XC TRAINING TIPS: A DISH OF SUFFERING WITH A SIDE OF PROGRESS
A Dish of Suffering
With a Side of Progress
By Nick Claire
I’ve been riding bikes since before I can remember. One thing I do remember, however, is that I somehow acquired a VHS tape called “The Fat Tire Journal” when I was just 7 years old. Despite the decades that have passed since, I can still vividly remember watching John Tomac descending loose, rocky sections on some old-school, skinny-tubed race bikes. Cool videos like that had a definite impact on me, and I still draw inspiration from them today.
Fast-forward to a local SoCal cross-country bike race last year where I was watching the elite men’s race and noticed a guy with a commanding lead who looked older than most of the kids he was racing against. As it turned out, I was parked right next to this guy, and when he rode back to his truck after the race, he was in some sort of delirious stupor and looked close to death.
When I went to congratulate him and tell him how impressive his performance was, he thanked me and went on to say that he had only been riding seriously for a couple of years. The thing that struck me was that he was not only older than I was, but faster, too. Suddenly, I felt extremely inspired with a newfound sense of direction that I didn’t even know I needed.
And, as I pondered our age/speed difference, it was like a light-switch moment. Right then I told myself, “I’m gonna spend all of my free time training myself to ride fast like this guy!”
ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Still, I was just riding with no real plan or specific goal in mind other than eventually wanting to race some cross-country and endurance races. Although I knew it wasn’t the most effective way to gain fitness, just keeping an eye on my Strava times and putting in random efforts alone seemed to be helping me.
One day on a ride with some MBA test riders, I met a local elite rider who I was able to coerce into giving me some tips on how to get faster. He set me up with a hybrid plan that he put together based on a TrainingPeaks program from OG training guru Hunter Allen, who is one of the pioneers in training with a power meter.
With this new information, I now had race goals and something to work towards, which gave each training ride a purpose. Just getting started was confusing for me. I was lucky to find help from a much more experienced rider who pointed me in the right direction. I told myself I would stick to the plan and avoid the mistakes others have made. Of course, I ended up making mistakes! Here are five tips I can share about what I have learned about training so far.
1. ESTABLISH GOALS
Most of the fanatical cyclists I know don’t need someone to tell them how and when to get up and go ride. Strava was a great starting point for me to track progress, but it wasn’t until someone asked, “What are your goals?” that I realized I needed to give a purpose to my rides.
So, I picked a race about three months from that point, which really made me feel like every ride was adding up to something more meaningful. Strava can be great, but there’s nothing like racing people face to face.
2. WHAT EQUIPMENT ARE YOU GOING TO USE?
The training plan of Hunter’s that I chose required a power meter and heart-rate monitor to maximize its effectiveness. My background in motocross and experience in downhill riding by far outweighed my experience climbing, so, for me, the road bike with a power meter took up the bulk of my training.
Also, it’s easier to find a long, flat road to keep constant watts and stay in the prescribed power zone. Some people may not feel comfortable on the road, and that’s understandable. You can get a power meter for your bike or use an indoor trainer, which can be very uninspiring, but nonetheless effective.
3. PICK A PLAN WITH EXPERIENCE IN MIND
I used a TrainingPeaks account to load the plan into and keep track of all my workouts. There are prompts to get you started, such as how many hours you have a week to train, your FTP score and max heart rate. This is important data to know for setting your training zones. I was lucky enough to interview Hunter and get some valuable pointers, which started with two basic questions: “Do you need to build your fitness? Are you out of shape now?”
Next, he added, “You should consider a base plan that first builds your fitness so that you can handle harder, more intense intervals in a later plan.”
One tip for more experienced riders he mentioned was, “Do you need to hone your current fitness? Maybe you are already pretty darn fit, but really just need to ‘sharpen the blade.’ These plans address your VO2 max, anaerobic capacity and neuromuscular power energy systems and are very intense and can take you to the next level.”
4. THINK ABOUT NUTRITION
Diet is a pretty important factor, especially when you’re wearing your body down all the time. I’m on a plant-based diet, and I have to credit endurance racer Dylan Johnson and a YouTube video of his where he mentioned he was plant-based. I thought, “If it’s good enough for a pro mountain biker who’s winning 200-mile endurance races, there must be something to it.”
I know such a diet isn’t for everyone, but I would recommend checking Dylan’s channel out where he digs into the science behind a full variety of cycling related topics. As far as nutrition on the bike, it’s important to stay ahead of the fueling needs of your body. My preferred source of fuel is carbohydrates, along with making sure I have enough electrolytes on longer endurance rides.
5. STICK TO THE PLAN
If you want to get better at racing (and have hope of actually winning), you must be prepared to suffer and put some real work in, especially if you’re doing a high-intensity plan. As Hunter reminded me, “Many training plans purposely make you fatigued and then take you even deeper than you thought possible. This is deliberate, and it’s helpful in stimulating the body to adapt and improve.” It definitely might seem tedious at times and almost boring some days, but for me, it was all progress leading up to better results at the races.
Some days it feels like you have plenty more in the tank to give. Make sure you don’t go above the target power zones for that day, though, because there will be really hard days, and you’ll need every extra bit of energy you can muster. Some days you might not even be able to complete your workout.
Most important of all is that at the end of the day, your most important goal should be to simply enjoy the process and know that it’s all about learning what your body is capable of enduring and producing, all while gaining needed experience. In other words, do the hard work, but keep it fun! ο
Editor’s note: Hunter Allen is a former pro cyclist, one of the co-founders of the TrainingPeaks Software, and a co-developer of the TrainingPeaks WKO power-analysis software. He is the co-author of the watershed book on training with power, “Training and Racing With a Power Meter,” and currently owns the Peaks Coaching Group.