3. The Ability to Recover From Short Efforts at Lactate Threshold and Above
Most of a seven- to 12-hour race is done at an aerobic effort. However, in a mountain bike race that involves altitude and time cuts, efforts above lactate threshold intensity are necessary. (Lactate threshold (LT) intensity is roughly the intensity and associated heart rate that you could hold in a one-hour, all-out time trial.)
One method to improve performance in an ultra-distance event is to build a solid base of fitness over several weeks or months, followed by six to eight weeks of increasing LT heart rate as well as power at LT without building much (if any) training volume. Follow this block by returning to building event endurance to a peak, while allowing enough time for a good taper.
Why increase LT to be competitive at an ultra-distance mountain bike event? If your lactate threshold moves from 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, you've increased the capacity of your aerobic engine. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 185 and you can move your lactate threshold from a heart rate of 148 to 167, you've got more aerobic engine. All of this takes time and a reasonable progression.
Athletes who try to do everything at once--build training volume, increase strength, and increase the volume of training intensity at LT or above--will often end up ill or injured. The body takes time to make the physical adaptations to training. Cramming for race day, unlike cramming for a college test, doesn't work. Athletes who cram will only build enough endurance to complete the event, instead of enough to be competitive.
The right bike with the right fit, dialed in for you, is critical. I rode a hard tail for years, and this year I got a new Trek Top Fuel 98 full suspension and I can't believe the difference it made in the terrain I could ride and how I felt after long training days and race day. The bike you select has to be right for your race and your riding style.
You can have the best bike in the world, but if it doesn't fit you a long day in the saddle can easily be cut short by debilitating foot, knee, hip, back or neck pain.
There are lots of other equipment details such as shock settings, tire selection and pressure, drinking systems and clothing selection. Experiment with and work these out long before race day.
5. Good Descending Skills
Good equipment can compensate for some lack of descending skills, but only so much. If you want to optimize your day on the bike, good descending skills are critical. This doesn't mean bombing down the hill out of control, but having the skills and confidence to carry speed and minimize the amount of braking necessary. White-knuckling the brakes washes away free speed.
Work on balance and bike handling skills all year. You can practice balance skills at the gym or at home. Try this simple drill: Stand on one leg with your eyes open, then closed. For on-the-bike skills, take your mountain bike on a ride at least once a week or set up a small obstacle course in the park.
6. Belief in Your Preparation
Although message boards can be helpful, they can also be harmful. Reading about the monster volume training weeks and days that others are, or claim they are, completing is not necessarily a direct correlation to race-day success. Design a plan that meets your own needs.