The Body of a Downhill Racer

Life plans and goal plans.

Alan Milway is the trainer behind Manon Carpenter and Brendan Fairclough

Dirt: Life plan versus goal driven plans, there’s a big difference?

Milway: Yeah, there is a big difference. Quite often the very top athletes are completely goal driven – at the expense of a more rounded or longer term life plan; such as family life, and doing ‘normal’ things or doing things for other people – it is simply a ‘compromise’ for them. They are single minded with the sole focus on winning races.

However, with good structure and support, riding and racing at the highest level can fit with non-racing plans and you can still perform at the highest level. Manon’s degree studies are a good example, or riders getting married and having families; such as Steve Peat.

Montainbiker or athlete? 

I coach the athlete as they stand in front of me first – it is common for the individual to have weaknesses, deficiencies or limitations. Deal with these first and you will have a healthier, more robust and less injury prone individual. Individual specific, then sports specific is my ethos. However, it’s a balance.

Downhill body or enduro body?

Downhill body for a downhiller, enduro body for an enduro rider! Mark Scott is a good example; since working together he is now 7-8kg lighter than he was as a downhiller, incredible aerobic capacity, but also very good power to weight ratio. This is due to the specific training for his discipline, it shapes him that way really.

Is any kind of fitness training better than none?

Fitness is being physically prepared for the specific demands of your environment. So for a downhiller doing lots of downhill riding, some motocross and maybe some BMX may not be seen as fitness training but it is preparing them for the demands of their sport to a good degree.

I have seen numerous people who have added poorly chosen exercises on top of this and it hasn’t made them any more prepared for their sport…so they’d have been better off without. Be healthy, prepared for the demands of the sport, and stronger – don’t just try and be ‘fit’ blindly.

Do you see different riders holding a specific shape on their runs that might have a negative impact on performance?

If we consider performance as maximising the potential of the run and the fastest potential run, then yes you see it quite often and for various reasons. As a rider fatigues they often creep back on the bike and can’t keep their position which has a very negative effect on technique.

Injuries or weaknesses can also play a part- last season Gee had a shoulder injury from his crash at Fort William and it affected his ability to keep his elbow up when riding, and specifically cornering. We could train him for strength in certain positons but not in the riding position due to pain and you could see his elbow dropping as he got tired and the pain took over. This massively affected his cornering and performance.

Some riders confuse strength and conditioning with incorrect bike size and set up. How do you overcome this and identify the root causes?

Bike size and set up is so important for technique on the track, and letting them ride hard and not fatigue prematurely.

At Fox testing recently Brendan did a run on a fork that was on an old, inappropriate setting and his arms tired quickly. With a change in set up he could suddenly push hard all the way down the track with much less fatigue and his feedback on his conditioning was completely different. If he wasn’t clear on the set-up issues I could easily have had a conversation where he felt his upper body was fatiguing or he was lacking strength, where in fact it was in the bike set up.

It’s a jigsaw and all parts need to work well together and I try to understand the rider, bike and track so I can help solve the puzzle.

You can be the most prepared rider on the planet but if you cannot formulate a strategy for your run then it counts for nothing right?

The world’s top racers are the ones who are mentally the strongest. They can sensibly plan practice, have a clear goal for the time leading up to their race run, and then execute their plan to perfection on that one run that counts.

Don’t forget that – a dozen runs back to back over a weekend, people filming, cameras, social media etc, but the only run anyone really cares about is the last run you do down the hill.

Greg Minnaar is the best example of this in my opinion. I love the way he breaks down the track, methodically works on each section and then builds up to speed. There are too many people who want to go fast on run one or two and end up crashing out or confusing themselves as they can’t link everything together and don’t know why.

“Be healthy, prepared for the demands of the sport, and stronger – don’t just try and be ‘fit’ blindly.”

How does a rider know how to (in mtb’s favourite lingo) ‘optimize’ their runs?

I think it is understanding where the limit is. Where is the edge of grip, can you push to that edge but not over it. Where can you find an advantage – a line, a section to pedal, a gap to jump, speed to carry. And on the flip side, where to conserve energy or tuck and then link it all together.

Different tracks demand different types of fitness?

I’d say yes and no. I have been through all the tracks and logged all the winning race run times, max speeds, average speeds, power crank data I have, heart rate data I have and then tried to draw out similarities and differences between them to help with training.

Some tracks lend themselves to certain riders – and this may be down to their physical or technical qualities. However just because a track doesn’t have any pedalling in it doesn’t mean it is suited to a more skilled/ less fit rider. Ultimately fatigue impairs focus, slows reaction to a situation and affects technique. If I can let the rider perform to their maximum technically then this is a big advantage – I’m not just here for the pedally tracks.

How often do you see risk overcoming strength?

I think you need strength to take on risk regularly. It is an insurance policy as much as anything. Gee is so strong and robust he can attack a section with so much confidence. He will maintain position, make the bike do the work and you see this in his line choice and riding. Watch a weaker rider do the same line and if they are not absolutely perfect it goes wrong fast.


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