Block ‘training’ For Mountain Bikers


A lot of readers probably don’t race and aren’t interested in racing, but I imagine that everyone who comes here enjoys riding more when they are riding well.

This article will talk about a simple approach to cycling that will make you faster without seeming like training.

A little personal history

Seven years ago my wife and I had our first child. For a little while, I tried to hold onto racing but family life became way too stressful, with constant arguments revolving around a training schedule like the one I used before kids. Anyone with small children knows what I mean — it’s difficult to balance ‘regular’ life with cycling, especially if you like to ride a lot.

At that point, I decided to ‘ride for fun’, ’smell the roses’, and just enjoy being on the bike when I could. Honestly, it sucked. Every hill became a lung burner, single track was more pain than fun, and group rides were bummers.

A novel idea: training in blocks

I recalled reading articles from 1998 in issues of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Action that introduced a different way for riders to schedule workouts.

Coaches such as Dean Golich and Dave Morris were advocates for scheduling hard workouts on back to back days. In fact, they suggested that riders go hard for two or three consecutive days, followed by two or three days of very easy (or no) riding. This ‘block’ type approach, at the time, contrasted with the generally accepted practice of riders not doing hard intervals or really hard rides back to back.

I re-read those articles and decided to insert some of the principles into my ‘just riding along’ mode to see if they could help me find the something that was missing. My feeling is there is a certain threshold level, when it comes to fitness, where mountain biking becomes really fun. You know that you’ve hit this level when you can hold your momentum over small rises, and pedal through rock gardens and technical grunts without excessive amounts of effort. And although this fitness level is unique to each individual, if you have been riding for any length of time, you will know what it is for you.

Basic Block ‘training’: how to do it

The principles of block training are pretty simple so, when you’re following them, it doesn’t even seem like you are training. There are no intervals or power meters or heart rate monitors, so you freeriders can stop worrying.

  • Day 1: Ride for x minutes balls out. ‘X’ should be the longest period that you can devote to riding on a given day. For me it was about 1.5 hours. What does balls out mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Just ride harder than you would at easy or medium.
  • Day 2: Ride for 75% of x minutes, balls out. Attempt to maintain the same intensity as the day before. Because you are riding for a shorter period of time you can do it. I’d do an hour.
  • Day 3: Ride for 50% of x minutes, balls out. This last day try to go hard. It is going to hurt but just try your best. I’d go for a hard 45 minute ride.
  • Day 4, Day 5: Rest. Do nothing. Spend your time with your family. If you need to get on a bike, commute to work or go for a spin around the block. And imagine your significant other’s surprise when you schedule your rest days for the weekend!
  • Day 6: Easy but not too easy. This day was designed to get my legs back underneath me as a means of preparing for repeating the cycle. I’d try to go for 45 minutes and try to gauge if my legs were ready to go again the next day. If not I’d take another easy day.

Repeat for 3 weeks then take an easy week. Basically cut all the durations by half or more but try to maintain some intensity.

Results

After about six weeks of using this type of schedule I was totally floored by my progress. All of a sudden I could go out with friends and hammer again. Sure it wasn’t like it used to be when I’d ride epics all weekend and race. But by golly if I wasn’t having fun again. Obviously there are limitations to what I could handle: after two hours or so, I’d start to fade fast.

Another benefit from this type of training is the ’stage race effect’. This effect was hammered home on a weekend when I was fortunate enough to join one of the mountain biking trips my friends did. You know, the kind of weekened where you go to a cabin and ride Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and then drive home. After the block scheduling I found myself riding really well over consecutive days and, since all the other people on the trip still rode like I used to, it was a real confidence boost to hang with them given the relatively limited amount of time I devote to riding.

I cannot emphasize enough what this ‘program’ had done for my happiness.

Conclusions

My kids are older now so I’ve got a little more time to ride, and I’m following a more regimented training plan. However I still incorporate block training principles on the micro level.

Lots of us have limited time to ride and lots of you aren’t interested in structured training programs. But by changing around your schedule just a little bit, you can ride the same amount of time that you are now while seeing some real gains in your level of fitness.

Of course, I am not saying that you can’t have fun just riding along. But, personally, I think it is more fun to ride along just a little bit faster and for a little bit longer.

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