like to have a neutral spinal position on the bike.  This is the training that the pros do, but don’t talk about too much. There’s no glamour in it, but maintaining the muscles that are otherwise problematic will allow you to log the miles with fewer woes along the way.

A common bike setup related issue that affects one’s ability to achieve a neutral spinal position is the height and reach of the handlebar, relative to the saddle. If the bars are set too low and/or far from the saddle a rounded back position might be the only option. In this situation the rider will have a harder time controlling the bike and much of the stress will be directed to where the spinal curvature is too great.

Take a look at your bike fit. If your flexibility isn’t the best then you probably don’t want your bars set super low and long. Check your bar height and stem reach. Make sure that you can grip the bars without having to roll your shoulders forward to do so. Keep those shoulder blades pulled back and assume your neutral spinal position. From here not only can you pedal hard, but you’ll also be able to maneuver the bike with authority, and generally be ready to shred.  That long and low position that all of the euro roadies love doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to rip singletrack.

Cycling will always put a lot of stress on the low back, but if you can learn to assume a neutral spinal position on the bike and keep diligent with an appropriate mix of functional strength work, you’ll be able to ride pain free and with more confidence and speed on the trails.