Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Difference 1 Between Downhilling and Cross Country: The Physical Side

Lift Ticket
Downhill mountain biking is a sport that is entirely different from that of cross-country mountain biking.  As I mentioned during the first post in this mini series, there are several big differences that separate the two sports. If you are thinking about transition from cross-country riding to downhilling, it would be very helpful to know these before hand. Now, I have officially been there myself, and here is the first huge difference:

The Physical Side

True downhilling is radically challenging in several areas, even for the all-mountain rider.  First, it is a very real physical challenge, even if you're an accomplished cross-country or all-mountain rider.  While there may be a little bit of an aerobic challenge due to the length of the trails, your quad muscles (which all of us who spend our days grinding up big hills have developed to ungodly sizes) get very little work.  During a 6 hour day of riding at a ski resort, I don't recall feeling any sort of fatigue in my quads.  Instead, some of my other muscle groups bore the brunt of my exercise.

The two places that I felt the most soreness were in my forearms and calves.  During repeated runs down steep, rocky trails, your forearms are bound to get a workout by constantly hauling back on the front end as you loft off of rocks and jumps, absorbing the chatter of extended root sections, and constantly working the brakes through all of the above.  By the end of the day I had a permeating soreness in my forearms that reminded me of the aftermath of a full day of rock climbing.

It's easy to see why a cross country rider's forearms wouldn't be up to the task of a long day of chairlift riding.  But why did my calves get so sore?  Simply from having to support my body weight the whole time.  As a cross-country rider or even an all mountain rider, we spend most of the time pedaling with our butts in the saddle.  It is much more efficient because we don't have to support our body weight and can focus on drawing out our energy over a longer period of time instead of going hard out of the saddle on all of the climbs.  During a long day of downhilling, on the other hand, clearance over the saddle is crucial due to the big jumps, drops, and rocks.  You need to be able to move back and forth and up and down without worrying about getting hung up on anything.  So, the saddle inevitably gets dropped almost all the way down and is there as more of a token piece of hardware than something of real use.  As a result, you are constantly supporting your weight as you jam through all of the nastiness that the ski resort may offer up.  It's a great calf workout, and one that I wasn't ready for.

In summary, prepare to get a different sort of workout, but a workout nonetheless!  It will take time to become a physically strong downhiller if you aren't used to using those muscles in such an intense way. 

Up Next:
Differences 2 and 3: The Mental Side and the Mad Skills Factor

Your turn:  Are you with me?  Do you fatigue in a similar way during intense or extended descents?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below!


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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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