Should Mountain Bikers Care About Fitness Metrics Like VO2 Max?

We ask cycling coach Ben Turits about popular fitness metrics like VO2 max and lactate threshold to understand how/if they can help us get faster.
File photo.

Ben Turits runs a coaching business and sports therapy practice called The Endurance Collective. He’s a former professional mountain bike racer and current USA Cycling coach working with both pro and amateur athletes alike.

In this episode we ask:

  • How did your first enduro race go? What type of training did you do to prepare? 
  • What does VO2 max measure?
    • How is it measured? Is using heart rate data to estimate VO2 max fairly accurate?
    • Are there specific types of training that are effective in raising VO2 max?
    • How important is VO2 max for predicting performance?
  • What is lactate threshold?
    • What does it measure?
    • How is it measured?
    • Is lactate threshold directly related to power?
  • Are there other similar fitness metrics that riders can or should pay attention to?
  • Is there a difference between mountain bikers and road bikers when it comes to the importance of certain metrics?
  • Is it possible to get the same quality workout on the trail vs. on the trainer?
    • Is gravel riding a good substitute for road riding in terms of the training benefits?
  • How do you know if you’re under- or over-fueled on longer rides? 

A full, automatically-generated transcript of this podcast conversation is available to Singletracks supporters.

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Jeff 0:00
Hey everybody. Welcome to the singletracks podcast. My name is Jeff and today my guest once again is Ben turrets. Ben runs a coaching business and Sports Therapy practice called the endurance collective. He’s a former professional mountain bike racer and current USA Cycling coach, working with both pro and amateur athletes alike. Thanks for joining us again, Ben.

Ben 0:23
Thanks for having me, Jeff. It’s always it’s always good to be on the pot. Yeah.

Jeff 0:27
Well, so when I was writing out this intro, I looked back at the one we use before and this one’s a little different. I actually am embarrassed to say this. I didn’t realize you were a professional mountain bike racer. So you started out racing cross country from what I read, and you’ve dabbled in mountain bike marathon as well. You’ve recently competed in an enduro race. So how did that go?

Ben 0:52
Yeah, the Enduro was awesome, man. I haven’t so actually, I got my my start in the mountain bike world in the early 90s as a Downhill Racer. Oh, wow. Yeah, back when downhill bikes had rim brakes. And you know, just like he’s thinking back to you know, like my current cross country race bike is a much more capable bike than what I first raced downhill on.

Jeff 1:17
Wow. So times have changed?

Ben 1:20
Times have changed. But yeah, enduro was fun, man. I mean, I would I would dare to say enduro is much like what we used to call mountain biking, just in general. Yeah, you know, just just a fun time ripping down some challenging trails. And it was pretty humbling because all those all the people who were at the top of the field were all kind of either active or ex downhillers. Oh, interesting. And so yeah, they they had a different skill set a much more refined downhill brain than I did. Yeah. You know, so I would say, I still excelled at the the flatter she wide open pedaling sections, and I’m terrified of road gaps.

Jeff 2:05
Sheesh, wow, there were road gaps in this.

Ben 2:08
Yeah there was there was a road gap. And, you know, like, a small pond gap was, yeah, I wrote the Beeline on both of us.

Jeff 2:18
Yeah. Well, yeah. You mentioned how you started out in downhill. How does enduro today compared to downhill back then? It seems like seems like maybe they’d be kind of similar, but I don’t know.

Ben 2:29
Pretty similar. Yeah, I mean, nothing like you know, I did some courses as like a junior, where it was like wide open Mammoth Mountain style stuff where you know, you’re, you’re just riding a fire road down at full speed. Yeah. So not that. You know, it was it was four to six minutes of wide open super technical at the top, and some, some jumpy or flowery or stuff at the bottom. That was it was just fun mountain biking. Yeah. Really good scene to you know, in enjoyed being around the crowd there. We actually camped out. Oh, cool. You know, there’s a big bonfire at a party the night before. And it was, you know, it was like, kind of like 1997 mountain bike racing. Yeah, with cooler more capable bikes,

Jeff 3:14
right? Yeah, that’s awesome. Was this the kind of race where it was like on site where you didn’t get a chance to check out the course? Or Did you at least get to pre ride parts of it,

Ben 3:23
we saw my buddy and I we pre road three of the four stages, we were just so smoked from the uphill portions and some of the hiker bike sections that we we we neglected to pre ride stage two, which happened to be one of the faster, more wide open stages. So you know, it presented some surprises the next day, but we got a good pre ride in and, you know, it’s fun to fun to check that stuff out and definitely, definitely was beneficial to know where those gaps were.

Jeff 3:54
Yeah, yeah. Well, so you’re primarily a fitness coach, really for cyclists? So I’m curious to know, did you do any like enduro specific fitness training ahead of time for the race?

Ben 4:08
I did, I did. And, and I kind of spent some time figuring out what that was last year, because I’ve spent a lot more time on long travel bikes in the last really two, three years. And so a lot more time in the weight room, which really, really helped and we have a really good strength trainer here. And she kind of put a program together for one of my World Cup level athletes. And I have been following that program with some slight modifications. But a lot more instability work. Some heavy lifting phases. And you know, those of you who who do a lot of downhill oriented stuff, know that quad burn you get when you’re we’re just hovering over your saddle for minutes at a time. Yeah, so try simulate that with with front squats and deadlifts and stuff like that. Okay. Yeah, it was it was very different from what I was used to as a you know, as a beanpole, cross country racer. Yeah, but one of the things that I learned and wish I had known when I was a 20 year old pro mountain biker was, you know, how important the strength training aspect was to the overall race? Yeah, we were always used to be so worried about getting big with strength training, ride so much, that’s just not going to happen.

Jeff 5:35
Right? What about the transition stages? Was that like an issue for you at all? Or were you surprised? Like, how much like endurance you needed for that as well, like aerobic endurance?

Ben 5:45
I was? Yeah, I was really surprised. And it was just a very steep kind of fire road to the start of every stage. And, you know, just riding, you know, almost 30 pounds, six inch travel bike uphill, over and over again. You know, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. So there was, you know, I will say, I got blisters on my heels from pushing.

Jeff 6:13
Right, you got to practice your hike or bike, I guess.

Ben 6:16
Exactly. I learning how to put my full face on the handlebars and wear my goggles around my neck.

Jeff 6:21
Yeah. Yeah. Right on.

Ben 6:23
Yeah. I was definitely surprised at the transition part of it. And how hard that was that that really wore me down. Yeah,

Jeff 6:31
yeah. I imagine as like an endurance athlete, that a lot of folks probably underestimate that part and figure like, oh, I don’t, I don’t even need to think about that. Like, but yeah, it plays into you’re descending to I’m sure. Like, if you wear yourself out on the climbs, and like getting to the top of the stage, you’re going to struggle when you’re going down as well.

Ben 6:51
Oh, absolutely. And it was it was weird seeing guys on E bikes come past us. And they’re just like, you do. And we’re like, man, come on, you know, I’m gonna push this everything up to the top of the stage. And I’m gonna lay down for 20 minutes before I can do the stage.

Jeff 7:06
Yeah. Well, let’s get into the topic at hand here today and talk about fitness metrics. So with the explosion of training apps and devices, seems like riders today have access to a number of fitness metrics that I assume can potentially help us get in better shape. One of the numbers that people have been tracking for a while now is something called vo two, Max. So tell us what does that exactly measure for a person?

Ben 7:38
Yeah, so there is a ton of metrics out there. And vo two Max is kind of like the gold standard that we help people to forever and it measures gas inhaled and exhaled. And what you can do is tell the the power and heart rate ranges where you are aerobic and anaerobic as well as the maximum volume of oxygen, you can move through your body. Okay, so theoretically, the higher the via to max, the more oxygen you can move through your system. And in theory, the more power you can produce, okay, more power is better. Right? Like, there’s a lot of caveats to that. And so I think one of the things that’s important to talk about today is the context of these tests. And with via to max, one of the big things that I always, you know, people certainly ask, like, do I need to get a via to max test? And my kind of question to them is, well, what are you going to do with that information? Right, should you know a vo two max test is a lab test. So you have to go to a performance lab, put on the Mac mask and do the test, and then you’re gonna get a series of numbers, those numbers aren’t necessarily the first things that are going to help you get better. You know, I would make the argument to an amateur athlete that there’s a lot of things that come in front of getting a via to max tests that are going to help you. Okay, so, is your nutrition dialed in? Are you getting enough rest? Do you have a training plan that is that includes progression? And are you increasing the stimulus every week to try and force adaptation? And that those simple things to start are going to be much more useful than something like vo two Max testing, okay. And I was having this conversation with another coach the other day and we were talking about testing metrics, and VO two always comes up. And it’s like, unless somebody in my opinion, if somebody else is paying for you to get that testing, then that’s meaningful, and you are you’re at a level where those Numbers can make a difference in the lab. Okay. So you know the other thing about via to max testing now is there are some there’s software out there that can approximate it. Training peaks. And, you know, we as coaches, a lot of us use Wk Oh, and you can approximate the values of your VO two Max. But it really is important to know that via two isn’t the whole picture of you as an athlete, it really is essential that you contextualize these numbers and and testing and you know, there’s there’s so many other pieces of low hanging fruit before you get to via to

Jeff 10:40
max. Yeah, so I guess like the traditional the lab tests that you’re talking about. That’s the one we’ve probably seen, like videos or like pictures of people who like personal on a treadmill, and they’ve got like the mask on and they’re breathing into it. And yeah, it looks kind of

Ben 10:54
painful. Yeah, it’s no fun. It really is no fun. Yeah, yeah. So

Jeff 10:59
you I mean, you’re basically like, exercising to exhaustion. And, but there are, like you said, there’s other like approximations to get that number. I remember when I was in the military, they actually, as part of our fitness, like we had to do an annual fitness check in and make sure that they were staying fit. And the story goes that they used to have people like run a mile or do something, this was the Air Force. So maybe other surfaces were different. But they were finding that people, you know, they didn’t exercise all year, or they weren’t taking care of their bodies. And so they’d run a mile and they would just like collapse. And so they had to change the test. And somebody said, Hey, like maybe we should, maybe we should just measure people’s vo two max. And so they had this test where you would go and sit on like a stationary bike, and it hook you up to a heart rate monitor and you’d go through the series of like different, I guess different resistance levels, or maybe it’s different, like probably cadence amounts, they probably increased their resistance. Yeah. And then they would give you a number. It’s a Yeah, yeah, this is your number, you know, either pass or fail. And so yeah, I’ve always been interested in that number and like how accurate it is as a fitness measurement. So, so like, how important is that, like, as an athlete, if I line up, you know, at the starting line, and I’ve got a vo two max of 50. And the guy beside me has a 60? Like, is he just gonna, just gonna win? Because it’s like, that’s the number and he’s capable of doing more? Or is it? Is it more nuanced than that?

Ben 12:37
It’s a, you know, there’s so much more around it than that. There’s just plain old fashioned hard work, you know, Greg LeMond, you know, a good example. Like, it’s, yeah, he had a high VO2 max number, but he also trained his butt off, and, you know, did all of the things around having that physiological advantage to be a good bike racer, you know, so the guy who shows up with a higher via to max, if he isn’t, if he’s not on form, if he’s tired, if he’s fatigued, you know, like, if his time to exhaustion is shorter than your time to exhaustion with a 50 to two minutes, you can sustain a higher level effort for a longer period of time. So you know, that that number in and of itself is, you know, it’s just simply not the whole picture. It’s a snapshot of how much oxygen you can move through your body at a given time on a given day. Yeah. And it doesn’t take into account all the other variables of training that may give you Jeff with a 50 via to max huge advantages over you know, rider x with a six to 2x.

Jeff 13:58
Yeah, interesting. Because it’s something that changes day to day to like, you’re saying, like, if, you know, you line up on the day and you haven’t rested enough or like, you know, no, there’s something going on with your diet or you haven’t recovered? Is your VO2 max gonna change day to day or it’s, it’s pretty constant?

Ben 14:17
No, it’s it’s pretty cool. I mean, it can be trained to some extent, but it’s not like heart rate where it’s, it’s immediately affected by all kinds of outside variables like fatigue or sickness or, you know, caffeine intake or something like that. It is a more static metric, but it is certainly not the end all be all and in it. One of the reasons I as a coach discourage a lot of my athletes from getting via to max testing, is, you know, I asked them, you know, like, is the intelligence you’re gonna get from this test actionable? Can we do anything with this number meaningful? And a lot of times, you know, the answer realistically is no, having an idea is fun. But if you know, the negative side of that, you know, somebody’s coming back. With a vo to have 50. And they thought they were 70. The negative side of that is much bigger and the positive side of it right? So often, you know, like, and I’ve heard like Hunter Allen talk about it, you know, he’s another coach out there that discourages his amateur athletes from from getting via to max testing because the the negative far outweighs the positive in terms of just just the psychological impact of knowing that number. Yeah,

Jeff 15:29
yeah. Well, that’s interesting. I mean, that that brings up the question to me then, like, why do we care so much about our Why do you think athletes focus on it so much,

Ben 15:38
you know, because it’s been this, like a Olympic level gold standard. And so, so many of us, and you see this in a lot of sports, so many of us aspire to be that pro level athlete and do all the things that the pro level athletes are doing. But you don’t really need to do that, unless you’re a pro level athlete. I don’t want my amateur mountain bike racers training 20 to 25 hours a week, right? Like UCI World Cup Racer, it’s just gonna, you know, crush their souls, if at some point they want to try and progress to that point, okay, there has to be a structured plan to get there. But there’s, there’s so many steps along the way that are important, before we start getting somebody in a lab and doing something like compared to max test, you know, if you’re, you know, if you’re a university kid, and somebody’s like, hey, doing a physiology study, you know, tonight, do a vo two Max testimony, cool, do it. But I would advise against paying money to get via to max testing done, because what you’re gonna get out of that is, is much less important than, you know, spending that money on putting together a really good strength training plan, or speaking with performance dietitian, there’s so many better ways that will immediately impact your training in the short term and the long term in the long term than spending money on a lab test like

Jeff 17:14
that. Yeah, I mean, I personally I kind of get how it is tempting to like focus on it. And to really, because it’s like a number and it’s been sold as this thing that kind of boils down like your fitness and you know, my Garmin app, it even has a thing that’s like, you know, you’re in the top 10% for your age group or you’re in the you have the fitness age of a healthy 20 year old or whatever. Yeah. Yeah. And and like you said to like, you can compare to professional athlete, you can say, well, Lance Armstrong had a 92 vo two Max supposedly or whatever. So yeah, I think for a lot of us, it is tempting to focus on it. But it’s good to know that that is just one metric that’s possibly not even that important. I mean, it’s not it’s definitely not the first thing that people need to focus on. If your goal is truly being fit or like truly being competitive in racing

Ben 18:11
outside of professional level athletes, I would I would just say there’s, there’s really not a need for it. You know, it certainly is a valuable test. As an elite athlete, there is intelligence that can be gained and actionable stuff you can do. But it requires more lab work. It requires pretty involved coaching, and lots of time to train. You know, like what you’re saying about numbers to is, you know, like, yes, it’s a number. It’s it’s similar to things like, you know, FTP, everybody talks about that number. And yes, FTP is can be an important number and training. But it is a snapshot and out of context. It doesn’t mean much, right? It is, it’s, it’s a number that becomes a tool to build your training off of rather than measure yourself against other athletes.

Jeff 19:04
Right. Okay. Well, yeah, so I mean, let’s talk about other metrics. Another one that we’ve obviously heard about is the anaerobic or lactate threshold. So is that sort of the flip side to vo two Max? Or is this measuring something very different?

Ben 19:20
So what you’re doing with lactate test is you’re taking blood over like a 60 minute steady state effort. And you’re trying to figure out when your body accumulates more acid than it can buffer. And so when that happens, you cross a physiological threshold. And you’re you actually physically need to decrease your effort, okay? You can no longer sustain that level of effort. So the higher your threshold is, theoretically, the harder and longer you can work, and that’s what we’re looking for. And that is something that you can train for. And, you know, there are ways outside of the lab, the lab is the gold standard. And there are several different protocols to getting that blood lactate test done. And I couldn’t tell you them off the top of my head, but it is the gold standard if for heart rate monitoring heart rate and figuring out those thresholds in your body. Yeah, but there is a cheaper way to do that, you know, using power. And the great thing about power is, you know, it’s a very objective measure, we talk a lot about power versus heart rate. And heart rate is, is is a good metric, but it is influenced by many external factors. And we kind of touched on, you know, fatigue and sickness or it could be heat dependent or dehydration. With power, you’re producing to under 50 Watts, or you’re not, right. And as a coach, I’m going to use that heart rate data to dig further into why you may or may not have had a, a successful interval set. So we’re using power to estimate our threshold. Okay. And I’m sure you’ve heard of, you know, the dreaded FTP test, you know, the, the the 20 minute test, which, you know, there’s several versions that people several tests that people use out there, you know, some coaches are mean enough to make their athletes just ride really hard for an hour. I’m actually a big fan of that for my more elite athletes, you know, because there’s a lot of variability in a, you know, a 20 minute test for a downhiller is going to be very different from a 20 minute test for a marathon mountain bike racer, the marathon racer can probably produce a similar power at one hour than they can at 20 minutes where a downhiller that power might be much higher and drop off more precipitously because they’re anaerobic system is more trained in their their anaerobic system is contributing more in that first 20 minutes. Right. So you know, that’s, that’s the FTP test is kind of right now, one of the the easy standards to estimate your lactate threshold, or threshold power.

Jeff 22:19
Yeah, well, yeah, I mean, I’m not I’m not super familiar with with any of this, obviously. And you’re the expert. So like, when I think of lactate, you know, I think of like, that burning feeling that I get in my muscles. And when I think of that, too, though, I feel like there’s a mental component to pain, right? Especially where like, some people are better than others at like, you know, pushing through pain, or like, going a little bit farther than somebody else who’s like, Nope, that’s enough pain, I’m stopping I’m slowing down, like whatever. So, like, how does that play into your, your lactate threshold? Like how do you know, your limit versus like, your mental limit?

Ben 22:59
Yeah, I mean, the mental Governor there is, is you know, it’s your body is trying to protect itself and protect protect its reserve energy from being used up. So it’s, it’s a very powerful feeling. And some people just aren’t, you know, they hit that point where everything hurts, and they shut it down. You know, and typically that that person does not make a good marathon mountain bike racer. Yeah, they may be more suited to do shorter like gravity style events, because yeah, you’re gonna burn but you’re gonna burn for two to five minutes in most people can sustain a little bit of discomfort for that period of time. You know, I’d say as I’ve gotten older, my motivation to to hurt past 60 minutes is is has decreased and I no longer feel the need to to push my my body’s governor. But there’s been some really interesting research out there especially with athletes who compete in Race Across America, on on pushing through that perceived physiological limit into your body’s kind of fight or flight reserves. And it’s probably a podcast for another time. But there’s, there’s some interesting, there’s some interesting peer review data out there about how much more your body has and very few people can tap into those reserves. Right. Those are the top top endurance athletes. Yeah,

Jeff 24:34
I mean, it sounds like what you’re saying too, is that for elite athletes, like the mentally they’re all kind of at at the level where they’re going to push through the pain and like, it’s not going to be a mental block. It’s it’s literally going to be their body like just unable to go any faster or any farther. But I would imagine for amateur athletes, part of it is mental part of it is saying, Look, this is going to hurt or lie If this is hurts now, it can hurt more and you’ll be okay.

Ben 25:04
Yeah, you know, we we have, you know, we do a lot of coaching with ultra endurance runners here at our office. So we two of our coaches are ultra marathoners and they, there’s right now is 100 mile running season. Which, you know, for me is just like, absolutely crazy, but, you know, I would never be able to do that. But gosh, that it is such a mental game. And, and being able to it’s the same thing with for marathon mountain bike races to being able to keep your head in the game for four to six hours of moderate to high intensity writing, it’s it’s a challenge and making sure that you have the presence of mind to, to do all the other things like, you know, make sure you’re eating and drinking and using your lockout when you’re climbing and and, you know, dropping your seat post on the sentence. You know, like, those may seem like really simple things and no death things. But, man, when you’ve been riding for four and a half hours at your limit, sometimes you forget to do stuff, some really simple things like, yeah, countersteering becomes a difficult thing. So there’s all kinds of stuff that comes into play when you know you’re physically pushed to the limit. There is a mental aspect. Absolutely.

Jeff 26:23
Right. Yeah. Well, okay, so we talked about VOD Max and lactate threshold. Are there any other similar fitness metrics that writers can or should pay attention to

Ben 26:36
fatigue ability and things like time to exhaustion when, when your body how long you can sustain high levels of output, before you just explode? is really important with we work with a lot of juniors too. And you’ll have riders come in and say I’m a sprinter. And that’s always you know, we get a chuckle out of that, because, okay, you may have a really, really high max power. But can you produce that max power after three hours of racing? Yeah. And that’s, that’s a really important thing to look at. And something that can be very easily trained is, can you you know, if you come in and your max power is 1500 Watts, well, can you produce that at the end of three hours of bike racing? If not, and it’s 900 watts? Is that, you know, is it does that keep you in the top tier? Are you still on the podium? If you produce that much, you know, so contextualizing some of these metrics is also really important. When does it matter? Yeah, you can, you can throw down huge watts. But if you can’t do it, when the race is one, you know, what does it what does it really mean? Right? You know, efficiency factor is something we look at, you know, it’s essentially, how efficiently are you doing? Are you writing for a given set of intervals? And it’s typically used for more steady state stuff. So sweetspot, endurance riding? You know, that’s also, you know, we talked about coaching marathon racers, it’s very important that a marathon racer is a very efficient rider. They have good left, right balance with their pedaling. heartrate to coupling is something we look at, which is, when does the rise in your heart rate, decouple from your power output? When does it no longer reflect the power that you’re putting out? So as you fatigue, that heart rate slowly climbs, and you might be producing the same or less power towards the end of an interval. And that’s, you know, that’s something we’re looking at. And again, it’s information that can lead to interval design, and training plan design, to increase fitness, increase adaptability to a certain type of event.

Jeff 28:59
Yeah, well, I mean, it sounds like these additional metrics. None of these are like a single number. I mean, I’m imagining, like, you have charts and graphs, and it’s like, you know, X over Y, and, you know, time over metric and all kinds of stuff. But that is really cool to think about, you know, how all that plays in and then how does it tie to a race, like you’re saying, where, you know, you’re you’re writing for three hours, but then what if you got to sprint at the end for the finish? Exactly. So yeah, yeah. Not not something that can be boiled down to a single number. So when we’re talking about these training metrics, are there different ones that mountain bikers are going to focus in on compared to say road bikers?

Ben 29:42
Now they’re, I mean, they they are pretty similar. You know, mountain bike racing, depending on the style of racing tends to be to have higher variability in it. Yeah. So you know, if you think about, like, Nexio race You’re on the gas on and off the gas constantly. It’s not unlike a cyclocross race or even a really fast criterium. But if you’re a marathon racer, your efforts going to be much more similar to like a long road stage. So, and then you get into something like downhill where it’s just like, you know, as hard as you can go for three to five minutes. And yeah, and that’s it. So, the metrics are pretty similar. But you know, like, certain types of mountain biking mirror certain types of road riding more readily than others. And those metrics we can use, in very different ways to find successes and limiting factors, strengths and weaknesses. You know, something that we look at a lot as coaches, there’s a feature in the software called a power duration model. And it’s essentially a curve that shows where your where your power stacks up in the world, essentially, you know, and in the purpose of it is to suss out, where are your strengths and weaknesses. So, as a marathon mountain bike racer, I want to see a power curve, that’s, that’s more on the flat side, almost like a time trial list. Because there’s not a there’s not a whole lot of head to head sprinting happening in a marathon mountain bike race, right? There’s kind of a whole shot. I mean, like, people go pretty hard at the start, things separate out and you settle into the race. And, you know, there’s not a there might be a group of one or two at the finish. And yeah, there might be a sprint, but for the most part, it’s a pretty steady hard effort. Whereas, you know, you’ve watched a World Cup, Exeo race or a short track race. And man, you got to be able to produce high levels of power over short duration over and over and over again, so that that power curve looks different. And then you get into downhill where you want that that, you know, sub five minute power numbers to be really high, almost like a BMX racer, but they they don’t need to have great 30 minute, one hour, three hour power, because they’re never riding them. You know, like, that’s, that’s, you know, you’re you’re going to train in those zones in the offseason to build up your aerobic base. But that’s not where a downhill race happens.

Jeff 32:37
Yeah, yeah. Interesting. So while we’re on the topic of road versus mountain biking, there’s an episode on your endurance collective podcast debating the merits of indoor versus outdoor training. And I know a lot of mountain bikers really scoff at the idea of training indoors? You know, we’ll we’ll ride outside whenever we can. But I’m curious, like, is it possible to get the same quality workout on the trail versus on the trainer, or even on the road versus versus on a trainer?

Ben 33:08
So one of the things I learned early on as a mountain bike racer was that I needed to get a road bike, you know, and when I when I got my first coach, the first thing he did was convinced me to buy a road bike because

Jeff 33:20
oh, man, yeah, no, right. Nobody wants to hear that.

Ben 33:25
And I’ve gone back to it, you start to see this with riders like Yolanda Neff as a as a, somebody who rides her mountain bike on the road a lot. You need to spend time on consistent terrain, to do aerobic intervals. long, steady state intervals are really hard to do on a single track, especially if it’s it’s real, chunky stuff. Because you start getting a lot of anaerobic contribution to your interval. The other part of it is resting, doing active recovery on a technical trail is next to impossible. Right? So you just can’t do it. And so, you know, a road bike or a trainer is really good for that type of work. You know, I spent some ice I think I rode the trainer five days this year. And out of those five days, three of those five days were a cross country mountain bike on my trainer doing mountain bike Swift.

Jeff 34:26
Okay, that almost counts as mountain biking, but not quite. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Ben 34:30
It’s, you know, video game mountain biking. I you know, I certainly don’t enjoy it. I do have a lot of I coach a couple of racers who live in New England. And so in January, they’re spending large amounts of time on the trainer, building up that aerobic base, and they don’t get as much opportunity to get outside when they can in the winter. I encourage them to will reach shuffle their training or training plan around because there’s a dry day on the trails and You know, I want them to get some of that experience. But, you know, wrote rode bikes, mountain bikes with file. Tread tires are also a kind of a good substitute for mountain bike. So second set of wheels with road, a road setup on it. Last year was a first year, I really encourage some of my more elite level riders to spend more time on their mountain bike than I have in the past. So doing some intervals that I traditionally would have had them do on a gravel bike or a road bike, having them do those on their mountain bike with road tires, just to really get familiar with the feel of their bike and the setup and everything, I think is really helpful. And you see that a lot now from the World Cup level riders as well.

Jeff 35:43
Yeah. Well, I remember I did a interview with Chip from Wahoo fitness. And he was saying, you know, obviously, he’s his incentive is to sell a bunch of smart trainers. But he was saying that when their smart trainer first came out, you know, it was the kind of thing where like, you know, a few people in his writing group had them, and some other folks didn’t. And the people who had them ended up getting faster more quickly than than the people who were just riding on the road and doing their training outdoors. Is that something you’ve seen with your athletes where like, there’s things you can do on the smart trainer, that maybe is even better than the road? Or if you like, say you lived in Florida, like it’s, you know, you go out on the road, but it’s flat all the time. So So Are there advantages to the trainer versus actually being outdoors,

Ben 36:35
you can be really precise on the trainer. You know, it’s it’s sometimes much easier to do like anaerobic threshold type intervals on the trainer, where you’re doing short, hard sprints over and over and over again, you know, and not having to worry about things like traffic, right? stoplights, stoplights, all that stuff. Certainly, if you live in an urban area, trainers are very helpful. And like we said to cold cold climates or even hot climate, some people live in Arizona used to trainers in the summer, in that’s kind of becomes their offseason. But I encourage my riders to ride outside more often than not, I’m not a I’m a big fan of training, specificity. And for me, you know, if every workout had some aspect of bike handling involved in it, a happy guy. I mean, I know that’s not always the reality. But especially with mountain bikers, the more you’re riding your bike on variable terrain, the better. Yeah, you’re not kidding, get a chance to do a couple of sweetspot intervals and then practice your drop skills on the Wahoo. Right, you know, and it’s, you know, I don’t want to, you know, is a, the smart trainer is a very valuable tool. And it certainly makes indoor training way less monotonous. But riding your bike on terrain is is the gold standard.

Jeff 38:09
Yeah. Well, you mentioned gravel riding and that seems like an option now. So is that a good substitute? Especially for mountain bikers who are like, No, I’m not getting a road bike? Can I just ride my gravel bike? Is that gonna give me the same benefit?

Ben 38:22
Absolutely. Yeah. You know, and I, a lot of the mountain bikers, I coached just have a gravel bike, they have a road wheel setup for it, but they’ll do a lot of their steady state endurance stuff on their gravel bike, or they’ll their mountain, you know, they have a hard tail, that is their gravel bike. So you know, we have a couple of spots around here in Duke forest is one spot and in Umstead Park, where there’s a ton of gravel, and it’s a great place to get aerobic intervals and a long aerobic, consistent aerobic ride done, where you don’t have to be on the road. And, and you can, you know, enjoy time in the woods.

Jeff 39:06
Right? Yeah, yeah. And the bike handling too. I mean, I’m always shocked when I get on a gravel bike and because you got no suspension, and yeah, you got the skinny tires. And yes, like, you got to pick your lines and really pay attention.

Ben 39:20
You got to pick your lines and you know, you can’t you can’t just hit a rock or roll through a pothole at full speed. You know, pay a price for that. Yeah, you know, and, and so you kind of get a little bit of best of both worlds there. It’s, it’s also a great, you know, it’s been a sport that’s certainly grown a ton in the last few years. You know, and and I think at the detriment of road and in a lot of ways. I’ve definitely seen more mountain bikers kind of come over to the gravel side of things for training in a little bit of racing to you know, mountain bikers who who used to do some road races are spending more time on there. gravel bike now.

Jeff 40:00
Yeah. Interesting. So in another episode of your podcast you talked about under fueling versus over fueling. And to me, this is a really fascinating topic, because I feel like I get conflicting advice from my friends. You know, I did a bike packing trip earlier this year. And, you know, obviously fuelling is a big part of that and have done some 100 miler mountain bike rides. So how do you know if you’re getting the right balance of fuel on longer rides? And how do you know if you’re under over? Or if you’re just

Ben 40:33
right? Well, certainly, if you’re under fueled, you get that dead feeling in your legs, you feel hungry, or you know, are dehydrated. What

Jeff 40:44
about just before that, though, like, how do you get just before? Yeah,

Ben 40:49
so we have a couple of dietitians here that we work with. And a lot of times what they’ll do with some some of our athletes is essentially plan that out to the gram of what they need, based on some testing, we’ll do with them sweat testing, where we determine how salty their sweat is, how much salt they need in their sports nutrition drink. Yeah.

Jeff 41:14
Because everybody’s different, I guess, is what you’re saying. Exactly.

Ben 41:18
There’s no one right answer here.

Jeff 41:20
So that’s why I get the conflicting advice. Because I mean, literally, somebody will say, I need to do every 30 minutes and somebody else is like, you know, yeah, once an hour. Yeah,

Ben 41:30
there’s they’re there. Everybody has, you know, there. There’s some general advice, you know, you I’m always shocked when I when I find out people don’t eat when they ride bikes, and, you know, general rule over an hour, you should probably be fueling, you need to be eating something. And you know, if you live in a hotter climate probably need to be using some form of sports drink mix. gels, I tend to have people shy away from because they can they spike your blood sugar so quickly. And then it tastes awful. So yeah. And then you kind of crash on the backside of it. It’s like drinking a coke. You know, you can drink your coke. Yeah, to kind of shock yourself back to life. But then you got to back it up with some real food.

Jeff 42:18
Right? I drink Mountain Dew and it works well for me, but it’s not for everybody.

Ben 42:23
Extreme man.

Jeff 42:24

Ben 42:26
did you so plan, just having a general nutrition plan and following it is really good and helpful. And, you know, there are not a whole lot of for sure things and in bike racing. But one thing that is for sure is if you don’t fuel you will not succeed, you know, and then the overfilling aspect of it is, you know, everybody’s had that like kind of slushy feeling in their gut. If you take on too much carbohydrate, and your body cannot absorb that, over the course of a certain amount of time, you’re gonna get that kind of sugar gut feeling sloshing around in your intestines has your, your intestinal walls literally can’t uptake that carbohydrate in your body.

Jeff 43:05
Right. So it’s like a digestion thing. It’s not like you have too much energy or whatever you want to call it like in your bloodstream, it’s, it’s just literally like your body can’t process it.

Ben 43:16
Your body can only process so many grams of carbohydrate an hour. And again, that’s, that’s somewhat different for people, different people and, you know, that’s, that’s something I’ll leave up our experts to talk about, because I you know, I just kind of nod my head and you know, know the general rules, but there’s some it’s pretty low tech ways to figure it out. And and it we were talking about via to max earlier, figuring out your fuelling and how many grams of carbohydrate you can take on an hour and what kind of sports drink works for you, that will benefit you so much more in the short term and in with with relation to your performance than getting a via to max test. You know, if you have a really good fueling plan, and you know what fuel works best for you. You’re gonna be shocked at how how successful you’ll be.

Jeff 44:18
Yeah, well, I mean that that kind of that part of the advice that I hear from people does fit a lot of people say you need to figure out what works for you. You need to try like during your training rides like eating different foods and seeing how you do but how do you feel? I mean, one of the things a lot of people like to talk about is like real food versus like, you know, is sports, energy drinks or bars or whatever. Do you have an opinion on that or what have you found works for you again, just for you. This is not for like everybody,

Ben 44:52
but I like to eat as much real food as I can when I ride. I do on longer rides all fuel With a carbohydrate drink mix, so what’s scratch super fuel is what I use primarily. Okay. And I like their, I like their hydration drink mixes as well, just because they don’t have a whole lot of junk in them. And not a lot of color. And you know, I try to I try to be as minimalist as possible with that. Yeah, but you know, I like what is lipid Enhanced Recovery wafers or potato chips

Jeff 45:34
I was like writing this down. I need to get some of those on Amazon. Yeah.

Ben 45:39
No, you know, I, I like, I like to have savory things too, because you know, you’re having so much sugary stuff. We had one of our dietitians ran 150 mile ultra marathon last weekend, and she was crushing some pickles and potato chips, and you know, all kinds of salty stuff because you should drink and sugar sugar during the whole time. So it’s good to kind of shake it up a little bit. You know, when I was in Europe, I ate a lot of little finger sandwiches. And like, the scratch feed zone cookbook type. Rice bars made out of sticky rice and like bacon and eggs and stuff. Oh, some of this stuff can be really delicious. Yeah, you know, I have to I have to like shoo my wife out of the refrigerator because she’s eaten my, my writing nutrition stuff. Because it tastes good. And that’s a good sign when you find stuff like that.

Jeff 46:33
Yeah, like athletes only tell my kids with like Clif Bars, they want to just like eat well eat, sit on the couch and eat one. And they No, no, you got to exercise you get to earn that.

Ben 46:42
Yeah, you know, I remember the days when I’d ride with a, you know, the old style powerbar. And you know, it was like 20 degrees out and you had to have it inside your base layer. So it would be warm enough that you could actually chew it. Those days are over, man.

Jeff 46:57
Yeah. Even then, man you like break your teeth on those. Yeah, those are awful. I know. Yeah, yeah. So that’s, that’s great advice. And it’s cool that people are coming around to that idea of like, eating real foods. And, and yeah, took me a while to figure out the salty thing as well, where you know, it’s like every prepackaged nutrition, sports nutrition thing you buy is sweet. I mean, it’s like 95% of it is just sweet. And you need that salt. Eventually, you figure that out.

Ben 47:30
Both you know there’s a psychological aspect to it too. And it crushes your soul. If you’re doing a four hour race and you’re just eating candy the whole time. You know, be nice to have, you know, something salty and honestly, like crush a piece of pizza.

Jeff 47:45
Yeah, pizza. Yeah, I have friends that ride. Go bring a slice of pizza on a long ride. And yeah, I’m always jealous. That’s definitely the way to go. Robin, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I learned a ton and yeah, always such a great source of advice and information. So thanks,

Ben 48:05
again. I appreciate appreciate the invite, and I look forward to guessing sometime else too.

Jeff 48:11
Yeah, you can find the YouTube podcast for the endurance collective online and the website is the endurance have links to both of those in the show notes. So we’ve got this week. Come talk to you again next week.

Learn more or connect with Ben and the Endurance Collective on their website ( and YouTube channel.

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