Making power on singletrack

Hey everyone!

So, I’ve been doing TR for a few months now…with one month off due to life, but I’m back in the saddle. I ride on a local trail about 1-3 per week. My 8 year PR stood until I started doing TR and now it has fallen 8 times in the last 3 months! I’ve knocked nearly 2 minutes off my PR from 28:42 to 26:48 (and I’ve effectively topped out my 1x10, 30t.

Tuesday I broke my PR by about 9 seconds and I would say I was pretty conscious about making powerful pedal strokes throughout the 4.5 mile loop. Sometimes I find myself looking at the terrain, thinking about gear shifts, braking point, etc. and I realize I’m soft pedalling.

Do you have any strategies for making power on your MTB rides/races? I’ve done 2 local Wednesday night series races and finished 4th and 3rd (cat 3) and honestly I didn’t think too much about making power.

I don’t have a power meter, but do have virtual power and while I know MTB doesn’t provide smooth power results, is there a way to measure the effort I’m putting in?

I guess what I’m really asking is how do you make the most out of your power out in the woods! I’m not a roadie, but it would seem to be easier to focus on making power, especially since you aren’t disrupted by standing up, pumping, cornering traction, dropper up/down, etc. (I’m not saying road cycling is easy!).

Thanks for any ideas you have!

I think your post reflects the intricacies of MTB. From a power perspective, I’d suggest that in my experience the only place to measure consistent power is long period of smoother trails, double track or climbs.

If your swooping through trees and rough ground you need to use RPE to gauge your effort as you shouldn’t/wouldnt be looking at your head unit to avoid crashing, the power as you’ve identified would be all over the place, and would be far better off learn skills to carry speed/save energy through corners and rough ground accelerating into and out of them.

I don’t use power on an MTB is maybe my instinctive answers would be bettered by someone who does, but I do race 4hr Marathons and use HR & RPE to gauge my effort levels on the bike, which for Marathons are Z3 everywhere except climbs which are threshold.

For training, its HR & RPE again, and measured long efforts are on the road / turbo.

Thanks for the thoughts!

I guess I don’t want to measure power as much as I want to figure out how to translate the power from the trainer to the trail.

I feel like I catch myself “soft” pedaling too much…

The easy answer is that you can’t.

I have PM on all my bikes and it’s impossible to gauge out on the trail. I’ll have a glance down on the computer for HR reference if I’m doing VO2max-work and after the interval I check power/NP. I usually get kind of sad when I check power-figures since they’re quite low but that’s just because of freewheeling.

Go by heartrate and RPE and don’t ease up on the pedals until you really have to, to catch your breat. That’s my only advice.

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Sounds to me like your loop doesn’t have enough climbing. Add more elevation gain until you no longer feel like you are not putting your hard-earned power to good use. :wink:

What I would not do is unnaturally force yourself to repeatedly pedal hard and break hard through sections that should probably be rowed and anti-rowed.

Watch XCO course intro videos where a pro rides a lap of the course and talks the viewers through it. Look for the places where they say it is good for passing or attacking. That is where you put the power down.

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You need to keep putting power down as much as possible. This means avoiding soft pedaling. I’ve found I do this most often on undulating sections of trail.

Example trail:
Section 1: Steeper section requiring an easier gear.
Section 2: less steep section or maybe downhill where i speed up, and “should” shift into a harder gear
Section 3: steeper section similar to #1, requiring an easier gear

I often find myself soft pedaling in section 2, because I look ahead on the trail and see section 3 coming up, so I don’t shift gears, and instead stay in the easier gear, and soft pedal or freewheel.

I’ve found I tend to PR rides/segments when I’m very diligent about shifting gears so I’m able to put power down in the Likes of section 2. This also helps smooth out my power output, and not spike too much in the likes of section 1 and 3.

So in summary, shift gears more :gear::gear::gear:

OP, I know what you are referring to. The focus changes from putting out power to everything else involved with MTB riding/racing. This loss of focus is something I battle as well. I find that it happens at various times – when I don’t eat enough, or when I am really tired (not from the race, but everything in life up to the race), or sometimes it just happens. If I am on someone’s wheel or am chasing a particular rabbit I can see ahead, I am less likely to mentally drift. If I could invent an alarm that would buzz or ring or shock me electrically when my mind wanders, I would do so much better.

When I find the drift, I take a second to talk to myself. Not always nicely, but I remind myself out loud to “get back into the race.” then I start my mantra for a while. I’ll eat and/or drink as I get going again.

When you raced and did not think about power, what DID you think about? THAT is how you keep focused and going hard.

(My biggest issue last year was when the legs got tired, my brain would say ‘Hey! We still have to run after this!’ – i was not nice in my reply.)

It’s an absolute bugger getting your power down onto the trail sometimes. I have two approaches:
(1) Sprint up to speed out of every single corner, often seated, 6 second max efforts in training repeated over and over again, is there a TR workout that represents this? It’s not energy efficient but needs must sometimes.

Second approach is far more sensible and frankly more successful. Learn to be super smooth and efficient through the singletrack. Try and minimise power output. Save your energy for the climbs and smash them hard.

If the course doesn’t have enough sections to blow your doors off then see 1.

Thanks for all the responses. I appreciate the introspection.

I think I’m a pretty good technical rider, I just need to spend a more conscious effort on making powerful strokes. I’m really good at momentum, line choice,

Before TR, I was just so tired that I really couldn’t put much more power down, but now I’m finding more speed by being able to pedal stronger.

I like the following ideas - THANKS!

  • put down power for 6 seconds or maybe 10 pedal strokes
  • try to focus, but when I drift, talk myself back into ‘race’ mode
  • shift more, probably make it a little on the tougher side to build up, or maybe stand up to get back up to speed after a corner (ie- instead of spinning at 90, shift gear to spin at 80 and stand up to get it back up to 90, thus more speed)
  • find areas where I could attack in a race to overtake someone
  • watch XCO race pro rider walkthrough

Lots of good advice. Thanks!!

Have you spent any time working on meditation? Spending time to actively recognize the phases of thought/mental state that leads to this loss of mental focus can be very useful. It has helped me in catching myself before I reached the point of losing the racing edge.

No, I haven’t. Hadn’t really thought to do that. I’m not really sure where to start or what those different phases look like…worth noting, though, thanks!

I think, part of what I’m doing is retraining myself to race vs. ride. I’ve mostly just ridden for years and years and at the end, it doesn’t really matter if I did a lap in 28:42 or 29:27…my KPI was FUN? yes/no

Now that I’m doing some racing, I’m seeing that my focus is part of the issue and I need something to help me stay focused on making strong pedal strokes throughout…

I think part of this is training me to be more conscious of that and not space out and just enjoy the ride. Hopefully that makes sense…

remember that the stopwatch is actually the truth here. If you’re putting out as much as you can WHEN you can, you’re probably doing fine. In fact, you will probably find that there are times where it feels like you’re putting out less power, whereas in fact you are going faster. Easy example is going into corners–taking a little less speed in can allow you to avoid heavy braking and actually come out of the corner with more speed rather than less. You gotta stay smooth and flow flow flow.

So, you say you are a good technical rider with line choice and whatnot. If that’s the case, and you’re soft pedaling certain sections, well, maybe there’s a good reason why you’re doing that . . .


I have a good exercise for you to try. As you go through your day try to talk to yourself and just simply state what it is that you are going to do. “I am walking over to the counter. I am pouring myself some water” At first your mind will just wander and you will stop doing it. If you continue to practice it you will become aware of when you are starting to lose focus on that narration. See how long you can keep that narration going.

This translates into MTB riding/racing in a very direct way. “Pump the back of this roller. Pedal hard after this turn. Stay off brakes until that depression.” All very active thinking that will keep you engaged in riding as effectively as possible. With daily practice of self narration you will become aware of when you are losing that edge and be able to cue yourself back into an active mindset.

Rock climbing does the same thing. Everything you do needs to be very deliberate.

When I’m descending fast, I’m in a similar kind of zone - everything deliberate.

I’m in the middle of Short Power Build and the difference in my focus after hard efforts has been dramatic.

It will help train you for those repeated high power efforts with short recoveries. Once you’ve trained for those types of efforts, you will have less cognitive load and can focus on the task at hand. Depending on your goals, consider it for your next build phase.

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All good points! I LOVE carrying speed and am typically pretty smooth cornering, etc. I’ve taken Lee McCormacks classes and well, cornering is my favorite!

I find myself catching people in the corners all the time. When the sport guys pass my in a technical/twisty section, I can stay with them until it becomes pedally. That’s why I need to focus on my power! It’s my biggest area to gain ground.

Now, my buddy owns a crossfit gym, squats like 450 and deadlifts 600. He can crush me on most climbs unless they are really technical, but I leave him at one of our courses because of the technical aspect and can carry so much more speed that he can’t stay with me…anyway, I try to stay off the brakes or compress the zone into a short, hard stop to get to just the right speed…

That’s a neat exercise, will check it out!

Interesting. I will think about that @mtbjones! Thanks!

I race Expert (Cat 1) and have a power meter on my MTB. Below is what my power numbers looked like for lap 1 (of 3 laps) for an XC race last year that I won.

These power numbers/zones are interesting to look at after the race, but I never think about power DURING a race. All I think about is racing, staying on the wheel ahead of me and being as efficient as possible. I think if you “focus on making power” during XC races your focus is in the wrong spot. Like others have said, RPE will be your best gauge and if you can finish the race and honestly say you gave everything you had. If you’re soft pedaling and don’t realize it that means you’re giving less than you’re capable of and have lost focus. I’m either tying to hold on to a wheel, leading a chase group, trying to bridge up to the next guy or looking to break away. The terrain, braking and shifting should just be background noise that briefly grabs your attention in key points and then quickly moves out of focus. I suppose if you’re racing the trail blind this could be more in the forefront, but thats why you should always pre-ride the race course when possible.

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Time for a 32, or more. More traction, more control, assuming you’re pushing an overall higher gear of course. Might help encourage you to push a taller gear and being able to push a tall gear off-road is pretty clutch.