XTERRA Couch to Trail - Questions You're Afraid to Ask 2

Sep. 7, 2017

By Mimi Stockton, 4x 40-44 Division XTERRA World Champ

This is the second installment of "Questions You're Afraid to Ask. "In Part 1, we focused on gear. This week, we focus on more technical issues. Please keep in mind that for most of these questions, there are no right or wrong answers. 

When is the best time to take in nutrition on the bike?
XTERRA isn’t like a road triathlon, where you can pull out your water bottle or eat pretty much whenever you want.  The technical aspects of mountain biking put increased demand on your body and make it more challenging to drink and stay hydrated, which can impact the energy reserves you have left for the run. And even if the race is shorter than an Olympic-distance road tri, the event could feel more like a half-Ironman-distance effort.

Therefore, the answer to this question truly depends on the course. If the course is mostly flat with fire roads mixed in, then drinking and eating is relatively easy.  However, if you are faced with steep ascents, descents, loose rock and dirt, you will be forced to keep both hands on the handlebars much of the time, thus taking in any kind of energy or liquid next to impossible. And remember, because the mountain bike and trail run will take you longer to complete—and be far more taxing on your body than the same distance road race—getting in your nutrition on the bike becomes even more important. Thus, some people put most (or all) of their nutrition in a water bottle and drink whenever they can. This becomes a problem however if there are limited opportunities to grab that bottle. If you are terrified to release your hands from the handlebars, you risk not getting any nutrition or fluids. In this case, it's better to wear a hydration backpack, so you can drink relatively hands-free whenever you want.  

If you choose to just put water in the bottle or backpack, you will still need some nutrition. Gels are probably the most common and easiest form of energy to consume on the bike. Sometimes, due to the rough course, gels that are tucked into the back of your tri top can become dislodged and when you go to reach for them they're gone.  A better option is to tape them to the front or down tube on your bike. Secure them well and they will stay put. They'll also be easier to grab.  

Getting enough nutrition on the bike can be tricky, but if you practice enough during training, you will feel more confident and better equipped on race day to release your hand from the handlebar and still maintain control.  The last thing you want is to enter T2 depleted and unable to even start the run...because we all know that RUN = FUN.    

Is it better to get off my bike and walk certain sections of the bike course (especially the uphills) or should I try and ride them?
As slow as you might seem to be riding up the steep hills, it is usually faster to stay in the saddle than getting off your bike and trying to run uphill while either carrying or pushing your bike (an exception to this is when the trail is pure, thick and unrelenting mud through which it is impossible to ride, like in Maui last year). 

When faced with a steep hill, you want to shift into a low gear. Before shifting, ease up on your pedaling to decrease pressure on the chain. Stay seated. Standing out of the saddle often helps when climbing steep hills on a road bike, but you may find that on dirt, standing causes your rear tire to lose its grip and spin out of control.  Climbing requires traction, especially on loose terrain. Stay seated as long as you can!  You also want to lean forward. 

On very steep hills, the front end may feel "unweighted" and suddenly pop up. If this happens, slide forward a bit on the saddle and lean over the handlebars. This adds more weight to the front wheel and should help keep the bike grounded. 

Finally, keep pedaling!  On those steep, often rocky climbs, keep the pressure on those pedals and don't let up. The slower you go through the rough trail sections, the harder you will work.  

What's the best way to handle corners on my mountain bike?
Everybody wants to corner with great control and speed. Anyone can go fast in a straight line; it takes skill and technique to carry speed around corners. For ultimate control, you need to practice proper body position. First, you want to think about bracing and engaging your core to push, pull, and resist forces. If you stick your rear out too far and lean forward onto your wrists, you wont be able to do this, so instead, keep your chest up as you look forward, engage your core and keep your back neutral. 

Lift your head up and look ahead and well past the apex of the corner you are about to enter to gain control.  When your head is up, your body relaxes. When you look down, you tend to micromanage the trail and your mind gets stressed trying to process everything flying by under the wheels.  Furthermore, when on loose or flat corners, put your weight on the outside pedal to increase grip and traction.  Lean into the turn, point your hips toward the exit and guide the handlebars in the direction you want to turn.  

Most importantly, you want to bend your knees while you are going around a corner.  As a general rule, your feet should be level with the surface that you’re cornering on.  Why is this so important? Well, let's talk about what happens when you drop your outside foot when cornering. While this isn’t necessarily the wrong thing to do, it’s often taken out of context. If you tell a complete beginner to drop their outside foot while cornering, then it gives them a lot of confidence, but as soon as you start going faster, you’ll find that the only way to maintain traction is to control your speed, and that means using the brakes. If you are going too fast, you slide out. Having a straight outside leg has its limitations, meaning that you have no influence over the amount of weight you’re putting through the contact patches — the shape of the trail is doing that for you.

This is not always bad though. There are benefits to dropping your outside foot in a corner:  you lower your center of gravity, meaning that you’re more stable, you are less lightly to catch your pedals on the ground because your inside pedal is now lifted, and you can lean the bike further, meaning that you’re now facing the right way for the exit. Just be sure you don't drop your foot all the way, so that your leg is straight, because then your body will be completely rigid in the turn.  

Being rigid is generally okay if you’re going slowly, or if you’re on a surface that is predictable (i.e. not loose gravel or sand or mud), but if your bike starts to slide, or if there’s a bump or a compression in the surface of the trail, then your weight will be affected and you’ll no longer be able to control the amount of traction that you have, meaning that you’ll slide and lose control. Being rigid means your body cannot adapt to the changing conditions of the trail.    

If you’re on a well-supported and firm turn (like a berm), your bike is more or less perpendicular with the trail and therefore your feet should be level on the cranks.  If you’re on a flat turn, and your bike is leaning, then your outside foot should drop — but only enough that your pedals are still parallel with the ground. The more you lean the bike, or the more off-camber the turn, then the more you drop your outside foot. As you start having to drop your outside foot all the way down for really sharp corners, or when there’s a lot going on and you need that extra lean, just make sure that you keep enough bend in your knees and elbows that you can still move with the trail.

I have spent many mountain bike training sessions just working on cornering.  It takes patience and a lot of practice to be able to corner without automatically hitting those brakes.  And speaking of brakes, you should release them BEFORE you enter the turn.  Your momentum will carry you through the corner.  At the apex of the turn you should be looking ahead, toward the exit.  Lead with your chin and the bike will follow.  

The amount of speed and traction you maintain through the corners is not something that is set in stone. It’s dynamic, and something that you’re in control over, but only if you give yourself the room to explore it.    

What about clearing dips and logs?  Should I bunny hop?
A bunny hop entails lifting your bike long enough to clear an obstacle in one leap.  Bunny hops are fun, but when it comes to clearing dips and logs I have found they prove to be a waste of energy. It's more efficient (and probably safer) to clear an obstacle one wheel at a time. You can practice by finding a low curb on a sidewalk.  As you approach the curb, push your handlebars forward and apply a forceful pedal stroke--almost like kickstarting a motorcycle.  Then shift your weight behind the rear axle. The pedal stroke will push the bike forward, but transferring your weight back at the same time you push the handlebars forward will propel the front tire into the air.  Keep in mind, this move is not about upper body strength or pulling, it's all about weight transfer.  To clear the rear tire over the curb, do a donkey kick, as if you are trying to hit your butt with the bicycle seat.  

This is a skill you can practice at home and once you master it, you can take your skills to the trail.

How can I get downhill without constantly applying my brakes?
Practice! Start small and gradually go bigger. Getting down steep descents takes confidence and the only way to gain that confidence is to practice, practice and practice some more. You have to be "okay" knowing that in order to build that confidence you might take a spill here and there.  But everyone wants to lay claim to a couple battle scars, right?  

As you come to the top of a descent, shift into the big ring. Doing this will help keep the chain from bouncing off. And should you crash or disengage your leg from the pedal, the chain will cover the teeth of the big ring so they don't bite into your leg. 

As you start the descent, relax!  Stay loose on the bike and don't lock your elbows or clench the grips.  You want your elbows to bend with the bumps and absorb the shock, while your hands should have a firm, but controlled hold on the bars to keep things steady. Now, as you start to pick up speed, get your butt off the saddle. When flying down technical descents (or even non-technical descents), you want to avoid sitting. Instead, stand on the pedals and straddle the seat, allowing your legs and knees to absorb the shock instead of your bum. And, you also want your front pedal to be slightly higher so that it doesn't catch on small rocks or logs.  

Successfully navigating the hill requires you to shift your weight from side-to-side, much like a downhill skier.  Your bike will tend to track in the direction you are looking and will follow even the slight shift and leans of your body.  You want to think not so much about steering, rather the direction in which you want to go. 

Finally, stay calm and focused. Many descents are so gnarly they require your full attention just to safely reach the bottom. Try to notice every rock, hole, bump and root that's in front of you (remember, you want to always be looking in front of, not under, you). For lack of a better way of saying it, you want to become "one" with the bike and the trail. If your thoughts wander and you start thinking about that post-ride pint, then so may your bike and into the trees you will go! You want the occasional battle scar, but not one every time you make a descent.  

People have told me I don’t need to kick when I swim because I’m a triathlete and should save my legs for the bike and the run. Is that true?
The short answer is "no."  Swimming in open water is quite different than swimming in a pool. Therefore, a fast, six-beat kick that you might practice indoors may not be practical for the swim in an XTERRA race. However, the legs are still an integral part of any swimmer's stroke. And while it is true that a triathlete is not training to be a 50 meter sprinter, having the ability to kick fast serves an important function at the start and finish of an open water swim, and also helps generate needed speed around buoys. Increasing the speed of our kick during these phases allows us to quickly “change gears."

If you are training in a pool or in open water without a wetsuit, you will notice that the kick helps establish and maintain proper body alignment, thus creating a more hydrodynamic stroke. By neglecting the kick, many swimmers end up practicing an improper body position with a noticeable sinking lower body as they propel themselves through the water. This is extremely inefficient and tiring. An optimal kick brings your hips to the surface, and with the head in the proper position, will put you in a neutral spine position for a more fluid, efficient stroke. You want to focus on a steady, narrow kick from your hips, with relaxed knees and ankles and pointed toes that gently break the surface of the water. Executing kicking drills without a board, on your back or side, is an excellent way to develop the leg action that will benefit your swim for speed and endurance. Don’t worry, this kick-improvement plan still allows you to use your pool time as a “recovery” day for your legs, but also doesn’t compromise your body alignment. 

Well what if I am allowed to wear a wetsuit?  There's no doubt that a wetsuit absolutely assists in maintaining proper body position. However, a poor kick (or no kick) will still bring down the hip position and may cause the body to sway from side to side unnecessarily. A smooth continuous kick will actually assist in elevating the body in the water, even with a wetsuit.  

A good kick will also encourage body roll, essentially propelling you forward in your stroke, as opposed to dragging you down at the back end.

Kicking does use up more energy than pulling alone. A simple test will demonstrate this.  Swim 100 meters or yards just pulling, as hard and as fast as you can, and then take your heart rate. Do the same, but this time just kicking as hard and fast as you can, and then take your heart rate.  You will notice that the effort required to kick hard and fast is more than without the kick. So while I don’t necessarily agree with the statement that by not kicking you are "saving your legs" for the bike and run, I do agree that an excessive kick will consume more energy and therefore tax you unnecessarily before you begin the bike and run. 

The key is to kick efficiently!  This is easier said than done. But by incorporating kicking drills into your swim workouts, you will find that with a little practice your stroke and body position will really benefit from an efficient kick come race day...with or without a wetsuit.

In closing, I know there are many questions that I've left unanswered, so please feel free to e-mail me with anything on your mind.  I'll either answer you personally or compile another list of questions/answers and send them out to the entire tribe in a subsequent article.  

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little, Jeffrey Kline, and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of PRS Fit.  Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.  

Read past training articles from PRS Fit at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/couch-to-trail and learn more about their coaching programs at prsfit.com.

Couch to Trail