MTB Strength Tip: How to Warm Up for a Downhill Race 3

We're pleased to present this feature from James Wilson, owner of MTB Strength Training Systems and strength coach for the Yeti World Cup Team.  In this feature, he explains how to properly warm up for a gravity race (downhill, 4X, super-d, etc).  It also applies for those looking to ride their best even when it isn't race day.


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Race day warm ups are an interesting topic. Part routine and part ritual, how a rider prepares for battle is a personal thing. However, based on the number of questions I get on it the topic is a source of confusion for a lot of riders.

I think that most riders are confused about race day warm ups because they don't really understand what goes into being a successful DH rider. Before we can talk about how to warm up, let's figure out what we're preparing to do.

Here are the top 3 things that go into a successful DH run:

1) Strength-to-Weight Ratio a.k.a "Trail Strength". How strong you are in comparison to how much you, and a lesser extent your bike, weigh is the most important factor in DH mountain biking. Stronger riders can lay down more power when they pedal, slam into rock gardens faster while maintaining control, and survive harder crashes. This is the foundation upon which everything else is built – if you are physically weak then the trail will beat you up and take your lunch money, leaving you tired at the end of a run no matter how much "cardio" you do.

2) Technical Skills. How well you can maintain balance, speed and control in all trail situations is the next thing on the list. The better your skills are the more efficient you will be with your strength, power and cardio reserves. The goal is to have no wasted movement and to find the "flow" of the trail. This all boils down to your mobility and body control and how well you can apply it on the bike.

3) Pedaling Endurance. Scott Sharples (former coach of the Australian National Team; currently working with Team Yeti) told me an interesting story once. When he was working for the Australians they looked at exactly how much pedaling is going on during a DH race. It seems that your average DH race comes down to 8 X 3-5 second sprints. That comes out to 40-50 seconds of pedaling during a race that usually takes 3-4 minutes, or roughly 25-30% of the race. Over 70% of winning a DH race has nothing to do with pedaling. So, even though it is important, it is not the most important.

Obviously the order of training priorities can change based on the individual needs of a rider (if you're strong and have good pedaling endurance then skills would rank #1 on your list). However, the order of importance still stands and you should always watch all 3 areas and critically analyze where you are with them.

What is the point of a "warm up"?

First, if you train properly you don't need an elaborate warm up. Much like "race day nutrition" I think that a lot of riders overdue the process. They either don't do any real training or they don't have the understanding and faith in what their training is doing for them. 

Your warm up begins on day 1 of the off season, not a few hours before the race. You can't try to cram some fitness in right before a race and hope that it will help make up for something you're not doing the other 364 days of the year. Racing is simply an extension of training and training is an extension of how you live your life – if you're a downhill racer then you're a downhill racer 24/7, not just on race day.

I also hate the term warm up since it denotes little more than just increasing body temperature and perhaps revving the cardio engine a little. Since you need specific movements operating at full efficiency when you get on your bike you need more than to just break a sweat and get your heart rate up, you need to "warm up" those specific movements. 

Looking at the demands of a DH race we can formulate a plan. The main thing we want to accomplish is preparing the body to be fluid and have command of the hips. Everything stems from the hips since they are your center of gravity (important for technical skills) and your center of power. Proper use of your hips will increase your "trail strength" (ability to absorb trail impacts) and pedaling power.

A good warm up program will address 3 things:

1) Tissue Quality. Knots and adhesions in muscle tissue will interfere with contractions in that muscle as well as premature fatigue. Using a foam roller or something like a Tiger Tail to address trigger points will help prepare the muscle to work more efficiently.

Do 8-10 strokes on each muscle. Areas to hit include: 

- Calves 

- Quads

- Hip Flexors

- Hamstrings

- Chest 

2) Tissue Length. Tight muscles pull joints out of alignment and interfere with balance and efficient movement. Once you've addressed the trigger points you can use static stretching to achieve better length in some key muscles. 

Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds. Areas to hit include:

- Quads

- Hip Flexors

- Chest

3) Neuromuscular Control of the Hip's ROM. Getting everything loose and fluid is the final step. Some targeted DynMo (dynamic mobility) will get your body ready to hammer right out of the gate and flow all the way down to the finish line. 

Here are is a good DynMo routine for this (do 8 reps for each movement):

- Standing T Spine Twist

- Hula Hoop Circles

- Lateral Body Bend

- Squat to Stand

- Reverse Lunge to High Knee w/ Twist

- Deep Wide Out Squats

- Tuck Jumps (right before your run to rev the nervous system)

What about doing something on my bike?

I'm not a fan of using a trainer at the top of the mountain. Since pedaling is a small part of your success and the more you pedal the tighter your hips get (which interferes with your technical skills) it makes little sense to overdue it. Plus, as a DH racer you don't want your butt even knowing a seat exists so why sit and spin, something you never want to do during a race?

I'd rather see you jump rope if you want to do something to get your legs warmed up and a sweat going. Try doing 100 double leg, 50 single leg each side, 100 alternating and 100 double leg jump ropes instead of spinning on a trainer.

You should also do a few sprints on your bike before you get on the chairlift to go up for your practice runs and final race run. These need to mimic how you ride during a DH race which means some standing sprints for 3-5 seconds. Do 2-3 sprints with full recovery between them (you should wait until you stop panting to do the next one). Remember that this is race prep so visualize yourself pedaling hard out of the gate or down the home stretch.

So how do I put this all together on race day?

You should start your day off with the foam rolling, stretching and DynMo drills. When you get to the event do your jump rope routine and 2-3 sprints on your bike. Do your 2-4 practice runs and when you're finished hit the foam roller and stretch again.

As your race time nears do the jump rope (if you've been sitting for a while and have cooled down), foam rolling, stretching and DynMO drills again. Do 2-3 sprints on your bike and then get on the lift.

At the top take stock in how you feel. I'd advise having your jump rope in case you get delayed and need to stay warm or need to burn a bit of nervous energy. It wouldn't hurt to do the stretches and the DynMo drills but if you feel "on" then chill and wait for your turn. Right before you get on the bike to line up in the gate do 5 Tuck Jumps to get fired up and then let it rip!


James Wilson is the owner MTB Strength Training Systems, the world's only company dedicated to developing strength and conditioning programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. His clients include the current US National DH Champ, Aaron Gwin. James currently owns a training facility in Grand Junction, Colorado and is the strength coach for the Yeti World Cup Team. You can find more tips and training info at his blog


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