Between the Tape
Hard work wins a race. But knowing what to work hard at, wins two.
Knowing the demands of your chosen sport is an important question when looking at designing a training plan. Finding out exactly what goes on inside the body during a 1:30 hour cross-country race lets you put everything back together to create a potential race winner.
Our close partner sport of road cycling has a long heritage of people in lab coats poking and prodding lab rats to make them cycle faster. The difficulty in cross-country has been the variability in demands of the event. Pre-2007, a cross-country event had a race time of between 2 and 2.5 hours for men and a little under 2 hours for women. This was reduced in 2007 to today’s race time of 1.5 hours for both men and women.
What does that mean? While it’s tough to say which version is harder, one thing is for sure, the demands have changed. Races are far more intense with riders pushing higher powers on the climbs, which are now shorter and come with less rest in between. For the racers this is obviously different, but this also poses different questions for the lab coats such as: how do we make racers ride faster in this new format?
This has been the struggle for athletes and coaches in cross-country mountain biking to this day. To find what doesn’t work and then to find what does through testing. It’s a process that takes a lot of time to do, let alone to spread around to athletes and coaches across the world. A big stepping stone is money, the studies to determine the demands of the event cost money to be done properly, but that money is usually tied up in an Olympic program. A country is unlikely to spend thousands of dollars on equipment and personnel to find a competitive edge and then put the results out as open access research.
There is a lot of talk about funding in regard to mountain biking in Australia. I’m sure to a lot of people, not connected to the process, it’s not entirely understood what exactly the funding is for. Among other things, these studies of the demands are what is needed. Switzerland is pretty good at mountain biking. Swiss riders go to the Swiss Olympic House in Magglingen near St. Moritz every year and ride on a giant moving treadmill to be tested. At this point, it’s highly unlikely they are still guessing at what the demands of XCO are, but are instead testing against the demands of the event pushing their athletes further.
Last year, as part of a big push by the Norwegian national team with help from Lillehammer University towards the Tokyo Olympics, a study was done that brought together their top riders along with British riders, a Swiss rider and New Zealand’s Sam Gaze to test and determine why the best riders were the best. This goes along with several other studies done in Norway recently all geared towards analysing modern cross-country as well as determining how best to train for these races. Some of these studies have been made public and are quite interesting and use some innovative techniques to map the demands of XCO.
How are Norwegian riders doing? At the La Bresse World Cup, Norway had four riders inside the top twelve of the U23 men’s race, and their top rider, Petter Fagerhaug, won the overall U23 World Cup series. Another nation had four riders in the top ten of the U23 race, as well as three inside the top ten of the Elite men’s race, that was France. At the beginning of August, a study was released on open access by two of France’s universities that is one of the best I have seen, studying the demands of modern XCO. Coincidence? Perhaps – but I doubt it.
Recently the Australian Institute of Sport announced a symposium for leading sport scientists and engineers that aims to give Australian athletes and coaches the technological edge over the competition. Given the large strides that could be made in modern XCO by being technically innovative, it would make sense for it to be included in this push. While these studies aren’t everything, they are a key part of the puzzle in creating athletes that cannot only win one race but continue winning more.