Contributed by Rich Van Sickle, Performance Coaching Program Lead MHSCL Demo Team

Skills before hills.  With only eight weeks between the July 1 season start and Race 1, August 26th, in Austin, you may be tempted to dive right into high intensity training.  Don’t. Early season practices need to focus on three things:

      1) Skills

      2) Time in the Saddle

      3) Strength


Skills for safety and skills for speed.  The skills covered in On The Bike Skills 101 (formerly MTB101) are essential for riding singletrack safely as well as riding fast (Risk Management).  Those skills include:

  1. Ready Position
  2. Bike Body Separation
  3. Braking
  4. Shifting
  5. Climbing
  6. Descending
  7. Turning
  8. Pressure Control
  9. Vision

Don’t try to cover them all in a single practice.  I like to set up four or five stations depending upon the numbers of riders and adults. Two or three stations are straight up skill work – braking drills, cornering around cones, bike body separation.  The other two stations are games like foot down or garbage ball (teams pass a ball and try to get in in a garbage can). Not only do the games teach skills but they make skills days more palatable to your riders.  There are some great ideas for both games and drills on the NICA Coaches Forum and the NICA Resources Website.  If you don’t see a game or drill on those sites that you like to use please share!

Getting your experienced riders to buy in to working on the basics can be a challenge.  They already know them (and everything else). I like to get the riders that do know them to demonstrate for the other riders.  

Video is a great way to let the ones who just think they know to see that maybe they could improve.  “Oh wow! That’s what I look like?” is a common refrain. You can use a tool like Coach’s Eye to show side by side comparisons with their form and “ideal.”  Even without an add on app, just showing them their form can be eye opening. I try to emphasize that good technique is free speed on race day, but that doesn’t always stop the eye rolling.

Working on skills is mentally and physically taxing, particularly for newer riders.  Skills work isn’t hard from a cardiovascular perspective but it is challenging enough that I would not combine it with a longer ride.

Time in the Saddle

Speaking of longer rides that brings us to the second focus of early season practice – “time in the saddle.”  In these early practices your riders are building a base of fitness that will allow them to undergo the more intense workouts leading up to race season.  The intensity of the ride should be low. Riders should be able to talk in full sentences throughout the ride. The goal of the ride is to keep moving for an extended period of time.

Factors such as heat can shorten the ride.  As rider fatigue increases so does the likelihood of crashing (see Joel’s article on Risk Management). Don’t start out with a three hour slog through a July heatwave.  Sixty minutes of continual riding is probably plenty in those first couple of weeks building gradually as the weeks progress.


Since you’re not riding super long it gives you time to include the third focus of early season practices – strength.  Strength provides power for sprinting and climbing during races. More importantly strength (particularly core strength) allows riders to recover on the bike when something doesn’t go precisely as planned on the trail and helps prevent injuries when things really don’t go as planned.

Our team utilizes a combination of traditional strength exercises such as squats, walking lunges and planks with yoga poses that build balance, strength and flexibility.  The kids tend to think the yoga work is funny which I think helps with rider buy in. Just ask them about “Downward facing Doug”. Dee Tidwell with Enduro MTB Training has shared his 12 week program on the Minnesota Base Fitness page at  Nica Resources.  Some of the exercises in that program require weights, but others do not.

Ending practice with the strength and flexibility allows us to continue working as the daylight fades (be sure to finish before the mosquitos get fierce).  I personally wouldn’t recommend intense strength work prior to trail riding as the increased muscle fatigue could lead to an increased likelihood of crashing.

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