Posted in Cycle

Chris James is the owner of Alliance mountain bike skills in the UK. With a rich background in sport and coaching, Chris brings confidence inspiring skills to get the best out of each and every rider. In this guide he talks about some of the mental skills required to tackle the trails.

Learn to focus

I think of riding as a game of chess, and in the game I play I need to be thinking one move ahead if I’m going to beat the trail and get faster or clean a technical climb.

To do this we need to practice and learn to pick out the key features that lay ahead of us, the big rock at the side of the narrow trail is less of a risk to our progress than the small wet root that threads its way off camber across the trail before it that could result in us washing out all together. The “art of focus” means that in this scenario we might see both the rock and the root at around the same time, however we only need be mindful of one of them. From our learned experience we make a near instant judgment that the gap is sizeable enough to pass without catching a pedal, we need to shift our focus away from the rock to the root and beyond. We may “notice” and even “see” the rock as we near and pass it but continuing to “focus” on it will at least mean we miss key features of the trail ahead and at worst drift towards and into the rock as we give it too much attention.

 practice and learn to pick out the key features that lay ahead of us

The root that poses the greatest “risk” should in itself shift from our focus as it enters our peripheral vision and we either “hop” over it or use it as a Launchpad to some airtime, all the while continuing with the skill of Scanning, Focusing, filtering and responding to the trail as we continue. The next time you ride, deliberately set out to filter out the parts of the trail you don’t need to focus on, notice them as you would a sound but focus only on what is ahead and beyond and don’t allow the visual noise of the trail to distract you.

Mind skills for the trail

Fear of a trail or a section can be dealt with in a similar way, the presence of fear is in itself the result of evolution, it’s what keeps us alive, so the presence of fear should only be seen as detrimental if it continually inhibits our ability to perform. There is logical fear and there is illogical. For example there is a particular rock drop I ride which I injured myself years ago, I ride bigger, more technical drops that potentially have far greater consequences attached to them, yet my mind still makes me fearful based on previous experience and negative self perception.

 Fear of a trail or a section can be dealt with in a similar way


When faced with fear try to answer it and yourself with a few questions. Have I ridden something similar before successfully? Do I have the skill-set needed to overcome this? Am I confident I can ride this if I now decide to commit to it? Answering yes to these questions, talking positively to ourselves reduces anxiety and increases confidence, relaxes us and enables us to perform.

Logical fear releases adrenaline and can increase our performance and can be wholly appropriate; “this doesn’t feel right” is often a good message that we are beyond our core competences both physically and mentally. So as for the obstacles on the trail, focus on what is to come, learn to “notice” fear and allow it to be familiar but only focus on it if necessary to prevent you from serious harm, if fear creeps in and you know it is illogical simply acknowledge it – externalize it in your mind say “oh hello, I was expecting you to show up round about now, things are normal” then move fear to the periphery of your focus and continue.

Nutrition is key

On epic rides using the above tips will enhance your ability to ride further with greater results, clear focus allows us to be less mentally fatigued which in turn hopefully leads to less physical ones. But it’s crucial to make sure that the body is correctly fuelled for the job ahead, eating a good breakfast the day of the ride and staying adequately hydrated is key to preventing what road cyclists call “bonking”. Some of us struggle to eat as we ride, but keeping on top of our nutrition and hydration should mean we don’t have to worry too much, drinking regularly every 15 minutes or so and snacking every ½ hour on pieces of energy bar and gels is a quick way of getting a hit to feed the legs.

There are various articles out there that go into great detail and you can go a long way into the subject, but ultimately if you’re feeling thirsty before a ride you really need to get some fluids on board. Looking at the colour of your urine is a good indicator, and the rule “if it looks like straw, drink more” is not a bad one, exercising or not.

Pace yourself

Pacing yourself is always a good idea, charging out when you have a long ride ahead of you is not going to help after 4 hours in the saddle and you’re low on energy. Finding a Cadence (the speed at which you spin the pedals) that is comfortable and maintainable will mean you don’t burn out, grinding a big gear might seem like a good idea but you may get there as quickly at a higher cadence in a lower gear, efficiency is key.

 Pacing yourself is always a good idea, charging out when you have a long ride ahead of you is not going to help

Being fit to ride is something we can all work on, and knowing our body and the way it handles physical stress means we can become far better riders if we become fit to ride not riding to be fit. We might also ride to race, and competition, be that the first over the hardest climb out of your group or hitting a local enduro adds a whole new element to our riding.

The power of coaching

For me coaching riders is one of the greatest privilege’s around, as a rider I also know that investing in your bike and gear is a great way of feeling and looking good. Getting some coaching is often cited as the best investment you can make. If you are going to book with a coach, do your homework read some reviews that riders have left and make sure they have a good qualification, insurance and first aid qualifications.

Above all, get yourself out, ride, enjoy yourself get out there! the trails are waiting!

About Chris James and Alliance MTB

Chris James is the owner of Alliance MTB Skills Coaching operating from Sherwood pines and the Peak District. A compulsive sports nut he holds a BSc in Physical education and sports studies, is a MIAS level 3 qualified coach. Fancy taking your riding to the next level? Get some coaching from Chris and his crew of talented coaches at Alliance MTB.