It used to be that the downhillers were not fit. I remember going to Mt. Snow in the mid 2000’s and camping at Camp Hayward a few miles away from the mountain. It tended to be where the budget XC racers stayed (myself and the lads), which tended also to be a lot of downhillers. There were also huge parties every night!
I remember thinking, ‘how do these guys race with a hangover?’ I also remember finding out that this wasn’t the exception. Downhillers partied hard and raced harder–because they could!
Fast forward to today: the best downhillers are exquisite athletes. They train everything and anything looking for an extra 0.001s performance gain. They must have taken notes from the moto guys, who are really fit! At some point the party mentality in downhill shifted…must have come about when someone came in and started winning without a hangover! Every t is dotted and every i is crossed now, and the race times get tighter and tighter and the speeds keep climbing. It’s no wonder World Cup races are on RedBull TV. Sure, fitness and hangovers sometimes can happen together, but I think now they save the partying for after the races…
So why do they have to be fit to race?
Downhill races are relatively short–most last between 3 and 5 minutes, which is hardly a marathon. Performance in downhill is also hugely linked with skill, which is hardly fitness. It tends to be that the most skilled riders tend to go the fastest, but what happens when everyone is nearly equally skilled?
If we analyzed a power file from a downhill race it might look pretty boring. There is an initial peak of power out of the start gate and then a few sprints on the way down, but it’s not really the kind of effort that would feel really hard on the road bike.
However, for anyone who’s ever raced downhill, they can attest that it is really physically demanding. You get to the bottom–and if you raced hard–you are smoked!
The first thing we need to forget about is the relationship between event duration and physical fitness. I don’t think anyone would argue that Usain Bolt is a damn fine physical specimen…and his races only last a few seconds! Fitnes–as many people see i–means you are either bench pressing a fully grown llama or running 100 km fueled by only water, however there’s a lot more to it.
Badminton players are fit; table tennis players are fit; figure skaters are fit. One of the main components we might think of as success in those sports is skill; that is, the most skilled competitor will win. This may be true, but fitness has a big hand in this.
FITNESS AND SKILL
It’s hard to argue that the more tired you are the worse your skills will be. I tried a miniature experiment on this idea while working with the local MTB club a few years ago. I took a dozen of the ‘race group’ out to a a fun, technical minute-long mountain bike loop. I split the crew in half, then had one group ride the loop at 80% of race effort and the other all-out. When they got back, they were given a short series of 10 simple math calculations to do; once they finished these problems, they were given their times. After a short rest, I had them switch: the 80% group now went all-out, and vice-verse. The interesting thing we found was that there really wasn’t a difference in time, which means that pedaling all-out wasn’t really faster.
Now there are some clear issues with this as an experiment, but I really wanted to reinforce to the kids that blowing up (or simply being tired) was not going to be beneficial in the long run in mountain biking. I think they understood the point, and it’s been really great to see these kids racing smart and fast. The same is true for downhill. Riders tend to get sloppy when they get tired. Getting sloppy is a huge disadvantage. Why? Because remember: performance in downhill is dependent on SKILL! If you are tired, you can’t really use your skill to its fullest!
WHY DOES RIDING DOWNHILL TAKE SO MUCH EFFORT
So we mentioned before that the pedaling efforts aren’t huge in downhill. However, remember what we talked about before? Going all out is going to make you tired no matter what surface you are riding; you’re going to pay for it in some way or another. Donwhill is all about seconds, so at some point you are going to need to pedal hard. If the best power you can ever produce is 1000 W though, you probably shouldn’t be pedalling at 1000W out of the start gate. Why is this? Remember, this is why we test. We know what we feel like after our best, all-out efforts; we are tired–we get sloppy! It’s probably a bad idea to give our very very best effort out of the start gate when this will clearly make you cross-eyed and ride like a muppet.
This was something I was very interested in at the start of my research, so we tested this kind of thing. As we ride down a hill off-road, our body is subject to vibrations–some are very small and fast, while other a big (say, from a big hit or drop). The small ones are pretty much constant, and our bodies don’t like this–if we rattle our brains too much, we might get brain damage! So our bodies absorb these vibrations. The vibrations are quite big at the bike (pedals, ankles, wrists), but are reduced by the time they get to our heads. This means that the body is taking up some sort of autonomous strategy to absorb these vibrations, which comes at a huge energy cost! At the same time, we are holding on tightly to the bars, and using our body to control the bike. Then add in pumping, which we know is tough…wow!
What this means is that we don’t really get a full break after those sprints, which means we don’t get a chance to recover! This is why downhillers need to be fit: the fitter you are, the faster you can recover, which ultimately means you can use your skills to their fullest.
If you’ve ever ridden a pump track, you know just how hard pumping can be, and how tired you can get from this. Similarly, once you were able to pump properly, it’s very clear how much free speed you can get from pumping. When we get tired during a downhill run, we stop pumping; we get tense and take the hits a bit harder. We hit all the holes on the track since we’re out of energy. This has the domino effect of making us even more fatigued and more sloppy!
AEROBIC FITNESS IS KEY
The few components of fitness many people think are important for downhill racing might be strength and power: that is, we need to be able to hold on and be able to sprint. However, I’d like to add that aerobic fitness is also extremely important for gravity racers. It makes sense for enduro riders since they need to be able to pedal up hills, but for downhill??? YES. I was doing a study a few years ago on repeat anaerobic ability and aerobic fitness. It turned out that those who were aerobically fit also had the better ability to repeat hard efforts. As is turns out, being able to recover quickly between hard efforts is dependent on aerobic ability. This is great news for gravity riders because they definitely need to be able to recover after sprints in their runs so that they can focus on utilising their skills. It doesn’t matter if they can sprint or are strong–if they are smoked after one sprint they won’t race to their best It’s for this reason that I always aim to train gravity riders’ critical power [this is the boundary between aerobic and anaerobic power output, read about the science version here and the shorter version here], and to get it to the highest level I can.
PEDALLING IS THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES
I did a study a few years ago about coasting vs pedalling down a MTB hill, and compared performance (this went in a pretty good journal). It turns out that pedalling isn’t super importance for you DH performance, but this sin’t to say that fitness isn’t important! Pumping and maneuvering your bike are energetically costly. We use mostly our legs (they are big muscles and use a lot of oxygen), so even if you never pedal once, you will probably perform better from improved fitness regardless. It’s a similar kind of story for enduro racing: people tend to think you need to be fit to pedal the transfers and be able to hit the punchy climbs within the stages, which is true. But I’d argue that you need to be fit to be able to ride the stages smooth, regardless of pedalling. You can pump your way down and pedal at key points as long as you’re fit. We talked about pacing in enduro, which is definitely worth a read.
I fully trust that you will race better once you are more fit. What do you have to lose? A better beach bod? You’ll want to aim to increase your critical power level, which is multifaceted. Work on your low level aerobic fitness before focusing fully on your CP. This is the same kind of thing the roadies and XC riders do–you want to get fit right?!? Beginners: get a road bike and join some group rides. You don’t have to wear lycra if you don’t want! Try to hang on. If you’re racing on the weekend and not confident in your fitness, try to do a midweek ride. The group ride doesn’t need to be fast to be beneficial to your aerobic fitness. Long hills are good, but try to minimize your time redlining. Intermediate: You have some experience on the road and in the gym and you can ride DH pretty good? Join a XC group ride. They don’t have to be the fast guys (you want to train aerobically anyway) but you’ll want 90-120 minutes of pedalling. On another day, try some rides that will help improve your critical power level. On a midweek day head out and ride up a hill that takes ~8-15 minutes in your CP zone 4. Recover for about half the duration of this hill and repeat another effort at the same intensity on flat ground. This one will have a higher cadence (90-100 rpm). Ride home to cool down. These can be outdoors or on the computrainer. Check out our training plans. These are always changing and there are always new. Don’t see what you like? Get in contact! Experts: You ride DH fast but have never worked specifically on your fitness. Some of the above might resonate with you? Get in touch. We can put together a plan that suits you.
- The best gravity riders are fit in every way. If you want to win you have to be fit.
- Getting fitter isn’t only so you can pedal. Get fit so you can pump more, put your bike where you want it, and ride smoother.
- If your aerobic endurance is weak, try doing some easy road rides. Aim to increase your critical power if you are more experienced.