One of the most common questions I hear as a professional Mountain Bike coach is ‘which trails should I be practicing on?’
Should you be constantly pushing yourself to ride harder and harder trails at faster and faster speeds?
Or should you take it super easy and build up the terrain difficulty and riding speed slowly?
Well, from my experience coaching hundreds of Mountain Bikers of all ages and skill levels, the answer is neither.
Just like in life itself, the key to progression on the bike, lies in diversity. Ride any one trail or level of trail for too long and you’re likely to grow stale in both your technical progression, and in your mental approach.
So, in order to grow as riders we need to practice on some easy trails, and some hard trails. But how often should we cruise? And how do we know when to stop scaring ourselves on ‘janky’ gnar?
Following the model I set out below, we should aim to be riding trails we FEEL are easy roughly 40% of the time. This is our chance to adopt a growth mindset while experimenting and learning new things! The straightforward terrain means that there is no need for our brain to waste energy thinking about how to stay upright. Instead, we get to focus 100% of our mental energy on learning whatever new skill or maneuver we are working towards.
From here we can look at riding trails that we FEEL are Somewhat-Challenging around 35% of the time. This is our chance to take what we have learnt and APPLY in a real world, yet relatively low risk environment.
Once we have experimented with our newfound technique and developed confidence both physically and mentally we can really start to put rubber on the road and aim to ride trails that we find Challenging, 20% of the time. Here, the risk factor has shot up. We have a greater chance of taking a blow to our mental game, physical body or equipment. Hence, it is evermore important that we as riders looking to grow and progress, set aside adequate time to ride Easy and only Somewhat-Challenging trails first, before mixing in a small amount of Harder trails.
This is where the practicing should end if we are newer to the game and want to progress quickly without setbacks (riding 1-2 years). If on the other hand you have a little more riding experience under your belt, it can be extremely valuable to ‘suss out’ trails you currently find Very Challenging for your skill set. If we don’t know where the bar is in terms of the next step, how do we know what to work towards?
This is why I suggest setting aside just 5% of your riding time to picking your way down trails you currently find too hard. Why only 5%? This keeps the risk down - ride scary stuff all the time and you’re likely to find yourself in out of your depth and heading towards some unfortunate downtime in the name of a physical injury or a mental block.
In short, if we only ever ride super hard terrain, it’s very hard to learn new things. In this environment all our brain can think of is ‘Holy crap!!’ Hardly the scene to build new skills.
EASY and HARD are different for everyone and are not static measures. A Blue rated MTB trail may be extremely challenging for some riders and at the same time extremely easy for others.
As you hone in on your skills as a rider, you will find that trails that used to be challenging become easy and there will be new trails, features and terrain that take their place at the top of the MTB practice pyramid.
For example; Black level riders may need to train on Blue level trails. THEN take the newfound skills to the terrain they find challenging, hence we need to ride trails that we find easy roughly 40% of the time.
This model will provide continuous Incremental Progression, as opposed to Destructive Progression, both physically and mentally.