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Race Training 101

Ask 100 cyclists how they train and you will get 300 answers. Their first answer is what they did in the past.  Their second answer, they know what they did wrong, and are now doing it right. The third and final answer is, “I got tired of losing, so I developed a training plan.”

If you raced CAT 4 at the 2017 or 2018 Challenger, you will be required to move up to CAT 3 in 2019.  Staying in CAT 4 year after year isn’t fair to those who have never raced. You are wondering, ‘What do I need to do so I can feel competitive in my age group?  Am I ready for CAT 3?’  You may have tried to race in CAT 3 but had less than desirable results. With the help of a few simple basic steps, you’ll be fine racing in CAT 3.



Before we continue it is important to know mountain bike racing is dangerous. That sounds self-explanatory, but let me spell things out for you. You can become dehydrated, have heat exhaustion, get cut, break bones, have a concussion, get paralyzed or even die. Thanks to all the lawsuit happy people, ambulance chasing attorneys, and an overtly litigious society for making me have to state what should be the obvious. When you race, you are assuming risk and the potential injury. Know your ability and do not ride or race outside of your skill, speed or comfort level. If you are not comfortable with the potential risk for injury, please consider competitive crocheting as an alternate hobby.


We are going to break this blog into 5 main sections:

1) Setting Goals

2) Develop a Plan

3) Training/Practice

4) Evaluate & Change

5) Reconnaissance & Stalking (And I do mean stalking as in you’re psycho ex, but in a good way, if that’s humanly possible.)

1 - What are Your Goals?

While this sounds simple, it has different meanings for different racers.  Do you want to win? Finish in the top half?  Complete your first CAT 3 race?  Or finish all the races in your local series?  Determining your goals will help you decide on what type of training you will need to do and how much.  The higher your goal, the more time and effort you will need to dedicate to your sport, so be realistic.  If you own 3 of the tiny humans, who have 47 after school activities/birthday parties/play dates/ #KeepingUpWithTheJoneses, and a job that makes you work 12 hours a day #OverWorkedUnderPaid, you should not expect to get in multiple hours of weekly training to finish 1st place in your local MTB race series.

Finishing - I Think I Can, I Think I can, I Think I Can

Let’s begin with the racer who simply wants to finish a longer race.  This is the goal for many CAT 3 racers, and it is a great goal to have.  When you raced in CAT 4 at the previous years Challenger events, it was two laps at 2.5 miles per lap for a total of 5 miles over easy terrain with very little elevation change.  As a CAT 3 racer, you will cover over 7.5 miles on much more difficult terrain.  You will encounter technical features like logs, rocks, roots, steep climbs, mud, sand etc.  You can easily dismount from your bike and walk over or around obstacles.  Remember, if your goal is to finish, you are not worried about winning.  You simply need to be able to ride the longer distances at a fast pace. Start with the distance you are used to riding and add 1/2 mile per week, riding two to three times per week.  Within a few weeks you will be able to complete a #CAT3race.

Competitive -

If you want to be competitive, then you will need to be more disciplined with your training.  Along with completing the longer course, you will want to be able to ride more of the obstacles on the course and have some type of a game plan.  'Oh no', you’re thinking, 'this sounds like it might be work instead of fun.'  Well… It’s a bit of both, it’s serious fun.  I know some very talented riders. None of them were instantly awesome on a bicycle. (Well… Maybe me. LOL)

2 - Planning - It All Starts with a Game Plan

Having an idea is just that, an idea.  It’s some random thought that pops in and out of your head like, ‘I should remember to wash my dirty clothes’, ‘What should I have for dinner’, or “Is that dog poop on my shoe’?  When you write an idea on paper it becomes a plan.  If it’s not written down it’s just another goofy idea floating around in your gray matter.  A plan that has been given some thought, written down, and placed into a timeline, is now an executable training plan.  If you are one of the six people on the planet who never forgets anything, then you can skip this step. However, if you are like me and would forget your head if it was not attached, then put it on your calendar.  It could be as simple as a one hour iCal appointment “Race Practice”.  There are a zillion training plans you can read for free on the #Google.

3 - Training - Getting Dirty

There are a zillion training plans you can read for free on the #Google. I know what you’re thinking, “Can I use a free training plan from the web or out of a book #WhatsPaperback?” Free training plans are like people’s opinions.  (Fill in the blank with your euphemism of choice.)  If you don’t know how to train, using a free plan will be much better than you throwing a dart to select today’s workout.  Many racers start to train with a free plan.

What if you want to get a little more serious?  You can purchase a better training plan from a multitude of sites.  They range in price from as little as $25-$100 per month and are typically better than the free ones.  If you research on line, you can find some that have been written by a cycling coach who still races or was a former pro.  This is a step up from the generic web plan, but it’s not custom tailored for you.  It will not be altered to help you maximize efficiency if you are excelling in your workouts.

Custom training plans start around $100 per month and go up from there. These plans are built around your current abilities, then get altered to maximize your efforts as you improve or face setbacks.  There is usually some type of written feedback you supply to your coach for each workout and a phone call or #Skype session once or twice a month to go more in depth on your results and determine if you are meeting your goals.  Over the years I have hired a few fitness coaches and currently I train with Coach Colin Sandberg of Back Bone Performance to develop my fitness plan (Free month for George).  He uploads my workouts into TrainingPeaks.  From there, I can either download them to my #WahooElemnt or follow along in #Zwift.  I then upload the data from my device, back to Training Peaks, and leave my comments on the work out.  Coach then analyzes my workout.  We talk on the phone once a month to review my progress, points he wants me to work on, discuss race strategy and nutrition.  Big props to #MikeKuhn for introducing me to Colin.  Colin is GREAT & I highly recommend his coaching services.

Skill - Practice Makes Perfect...Almost

This should go without saying, but the less you get off your bike the faster you go. (No duh!)

You can get a quick jump on your skills if you have a few extra dollars.  You can take group skills clinic starting around $50.  Classes of 10 to 20 people for 3 to 4 hours, will provide you with a positive learning experience with fellow riders of all ages and ability levels in a casual group setting.  If you excel in a group learning environment sign up for one today.  There is one more option and that is the hire a pro cyclist for a personalize lesson.  Some say it is expensive.  I say it’s very cost-effective.  Hands-down this is the fastest way to see improvements on your skills.  I used to think I had good skills, till I hired a pro to ride one on one with me.  I can say with zero exaggeration that the two hour session easily changed my riding overnight.  As I continue to practice the skills I learned over the 7next few weeks, my proficiency dramatically increased, and so did my confidence.  I've done both group and 1 on 1 skill rides with #HarlanPrice of Take Aim Cycling.  It was a night and day difference in my riding abilities.  I highly recommend his services! 

4 - Evaluation - Taking a Long Look at Yourself

I think this is one of the most difficult things to do.  If you hired a coach, they will be helping you analyze your work outs and the results.  This is the exact reason why you pay them, they know what they are doing.  But for this example, let’s say you decided to use a free training plan.  You will need to compare your effort levels, speed, distance, from an older work out to a newer one.  Be prepared to use a spreadsheet of some kind so you can determine if you have any significant gains over time.  Remember you will see your biggest gains early.

If you see you are plateauing, or possibly even slowing, then you will need to alter your plan accordingly to get back on track.  Since I’m not disciplined enough to do this, nor do I understand the science of training, I hire a coach to do all this for me. Plus, you have someone to blame if it doesn’t work!  I mean, you can’t blame your self...right?  If you skip workout outs it’s your coaches fault, not yours.   #MillenialTraining

Weight loss is a HUGE speed improvement on your bike.  If you want to read the science behind the gains in time regarding #weightloss, check out this article from Bicycle Magazine.  In layman’s terms, every time you loose 5 lbs and output the same power as before, you will shave off a few seconds.  While that doesn’t sound like much, I’ve placed 26th out of 84 racers.  20th place was only 15 seconds in front of me.  That’s 6 racers inside of 15 seconds of each other.  If I would have been about 5 lbs lighter I would have placed 19th instead of 26th.

5 - Reconnaissance and Stalking - Spy Time

This is a fun way to end the blog.  Reconnaissance is key to having a good race.  Take a trip a few weekends before the race for a pre-ride.  The pre-ride is your opportunity to find out what you will be up against like, ‘where is the race?’  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard racers say something like, “I got lost on my way there, and I was late to my race.”  You’ll also know the course conditions, learn if there are water crossings, rock gardens, technical climbs, log overs, get the idea.  There are 4 types of pre-rides; Guided, Non-Guided with GPS and Non-Guided with Trail Markers and Virtual Pre-Riding.

Guided is best type.  Typically the race director or one of the race volunteers leads people around the course.  You’ll learn where to park your car on race day, registration location, start line, finish line, and guide you around the course.  Sometimes they will give you tips on how to ride certain sections.

Some race directors offer to download the #GPS file to your #GARMIN so you can follow the course on your device.  This works for most races, but for the Challenger it doesn’t.  GPS is typically accurate to roughly 30 ft.  If you have a few trails very close to each other, it can look like you are on the right trail till you hear the beep from your device suddenly informing you are off course.  Since our course is in a very small space and the trails are very close together, GPS can be difficult to follow.  I’ve also noticed riders spend more time looking down at their device then they do paying attention to the trails.  It just as bad as driving and texting.

Next is Trail Markers. In some cases the trails are marked to help you ride the course. Markers can be made of various materials, like ribbon, or sometimes spray chalk.  It’s important to follow the directions on how to interpret the markers.  They may say, ‘keep the ribbons on your right at all times’.  This will present a little bit of a challenge when you come to intersections or turns.  You will need to keep your wits about you and pay close attention.

Last option is a virtual ride.  On some occasions you will travel far for a race or can not pre-ride.  Some race directors will shoot helmet cam video of their race course so you can get some type of an idea of what the course looks like.  It’s not riding the course but it’s definitely better than going in blind.

Know your competition.  Who won last year?  What were their lap time/s like?  Did the top 3 winners from last year sign back up again for this year?  Asking these questions then looking up last years results will help you gain an understanding of where you might expect to finish.  However, if you friend all those people on #Facebook and follow them on #Strava, learn their training habits, then catalog all of it on a spreadsheet, you might have taken stalking lessons from my ex-girlfriend.

So let’s get a quick recap of what we discussed.  It all starts with setting your goals.  Be realistic in setting your expectations.  Develop a written plan based on your goals.  Whether you take a free plan or hire a coach be sure you can dedicate the time to follow your plan.  Do the work.  Train for both fitness and skill.  During regular intervals evaluate how your training is going and alter it to maximize your efforts. (If you hired a coach and didn't meet your goals, blame them not me.)  Lastly, know a little about your competition so you can get a realistic expectation of how you will do against your goals.  Do you see the cyclical nature of training?

Ultimately, you need to know yourself and remember we are not racing for #UCI World Ranking.  We are not racing for tens of thousands of dollars.  We are not even racing for $1,000.  It’s a medal worth $1 and possibly a bike pump.  You should be training for fitness and for fun.  Parting words...biking is fun.  Treat it as such.  Now, go 'Challenge' yourself!

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