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The “Pain Cave” MTB Training

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!

Mountain Bike How To Video, Getting Over Big Rocks or Logs

BetterRide Certified coach Chris Skolnick demonstrating how easy it is to get over a big rock when have master two simple skills, the coaster wheelie (manual) and the weight shift. This is great test, if you can’t do this you aren’t very good at these two Core Skills of mountain bike riding, if you can do this smoothly and easily you have these two skills pretty wired.

2 MTB Off Season Dilemas by BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky

Below I’ll address two things that seem to plague many MTB’ers in the off-season: 1) what I call “gym-rat burnout”. And, 2) 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 and aspirations, time crunches, athletic endeavors, etc, outside of biking (which is my area of expertise) and the off-season is the time to partake 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 weight training, 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 success 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. This 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 with you at all times 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…

Good luck!!!

Thank you! To the mountain bikers who understand my passion!

A heart felt thank you! BetterRide has helped more riders reach their riding goals than I ever dreamed it would! It has been an amazing 13 years for me. I now help 14 other people earn a living as well as helping over 500 riders a year greatly improve their riding with our skills curriculum and I couldn’t have made it without your support!

When I started BetterRide in 1999 my goal was to provide a core skills based training program like they use in all sports except mountain biking at the time. I never realized the resistance I would get from riders (many of whom have been coached, trained or taught in so many other aspects of their life).  It was a struggle at first to get riders to understand the value of quality coaching (and many riders still seem personally attacked by the idea of coaching), but fortunately enough of you have trusted us that we have been able to grow, learn and improve!  The emails I get from our students on their camp experience and/or their riding improvement since their camp makes my day! My passion for riding is nothing compared to my passion for coaching, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.

 

The annual bootleg Canyon Jr. Cat 1 and Pro Camp, 11/27/11

I feel very fortunate to make a living doing what I love and I really appreciate your support. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Create a great holiday season,

Gene

PS If you have had a great coach/teacher in your life let them know! I bet there is a high school teacher or college professor who would love to know that they had a positive impact on your life.