Stop “Cardio” Training For Mountain Biking!

Let me ask you a question – Do you want better cardio? Or do you want to be able to ride harder, faster and longer on the trail? Think these two goals are the same thing? Perhaps not…

One of the toughest things I face when bringing new and improved training concepts to the mountain biking world is trying to work around the large amount of confusion that surround certain terms. For example, when you use the terms “aerobic training” and “cardio training” interchangeably then my call to avoid excessive aerobic training seems odd.

Once I explain that aerobic training is just a specific type of cardio training and there are other ways to work on your cardio then my suggestions make more sense.   I’ve recently realized that it is time for me to take on two new terms that need clarification on their real meaning – cardio training and endurance training. In most people’s books these two terms mean the same thing but once you understand the difference between them you’ll start to see the impact it has on your training approach.   Cardio training is any exercise that increases your heart rate, gets you breathing heavier and directly increases the strength of your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, blood vessels). This type of training can consist of a variety of things, from short interval to long base mile workouts. Cardio training focuses specifically on improving your measurable markers of cardio capacity. While an important part of specific endurance training it is only part of the picture, though.  

Endurance training refers specifically to any training that allows you to “endure” longer on the trail. In other words, any type of training that results in you riding harder, faster and longer on your bike is endurance training. Endurance is also very specific to what and how you ride – technical east coast cross country riding requires different specific endurance than bombing some SoCal downhill runs.   As I’ve mentioned in my presentations of the MTB Performance Wheel, cardio training is only one of eight training components that affect your specific endurance on the trail. I also include Bike & Equipment Set up as a “spoke” on the MTB Performance Wheel but since it is not a true training component I am not including it on this list:  

1. Strength
2. Power
3. Mobility
4. Cardio
5. Nutrition/ Supplements
6. Recovery
7. Mindset
8. Technical Skills  

As you can see, mountain bike endurance training requires a much broader view of training than simply focusing on the cardio component. However, this is not the approach that mountain bikers have been taught. Because of the influence that road riding has had on our sport we have been told that working on cardio IS working on specific endurance and the other 7 training components are deemphasized or forgotten altogether.  

This view that increased VO2Max or other markers of cardio endurance will automatically equal better specific endurance on the trail has had a very heavy influence on how mountain bikers in every discipline have approached training. From the advice given to newbies (if you want to get better then just ride your bike more) to the advice given to world champs (base miles are needed in the off season) it is readily apparent that the cardio training mindset has taken over our sport.   Here is the problem with this approach, though – the fact is that there is much more to mountain bike specific endurance on the trail than cardio capacity. Let me give you two examples to illustrate my point…

First, consider what happened to Lance Armstrong when he ventured off his road bike. Lance is widely considered to be one of the greatest endurance athletes in history, boasting a VO2Max that is among the highest ever recorded. His domination of the Tour de France speaks to his otherworldly cardio capacity, yet when he trained for and ran a marathon he got beaten. He did not get beaten by one or two world class runners, either – he got beaten by a lot of “regular” people. If cardio capacity was the biggest determining factor in sport specific endurance then why didn’t he do better?  

Second, consider the opposite story of Mark Weir. Known around the world as one of the premier endurance riders in our sport Mark had his VO2Max tested and found out that it was rather ordinary. In fact, rumor has it he was told by the docs performing the test that based on his results he would never be a great endurance athlete. Instead of accepting it Mark went on with his dream and the rest is history. If cardio capacity is the biggest determining factor for mountain bike endurance then why is Mark able to excel despite his relatively low test results?   The reason that Lance can’t dominate every endurance sport he competes in and that Mark can kick the tails of riders with better “cardio” is because much more goes into mountain bike specific endurance than one over emphasized component. Your strength levels, technical skills, nutrition and everything else I listed above goes into it as well. The real trick to consistent returns on your training time is to identify the weakest of those eight training components and focus on it. While counterintuitive at times, the only way to strengthen a chain is to work on the weakest link – anything else will not result in a stronger chain.  

The reason that it is important for us separate these terms is because it will have a major impact on your training paradigm. Remember that you do not want better cardio; you want to be able to ride faster, harder and longer on your bike. These are two different goals and need to be looked at as such. As long as your paradigm is influenced by the notion that unless you are emphasizing cardio training then you aren’t working on your mountain bike specific endurance you will struggle to fully understand what it takes to be the best mountain bike rider you can.