If you’ve done an Xterra, you understand as well as all of us that there is just something different about how much the bike portion takes out of you. (If you haven’t done an Xterra, sign up for one. I promise you’ll love it.) Running off the bike is hard enough in any case, but running off the mountain bike in an Xterra is another monster altogether. Throw in the fact that you are running on dirt and usually uphill right off the bat (seriously, race directors, why is the first mile ALWAYS uphill?), and there you have the formula for one of those painful experiences that you can’t wait to do again.
So how does one prepare? The key is in the differences between road biking and mountain biking. On the road, you can head out of town, pick a pace (or a wattage, or a heart rate), and go until it’s time to stop. But on the trail, the terrain determines the difficulty of each moment. It’s much more challenging to maintain a constant heart rate on a mountain bike, because from minute to minute you are slamming the brakes, accelerating back up to speed, climbing a hill, and then hanging on for a descent. It’s all about bursts of energy spaced out between miniature recoveries. Technical sections of trail, where your skill level is the limiting factor, like an extremely narrow trail with uneven rocks or roots and lots of sharp turns, are actually physiologically easy, from a certain point of view. Your output is lower, your muscles are working less, and if you weren’t nervous about falling, your heart rate would be lower too, because you just can’t go any faster without risking bodily harm. Mountain biking is intervals. And training for Xterra is best done with intervals too. Here are 3 great workouts in 3 completely different settings that you can try to prepare for Xterra:
1) Technical Hill Repeats: Seek out a mountain bike trail with a technical climb that is at least 5 minutes long. (if the biggest hill in your area is less than this, shorten the interval and increase the reps) Get in a nice warmup of at least 10 minutes. Set your stopwatch to count down from 5 minutes, and do 4×5 minutes (you can build up to 6×5 minutes) up the hill, coasting back down. At the 5 minute mark, put a rock or a branch at the exact point to which you made it. If you beat that point on the next repeat, move it up. If you don’t make it to that point, leave it there and try for it again the next time. Note how much more difficulty you have with navigating the technical sections as you get tired – this workout will help with that too, including the descent!
2) Group Road Ride, Reverse Paceline: If you find yourself on a group road ride (with at least 4 riders total), but you have an Xterra on your schedule, talk your friends into joining you for this fantastic workout. After a nice 15 minute warmup, pick a long stretch of road with a solid 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted riding. If it can be a false flat or slightly uphill, or even steeply uphill, even better. Form a single file paceline, and then take turns sprinting from the back of the paceline up to the front. Depending on your group size, you can pick any length to continue this – keep in mind it is harder with fewer people. With 5 or fewer people, do 2 sets of 10 minutes with a break between. More than 5 people, go for 20 minutes straight.
3) Xterra Spin Bike Workout at the Gym: If you are in a class, you can suggest this set to the instructor – I am sure he/she will love it. If you are on your own, incorporate this into your 40-60 minute session. Get a solid 10 minute warmup, then at least 10 more minutes of switching between sitting and standing at low resistance. Then crank it up – at least an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 for resistance. Stay seated. Then every 45 seconds, do a “surge”. A “surge” is when you stand up, accelerate to a sprint for 5 counts, hold it for 5 counts, then sit back down and hold that cadence for 5 counts, then relax back to a slow controlled cadence. It’s 15 seconds hard, 30 seconds recovery. Do 2 to 3 sets of 5 of these, with 60 seconds recovery with no resistance between. For a fun twist, have the class go one at a time, and as soon as the person to your left has reached their first 5 count, you go!
The basic goal is to develop your anaerobic system while doing an overall aerobic workout. Road bikers and triathletes can afford to be fully aerobic, but Xterra athletes do not have that luxury. At Xterra you will go anaerobic at times. But you will get to recover (eventually) when the trail changes directions. These workouts are just some examples of how you can train your body to push the limits for a short period of time, but also to recover quickly so that you are ready for the next tough spot. The faster your heart rate drops back down below Anaerobic Threshold, the faster your bike split will be in the results of your Xterra. And the quicker you can push through that first mile-long climb of the run while you are wishing that you would get struck by lightning to save you from the pain in your legs and gut. (First timers, don’t worry! For some odd reason, we all have forgotten about this pain by the time we are signing up for our next Xterra. It’s like magic!)