MTB Training Tips and Tricks for the Untrainable Athlete

Do you thrive with less structure? These training tips may help increase your fitness without a calendar.

Picture the type-A athlete in the local trail crew who perfectly excels at every challenge their coach serves up. They rise at 4am to weigh themselves naked before taking a cold shower because it’s good for XYZ, then strap on a heart rate monitor and sync their power meter to go pedal the day’s scheduled watts. That’s who traditional training plans are designed for, and those folks are often wicked fast as a result.

Alas, we’re not all motivated by schedules and numerical targets, nor by perfection or excellence. Rote programs and goals leave some athletes more confused than informed, yet we too hope to gain fitness and speed in our favorite forest sport. Maybe our personality is better defined as dirtbag or type-nay? Our scheduling and logistical energies are eaten up by work or school, and there’s nothing left for a rigid training plan.

With that in mind, here are some of the behaviors that have helped the type-nay athletes I’ve interviewed or raced with to gain strength, flexibility, and skills despite having limited time on their calendars.

First up, it can help to incorporate strength and cardio work into the things we’re already doing. On the bike, this can happen in several different ways. One starting place is to ride with people who are faster than you at least once a week, pandemic permitting. Try to keep up with them on the climbs whenever possible. Their pace will challenge yours, and you’ll get some strenuous interval work in whether you like it or not. If there’s a weekly race series in your area, those events can affect fitness similarly. The point is to push against your limits, then with rest, your body can adapt to new limits. Over time that adds up to less fatigue, with longer, faster trail enjoyment.

Often when riding with faster folks there will be someone who has honed a skill that you want to master. Watch for those jibs and jabs, and ask what they did to gain their particular prowess. If they’re willing it can also help to have talented riders follow you down a run and point out skills that need a little attention. We all get to learn different elements of the sport at our own pace, and finding a solid mentor to ride with can have a massive benefit.

Photo: Luigi Sestili

In a similar vein, having someone ride behind you and shoot video is an invaluable training tool. If you’ve watched a few MTB videos, you’ll know what smooth and skilled athletes look like, and you can use that knowledge to make posture shifts to improve your skills. While you don’t need to emulate them, the body position pro riders use is often tied to the traction and speed they’re able to maintain, and it’s definitely worth a close look. For example, top-ten EWS racer Miranda Miller improved her cornering speed last season by watching a video of herself riding. She had been dropping her outside elbow in turns and after correcting that unconscious posture she felt stronger and more confident in corners — where most enduro races are won.

Another on-the-bike training tip is to create intervals that you don’t have to schedule or think about. That could include an all-out sprint every time you see another rider ahead, across the flat segment of a repeated training descent, or up the final push of three different climbs. For a full-body workout, you can add a standing drill once a week, dropping the saddle and dancing on the pedals for five to ten-plus minutes mid ride. Try to keep your head still, using core muscles to stabilize your trunk while you pull across the bike with your glutes, legs, arms, shoulders, and back muscles. If you start to slither like a serpent toward the final minutes, remember to engage your core so all of your power can make it to the pedals. Timing a standing interval between two points that you regularly ride past will allow you to forget the watch and simply do the work. If you feel extra energy one day you can always stand and pedal further.

As the season nears full bloom it can help to time one ride per week. This doesn’t require a huge commitment, as long as you own a cellphone or stopwatch. Roll the same lap once every week or two and time it, preferably not too close events you want to perform well in. Give that lap everything you have, climbing harder, braking less, and resting for shorter periods of time. You may not feel up to pushing the pace every week, but when you do it will likely pay off. It’s free racing, against yourself. A timed lap will not only help push the fitness needle forward, it serves as a gauge of how fit or tired you are at a given point in the season. The lap information can help gauge if it’s time to rest or push harder.

Off the bike, one way to increase strength and flexibility is to trip over it. If the yoga mat is already on the floor beside the bed we have to work to avoid the workout. Committing each morning to a minimum of 100+ crunches, 10-50+ pushups, 10-50+ squats, plank for a minute or so, followed by five minutes of active stretching will make us significantly stronger than if we check social media with those same 7-12 minutes. Other ways to “trip over” strength and flexibility include installing a pull-up bar in a doorway and pulling up with every pass, and strapping resistance bands on a desk at work to run through a few strength and mobility exercises whenever the room feels cold or the ol’ brain needs a break. While none of this will replace a dedicated gym regimen, it may work better for folks who thrive with less structure.

On the nutrition front, it’s vital to eat something on longer rides. Pre-fueling and a small hourly snack will make it a lot easier to keep the throttle pinned on any ride that’s over 90 minutes. Ride snacks also prevent the post-shred refrigerator raid, where we’re inclined to eat far more calories than the ride burned because the hunger monster has been knocking for too long. They put pockets in our shorts for this precise reason.

Finally, the best nutrition advice anyone has shared with me came from Keri Hatley at Shred Science Nutrition. While Keri has loads of great nutrition tips, her advice that training athletes need to eat two grams of protein for every kilogram of their body weight has been immensely helpful. This simple metric allows for enough protein consumption to gain strength while shedding some body fat, as long as we monitor carbs and fat. A very rough nutrient breakdown looks like a tri-spoke wheel, with one-third of the total daily calories coming from protein, and the other two thirds from fat and carbs. The shiny nugget in this tip is that if you’re eating Keri’s recommended amount of protein, it can be difficult to eat much else. Like the standing intervals mentioned above, this is a one-time calculation that can be forgotten once you know roughly how much protein is in the food you like.

To use me as a crash-test dummy, I weigh roughly 68 kilograms, so I need to eat 136g of protein per day to gain muscle and maintain my weight. I eat plants and in order to consume that amount of protein I need to slurp a morning pea-protein drink that has 40g of protein, cook 4 seitan slices for an afternoon salad with 70g, and finish off the day with at least 16g of protein at some point. That’s far more math than some type-nay athletes may want to compute daily, and fortunately, it’s super simple after a few meals.

As stated, these tips are no perfect science, and perfection isn’t what everyone’s aiming for. Are there tips or tricks that help you gain strength, flexibility, or skills without stringent schedules or coaching bills? Please share them with the Singletracks community in the comments.