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!