Train Slow to Race Fast: Off-Road Cycling Drills

Over the past year, several of the athletes I work with have broadened their triathlon horizons by venturing off-road into XTERRA or similar events. For the most part, on- and off-road triathlons are pretty similar.

The swim is essentially the same, aside from the potential for some colder water or an extra obstacle in XTERRA. And while there are some differences between road and trail running, most athletes already spend at least some time running off-road while training. The biggest point of difference—and perhaps the greatest challenge to newbies—is swapping a tricked-out tri bike for a mountain bike.

I recently went to an off-road triathlon to coach Trisha, one of the local XTERRA athletes I work with in Colorado. As I stood at various points along the mountain bike course, I saw clear signs that this was foreign territory for a lot of athletes.

But Trisha and I had worked on some key mountain biking skills, and by T2 she was well ahead of several athletes she's normally chasing, and she went on to record one of the best-ever results in her age group.

As much as Trisha wants me to keep these tips just between us, here are some of the ways she improved her mountain bike performance:

Going Uphill

Low-speed balance is very important to maintaining control and conserving energy as you go uphill on a mountain bike. The steeper and more technical the climb, the slower you're going to go. When athletes lack confidence at low speeds, they overreact to obstacles like rocks or roots and charge at them in an effort to maintain speed and momentum.

Incorporate the following drills into your rides, and once you get comfortable with your balance, you'll see you can conquer the same sections of trail without hyperventilating and sending your heart rate through the roof. This means you'll be faster when the trail opens up and have more energy once you get to the run.

  1. Track Stands: It's very simple: Try to balance on your bike without rolling forward or backward more than half a wheel rotation. If your bike is pointed uphill, this is easiest to do with your front foot at the 2 or 3 o'clock position while you're standing out of the saddle so you can rock forward and back by adjusting your weight on that pedal. Pick out a grassy park and just be a kid again. If you fall over, oh well. Get back up and try again.

  3. Water Bottle Pickups: This is a great one to do after your track stands. Place your water bottle upright on the grass and then reach down and pick it up as you ride by.
    As you get better, try to go even slower, and for a bigger challenge lay the bottle on its side. While this isn't something you'll have to do in a race, it helps improve your body awareness to make you comfortable moving your body around on top of your bike.

  5. The Slow Ascend: Pick out a local climb that has some moderate obstacles and then purposely ride it slower than normal. As you start creeping and crawling over rocks and roots, you'll start to see new lines, and you'll see that with greater balance and control you can pedal over and around obstacles while maintaining a smoother and steadier effort level.
    Soon you'll be able to use the same techniques but maintain a higher overall climbing speed because you'll experience fewer extreme spikes in your power output (and subsequent drops for needed recovery) as trail conditions change.

Coming Back Down: Loosen Up to Go Faster

Maybe triathlon just attracts athletes with controlling personalities, but at Trisha's recent off-road triathlon I saw a lot of athletes fighting with their bikes as they came downhill instead of working with them.

Unlike descending on a road or tri bike, going downhill on a mountain bike can be a lot of work. But you can reduce that workload and increase your speed if you learn to loosen up.

  1. Let the bike dance a bit.
    A smooth and fast descent is a little like dancing the salsa: you need to have some swing in your hips. You've been working on your balance, so don't be afraid to move around on top of the bike and let the bike sway and lean a bit. You need to be firm and in control, but not rigid, in order to guide the bike through the fastest line downhill.

  3. Pedal a big gear through rough patches.
    Your tires and suspension can keep you tracking straight through rough sections like small rock gardens and low roots if you are able to keep your momentum. Keep your weight back and use a big gear so you can maintain your speed with only a few pedal strokes.

  5. Lighten your grip.
    Maintain a firm grip on the bars, but try to resist the urge to hold on for dear life. When you white-knuckle the handlebar, you'll also tighten up your wrists, elbows, shoulders, and neck. Instead of cushioning the vibrations from the trail, this just amplifies them. Let your limbs absorb the bumps to give your torso and head a smoother ride. Not only is this more comfortable, but you'll also be able to see better and focus on finding the best line.

At the end of the day you have to go fast to get faster, but learning to go slowly first is an important step toward gaining necessary mountain biking skills and greater off-road riding efficiency. It paid off for Trisha, so see what it can do for you.

Adam Pulford is an Expert Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and an experienced endurance athlete who works with cyclists, triathletes, and runners of all abilities. For info on coaching, camps, and performance testing, visit

Related Articles:

      • Mastering the Ups and Downs of the Off-Road Bike Leg

      • Off-Road Adventure: Tactics for XTERRA Success

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