Nothing better than kids on bikes! Big smiles and good times!
Below I’ll address two things that seem to plague many MTB’ers in the off-season: one, what I call “gym-rat burnout” and two, body weight management.
The following is purposely not very specific or in-depth, but more of something to think about and address on your own. This is mainly because we all have different goals, aspirations, time crunches, athletic endeavors, etc. outside of biking (which is my area of expertise) and the off-season is the time to partake in all kinds of other fun/necessary stuff that we have a tough time doing during the summer because we have other very important things to do… like ride our bikes! I’m also not an expert at pilates, road riding, xc skiing, or many other activities that MTB’ers use for off-season fitness, but I am very aware of how difficult it can be to maintain fitness over the winter. So again, I’ll keep this kind of loose, but these are two things that most of us, as riders, have to deal with in one way or another.
If you’re a fairly serious rider or racer (and you live in an area where it is the off-season) you should currently be enjoying a break from the intensity of training, racing, serious rides, etc. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay off of your bike, but bike rides should be fun and enjoyable at this time. If you’re a cyclocoss racer, or serious skier, or snowboarder, or something of that nature, great, just make sure that you will be able to get enough time to fully recover and then be ready to go again (both mentally and physically) for MTB in the spring.
Just because we don’t have a race right around the corner doesn’t mean that we can completely forget about what our goals are as riders. The off-season can, and should play a very important role in your successes next spring and summer.
First, I’ll address “gym-rat burnout”:
We ride bikes because riding is fun. Even if we take it extremely seriously, even if we make money doing it, we still do it because it’s enjoyable. We get outside. We get to compete (even if its with just ourselves). There’s often a good dose of camaraderie. Often, bikes give us a reason to travel. For most of us, the gym offers nearly none of this. The gym is a means to an end, and therefore, just not a whole lot of fun (for me at least). Ditto with road riding, running… So, it’s often tough to stay motivated to do these things for a long period of time.
Motivation is the key to anything as far as I’m concerned. This winter, if you spend three intense hours per day on your trainer in your basement, putting in thousands of miles and tons of interval work, and also hitting the gym like Lou Ferrigno, and then when you emerge in the spring, you hate your bike and the pain that it represents… well, you’re probably not going to be very motivated to kick the season off correctly. I’m guilty of this myself pretty much every year (kinda). I take about a week off somewhere in November, and after a week off of the bike, I get super motivated!!! I then get in the gym and put a program together, start trail running, start backcountry snowboarding like a banshee, ride my bike in the snow… I feel like an animal all winter long until around March and then I peter-out. I’m over it, over winter, over the gym, over running, over snowboarding… I end up eating like crap and being lazy for a couple of weeks right when I should be ramping up for the riding season to start. This has happened, consistently, for as long as I can remember. Sounds like I need to make some conscious adjustments to my off-season program, huh?
I’m not the only rider guilty of this, it happens to a lot of people. So relax a little and pace yourself. Stay active but do some other things besides road riding and the gym (that are fun, or at least, mix it up a bit). If you are very serious and want to make some fitness gains over the winter, cool, but be conscious of your mental state and put yourself on a pace where you’ll be chomping at the bit and ready to rip out the throats of your fellow competitors’ and/or riding buddies’ in the spring (literally, of course!!!). You want to be hungry when the season starts.
Something else that many of us need to deal with in the off-season is weight. And I’m not talking about shaving grams off your bike! The off-season is the time to make adjustments in body weight, or, at the very least, keep weight gain (or loss, for some people) under control. In my own case, I would like to slim down and improve my power to weight ratio (o.k., keep it under control, also!). While I’m not necessarily a fat-ass, 5’6” and 165 isn’t really ideal for getting from point A to point B (got some great ‘short-and-stocky’ genes from my mom). I do have a nice layer of beer and pizza induced baby-fat that I can rid myself of, but also, I can lose a bunch of muscle (especially upper body) that actually hinders me, speed-wise, on the bike. But in order to do this correctly, I need to maintain a calorie deficit. During the season — though I definitely don’t get to race as much as I’d like to — I do a lot of hard riding. This includes a lot of intense trail riding, motocross, dirt jumping MTB’s, stuff that I could easily get hurt doing if things go wrong (which, of course, they do from time to time), and often, on back-to-back-to-back days, whenever I have the opportunity. So during the season, recovery with adequate food intake, and being strong and fit is more important then focusing on losing weight (and doing it correctly, which is difficult). The time for me to do this is now (please don’t ask how its going!).
On the other side of this is simply not gaining unwanted weight. We all know how the wintertime, football season (obligatory beer drinking), the holidays, etc, can be a fat-laden kiss of death for keeping weight in check. Let’s be realistic about this: ideally, we’d all get down to our perfect “fighting weight”, during Nov, Dec and be on our way with our off-season training (and if you’re serious, you need to do this). But sometimes real-life does get in the way for real people. However, there’s no excuse for coming into the riding season 10-15 lbs heavier (fat wise – bad heavier) then you were at the end of the previous season. Five lbs.…? O.k., I’ll give you that… But, trying to dial in weight while you’re also trying to get stronger is a difficult thing to do and you’re starting in a hole if you begin your fitness and race training overweight.
A great way to help you keep things in check weight-wise? Keep a food journal. Especially over the holidays! Write down absolutely everything that you eat. Make sure that this is a small notebook or something that can be kept conveniently on you, so that you WILL actually do this! Every cheese sample at Whole Foods, every stray piece of Halloween candy, the dressing that you put on the salad… EVERYTHING! If you have to write it down, you’re conscious of it, you can’t simply “pretend it didn’t happen”. You won’t be saying, “man how’d I get so fat… I thought I was doing pretty good…”
So, a little advice on two things that most of us wrestle with during the off-season…
Here’s to the passionate ones! Those of you like Jackie and Dante Harmony who gladly live out of a van and occasional hotel room for half the year so you can challenge yourself and chase your dreams of World Cup glory. Whether you are a surfer chasing good swells around the world, a snowboarder living on ramen noodles and caffeine as you chase your dream of making the US Team, a climber living down by the river in your Subaru wagon so you can wake up and scale a tougher wall or a parent (also a lawyer/ and volunteer soccer coach) who still sleeps in a tent on non-soccer weekends so you can ride one more day in Moab you are a friend of mine.
As I agonize over which house to buy in Tempe (the really cool little zen like house that is going to stretch my budget or the nice but boring house that is a great deal) I have to laugh at all the energy, time and stress I am spending worrying about something that really doesn’t matter! My house doesn’t bring me joy nor does it define me, it is simply a place to rest, recover, store my stuff (that is a whole ‘nother rant) and prepare for my next adventure in. I grew up in a 1,200 square foot house with only 1.5 baths! While four people using the same shower every morning was a struggle we managed to get by just fine. Of the thousands of great memories I have from growing up none of them were limited by that house and none could have been enhanced if we had grown up in a 7,000 square foot custom home (although skateboarding through a 7,000 sqf home at 12 would have been fun!).
Life is so much better with passion and challenge than simply trying to get by. We (mountain bikers) are fortunate to have found something that we love so much that we will give up the “necessities” that so many people can’t do without to chase our passion. Next to spending quality time with my family and loved ones the happiest, most rewarding and most fun times of my life have been spent out there, often on the edge, not in front of a TV set.
A big thank you to all the dirt bag* mountain bikers, skiers, snowboarders, surfers, river rats, skaters and climbers that I have met along the way! It is easy to get caught up in our culture of more, bigger, better, NOW when it is constantly in your face. Thankfully, when my priorities get a little askew, it seems like there is always a soul brother or sister there to remind me that life isn’t about “things”. For those I have met along the way thanks for living the dream and helping me keep perspective.
In short, go for a ride, or hike, or climb, get out and enjoy yourself. Spend less time worrying and more time living!
*”Dirt Bag” is an affectionate term used by my friends
By BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky
This article deals with extremely high levels of physical exertion. If you plan on pushing your body in this manner, first make sure that you are physically fit and healthy enough to do so. This may mean seeing your Doctor and making sure that you’re up to par, especially if its been a while since you really exerted yourself or if you’re a bit (or quite a bit) out of shape. Also, if this is the case, you may want to look into professional programs and trainers to help you properly build your fitness up to the levels that I’m about to touch upon.
While most of the articles that I write for this site are aimed at the average rider – probably a recreational rider or beginner or novice racer – this one is intended more for a higher level, competitive athlete. But even if you’re a Newbie, hopefully the following will show that in order to “succeed”, especially at the higher levels of riding, it takes more then just raw fitness and more then just being extremely skilled; it takes becoming a “whole” or “complete” rider, and obviously the mental aspect plays a very important role in this.
In this article I’m going to talk about maintaining a high level of fitness during the off-season, and more specifically, a high level of “mental fitness”. I’m talking about going to the “Pain Cave” and about how to do it effectively in regards to riding a MTB without injuring yourself or burning-out over the winter.
If you’re a fairly serious athlete that participates in events where endurance is required (IN THIS CASE, any athletic event that lasts over a couple of minutes), then you’ve probably heard of the Pain Cave.
Hopefully, you’ve been there.
While BetterRide is mainly about MTB skills instruction and coaching, and not necessarily about fitness programs, or physical conditioning, let’s face it: being physically fit and strong is going to help you ride your bicycle well, and, for the serious athlete, the off-season is the time to build that fitness in order to fine tune and focus it as the riding season approaches. Like-wise, being MENTALLY “fit and strong” is essential to riding your bike well. The Pain Cave – if used correctly – offers valuable lessons in both of these areas.
The Pain Cave is “where we go/where we’re at” when we feel intense pain and severe discomfort combined with muscle fatigue – and inevitable muscle failure if the activity persists – resulting from all-out, total physical exertion. It can be an enigmatic state of complete physical torture while simultaneously offering a time-slowing type of exhilaration (yep). And, as an athlete becomes more fit (both mentally and physically) they are able to stay in the Cave and function for longer periods of time. They become more and more familiar with it. But no one can stay there for very long. I believe that in any athletic competition that involves anaerobic activity, the Pain Cave is where the competition is almost always won or lost.;
As mountain bikers, whether you’re a world-class athlete chasing world championships or a recreational rider trying to master the local trails, you will find yourself at least knocking on the door of the Pain Cave from time to time. And whether the competition you partake in is official and organized or simply with yourself as you try to top that nasty climb that you’ve never quite made before, at some point, you will need to be able to function in the pain cave in order to reach your goal(s).
What this means is that you will still need to perform – with near perfection – despite severe physical discomfort and impending physical failure. You will need to maintain concentration and focus in order to maintain proper form and technique. You will need to battle. There is skill required in this, and like any other type of skill, it takes some time and effort to develop it properly.
If you’re a high-level athlete and MTB is your priority sport, then you’re probably already involved in some type of off-season conditioning program. This program should put you in the Pain Cave on a regular basis. But too often, I feel that MTB’ers seem to hit the gym and the road bike (yes, these are/can-be extremely important fitness tools, also) and go to the “gym-Pain Cave”, but lose sight of the “real-life-MTB-Pain Cave”. And, by this I mean they’re not getting involved in activities that force them to maintain a level of focus and concentration that enables them accomplish intricate and technical activities (similar to bike handling on technically challenging terrain) while totally physically exerting themselves. The physical exertion of busting out three more agonizing reps of an exercise in the gym in the face of muscle fatigue, or pushing it on a stationary trainer or on a road bike, will definitely cause you some pain and discomfort; but it’s still a long ways away from threading the needle between trees and rocks at 35 mph, eight minutes into a super-d race; or holding it together at the bottom of a DH run; or clinging to that billy-goat line on the side of a cliff, forty minutes into a lung and leg-burning climb.
The latter require a much higher level of commitment and accountability, focus and precision. This is where many athletes find a reason to “let off” and concede victory to a competitor who is more prepared and committed to continue to perform at the highest level. And, very realistically, this is also where season ending outcomes may result if a mistake occurs at the wrong time.
Most athletes can ride pretty well when they are fresh and strong. But it’s when it starts to hurt really, really bad; when our bodies begin to give out on us… that’s when it really counts and that is usually the place that will define our successes or failures. We need to be familiar with this place and be able to adequately perform under these conditions.
The off-season is not a time to let ourselves slip and lose our edge, and if done correctly, the off-season is a great time to make gains, and often through none-bike activities. Most of us need some time away from the bike. The last thing we want to do is burn ourselves out before the season even starts. But the smart rider finds ways to make gains during the off-season and still be hungry when the riding season begins.
Obviously, performing at the level of exertion mentioned above can also be dangerous. This is when we are most likely to make mistakes, so be careful. But there are many non-bike winter activities, that are fairly safe, where you can experience this with minimal chances of getting injured: XC skiing and snowshoeing provide great cardiovascular workouts, require technique and rhythm, and once you begin to fatigue it becomes difficult to maintain both of these. You could also get together with a few of your overly-competitive buddies and get some nasty games of racquetball or basketball going on. Maybe try some Martial Arts? All of these activities offer you the options of success or failure in the face of fatigue when done at a level of high intensity. I’m a huge fan of backcountry snowboarding. I really like the activities that get you outside. When you’re out in the elements, you’re dealing with changing weather conditions, changes in terrain, perhaps difficulties with equipment. One of my winter-time favorites is a lap I do at a backcountry area that involves snowshoeing to the top, changing equipment (shoes go on pack, snowboard goes on feet, parka, helmet, goggles, gloves and floor it!) and snowboarding down, then switching to “up-mode” again and shoeing back to the start. I try to do this in an allocated amount of time. This is one of my big cardio workouts. Trying to push extremely hard on the last ten minutes of a climb with one snowshoe falling off and making the necessary adaptations on the fly can be very similar to trying to finish an MTB race with a mangled derailleur – especially in the frustration department! Dealing with a jammed zipper or dropping a glove 20 ft down the hill while switching gear can very much resemble missing a line or having a small crash in a MTB race. Just as I do in MTB, I’m trying to make up for small mistakes and make intricate adjustments at full exertion while trying to be fast and efficient. I’m trying to keep a cool head and problem solve while, physically, it feels as if I’m going to die!
The closer I can get to simulating the riding experience, going to the Pain Cave and still getting the job done (and, off the bike, so that I will still be hungry when the season begins), the more prepared I will be to deal with that type of stress, on the bike, when its time to do so.
So, in closing, don’t let yourself slip! Stay strong and stay sharp. Be creative, intelligent, and honest with your off-season training and you’ll have fun and still benefit immensely on the bike in the spring.
There are a lot of off-season fitness programs out there that, I feel, allow riders to get lazy and lose sight of some of the most important aspects of performance. Don’t allow yourself to fall into this trap!
And don’t lose your keys to the Pain Cave!
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