MTB: how to recover on the DH sections?

My “A” race this year is a 6 day MTB stage race (, about 2.5 hours per day. I’m looking for some advice on how to recover on the down hill sections. I’m guessing @ryan has some ideas. I find my heart rate is in the “tempo” zone on the DH, and I don’t feel like I recover much before the next climb. I enjoy the DH sections, and can often gain time on my competitors. But I find it tiring riding hard down hill, out of the saddle, like doing wall squats on the legs, accelerating out of the corners. I don’t want to give up my advantage on the down hill legs by riding passively. I do regular core, upper body, and leg strength work so I don’t feel deficient in those areas. Any tips to conserve energy?

Hey @robertehall1, thanks for the tag. Yes, definitely have some thoughts on this one.

Downhill sections in long MTB races are great for maintaining gaps or putting time into people if you’re a strong descender. I try to think about the course and just how much recovery I need, and am able to get on any given descent, for the next climb or section of the race. That’s the balance, right? Figuring out how to maximize your output across the entire segment or day of the race without digging too deep into those precious reserves. A few things I think about on descents in races:

  1. How can I manage my nutrition while descending? Is it a Leadville-type of descent where I expect to be riding on relatively less challenging terrain / open dirt roads / etc. and can shovel fuel into my mouth and actually use it as a fueling opportunity? Or is it more of a short, punchy type of course where you gain and lose maybe only 200-250 feet at any given moment and descents are more focused on maintaining momentum and fueling is done on the climbs and flatter segments. The answer to this question will drive my approach to how aggressively, or not, I approach descents.

  2. Have you trained your “smooth is fast, and fast is smooth” approach? I’m not the fastest descender and am more middle of the road in terms of climbing/descending capabilities, so have to strike a balance. So one workout I’ll do is to head over to a great set of trails in Erie, CO (Erie Singletrack) where there’s one line up the middle and then about 3 different options for the descent (green, blue, and black options).
    I’ll do zone 5 efforts up the main climb (6-8 repetitions at ~2 minutes each) and come into the start of the descents with HR pegged and the focus on being smooth to gain recovery while minimizing speed loss on the way down. Then it’s right back into the climb. This is a great way to work on your technique to conserve energy on descents while managing your momentum, essentially going as fast as possible while still recovering.

  3. It sounds like in some of the descents, you’re attacking a bit out of the corners and doing a lot of absorption with the lower body. Depending on the terrain and how hard you might be pushing on the pedals during the descent, you might find that you can ease up just a bit. I find that if I can take micro-breaks during descents it can really help. So if you have a less technical section within a longer, technical descent, you might be able to take micro-breaks whenever the terrain eases up. So that would mean you stand up a bit on the pedals, extending the legs, and give the suspension the bulk of the duty or just grab a quick seat and completely rest the legs. On smooth terrain I find this very helpful to build these breaks in.

  4. Breathing - what is your approach to breathing when recovering? That’s a time where you can really focus on maximizing air intake and slowing expiration, which of course helps to drop HR via the vagal nerve. I find this helpful both physiologically in the HR response, and mentally in terms of just feeling more relaxed. It also allows me to sometimes relax to a degree that I can take a quick moment to look around and enjoy the scenery, which again helps on the mental side to feel a bit refreshed without losing a significant amount of DH speed.

One question that comes up is how much time you’re gaining on your competitors and if that advantage comes at any expense to your overall finish time? Depending on the course again, there may be more of an advantage to be gained by descending aggressively, hoping your competition tries to follow and gets more fatigued than you. That way you can open up the gap and maintain it. In my experience, I find that if the descending speed comes at any expense to my sustainable power/effort, then I’ll ease up a bit.
On the other hand, if the course favors the climbs, then it’s definitely a better option to conserve energy to a degree on the descents simply because they won’t have as large of an effect on the overall outcome of the event.

Ultimately I look at it as: if this is an endurance event, skew toward the side of supporting sustainable power/durability/repeatability. If it’s an enduro or DH event, or short enough that you can dig into those reserves without having to worry much about 90 minutes or 2 hours later, then it’s worth letting loose and attacking the descents to maximize the time put into competitors.

Great topic, thanks for posting!
Coach Ryan

Great tips thanks. I like the idea of practicing smooth decents right after a hard climb. I’ve got some local trails that will be perfect for practicing that. I agree that some brief sitting will help. I hadn’t thought about the breathing focus on DH…will give that a try.

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