Did you know braking can make you faster? Yup, dialing in your braking technique can help you ride smoother and in turn, make you faster. Hear us out – the reality is that you need to use your brakes at some point on the trail to control your speed. You simply don’t have the option to never touch your brakes. That being said, if you are going to use your brakes, you might as well use them to your advantage, right?
The Gist: You have a maximum amount of acceleration capability on any given trail (without using your brakes). If you over apply the brakes, you are stuck starting the process of acceleration (pedaling) all over again. Whereas if you use your brakes sparingly (or more efficiently) you’re able to maintain a consistent flow; utilizing less energy and creating more efficiency for your body and bike speed on the trail.
Improving your braking technique starts with a solid understanding of how your brakes work and how you are currently using them. Next time you hit the trail, try these 5 braking drills to get better acquainted with your brakes and braking habits.
Disclaimer: Proper braking is a combination of using BOTH brakes. You will rarely use just one brake. However, to get a better feel for how your front and rear brakes work, isolating the brakes independently and feeling how they work, will help you use them more effectively together. Be sure to checkout our Braking 101 article for the “What, Why and How” of proper braking. Okay, onto the drills!
1. Rear Brake Only
Get familiar and very comfortable with your rear brake (right hand). Your rear brake helps you control and maintain your speed on the trail; staying in control is a top priority!
Disclaimer: In the US, a standard bike setup has the front brake on the left and the rear brake on the right. In other parts of the world (i.e.; New Zealand, UK, Australia …) these are reversed!
If you want to slow down, or you want to maintain a consistent speed on a descent, the rear brake is there to help!
Non technical, descending
Practice slowing yourself down as you descend using ONLY your rear brake.
Notes for Success
Start by applying just a little bit of rear brake and gradually work up to more. The goal here is to control or reduce your speed without skidding your rear tire. As you practice, start increasing your speed then applying only the rear brake to see if you can come to a complete stop without skidding.
Important: Never grab the brake lever and immediately pull it all the way back to the grip. Rather, gradually squeeze the lever, or “ease the squeeze” as us Ninjas like to say. It’s also important not to ride with your rear brake completely locked out and your back tire skidding down the trail. That’s bad for the trail and bad trail etiquette!
Remember: If you are skidding, you have diminished control and longer stopping distances.
2. Front Brake Only
Get familiar and comfortable with the power of your front brake. Your front brake is your stopping power and when it comes to mountain biking, stopping is pretty darn important!
Flat terrain, non-technical
Practice coming to a complete stop using ONLY the front brake.
Notes for Success
Before jumping into this drill, you need to know that your front brake is much more powerful (when it comes to stopping) than your rear brake. This means it is EXTRA important to 1) ease the squeeze and 2) have proper body position when using your front brake.
Some riders are “afraid” of their front brake because they’ve had the unfortunate experience of going OTB or over-the-handlebars (haven’t we all?). Going OTB is NOT the result of applying your brakes, rather it is the result of your body being out of balance and your COM (center of mass) out of alignment. As you apply your front brake, you must shift your weight back and lower your heels.
Tip: If your front wheel starts to skid you will lose directional control and risk washing out. Correct this by adjusting your body position slightly back. If your rear wheel lifts or bounces down the terrain, you are too far forward. Work to find the middle ground where both tires maintain contact with the ground for ultimate traction!
Bonus: Practicing this drill will allow you to quickly feel how much more powerful your front brake is than your rear brake!
3. Speak Your Truth
Become conscious of when you are applying the brake so you can learn when you are “confidence braking”, and when the brakes are actually needed.
Descending, any type of terrain. Ideally, this drill is done on a trail section you can ride multiple times or one that you ride frequently. Repetition is the name of the game! This allows you to see the progress and gain the confidence in a controlled enviornment before you venture into the “wild”.
ProTip: This drill works really well in a bike park where you can do laps on the same trail.
Start riding down the trail, anytime you apply your brakes (front or rear), yell “BRAKE” out loud. We know it sounds silly, but a little embarrassment will help you progress faster (because you don’t want to be the one yelling all over the place). In order for this to work, you have to be completely honest and don’t cheat! If you have a friend to ride with, have them count the number of times you yell “BRAKE” and give you a total at the end.
Every time you ride that section of trail, the number of times you yell “BRAKE” (out loud or in your head) should be less and less.
Notes for Success
A lot of riders use the brake more than they actually need to and we call this “confidence braking”. When brakes are applied subconsciously and usually, more times than not, unnecessarily.
The first time you do this drill, you might notice you hit your brake 30+ times on a certain section of trail. Consider the moments when you are yelling “BRAKE” and see if there are opportunities to brake more effectively or less often.
Are you yelling “BRAKE” as you ride through a corner? If yes, try braking before the corner to set your speed and see if you can get through the corner without braking.
Are you yelling “BRAKE” as you enter a chunky rock garden? This may actually push your wheel into the rock and could compress your suspension prematurely. Consider setting your speed beforehand (keep in mind, for some technical obstacles speed is your friend). If you do find yourself needing to brake in a rock garden, be sure it is a controlled application (which will be easy after completing drill 1 and 2!)
After completing this drill a handful of times; aim to reduce the number of times you hit your brakes every time you ride.
4. Braking for Cornering
Apply proper braking techniques before the corner rather than trying to adjust your speed in the corner.
Descending flat corner works best, but just about any corner will do.
Ride the corner without touching your brakes while in the corner. This requires you to set your speed prior to the corner and you may find you need to slow down (or speed up) more than you expected.
Notes for Success
Tire traction has its limits! You want it for braking and cornering, however if you try to do both you will have split the efforts and be less effective at both tasks.
To go faster, wait to brake until right before the corner; brake then turn. The key here is to be OFF the brakes right before you turn and don’t use them in the corner.
Applying your brakes in the corner stands the bike up which makes it difficult to corner properly. Advanced cornering requires leaning the bike and bike/body separation. For this reason, getting your braking done beforehand is critical. Additionally, braking in the corner can cause you to skid or loose traction.
In order to ride the corner without applying brakes, you may need to slow down way more than you expected. That’s okay! However slow you need to go at first to have confidence in the corner, is where you should start. Overtime, and as you repeat the drill, you can slowly increase your speed. As your speed increases, be sure to focus on leaning the bike and bike/body separation.
As you practice this drill, notice if you are able to exit the corner at the same speed you entered (or possibly even faster).
5. Precision Braking / Stop on a dime
Safely and confidently stop EXACTLY when and where you want to stop.
Descending trail is ideal, but you can do this drill just about anywhere including in a grassy area, in a parking lot or on the street.
As you are descending a trail, pick an obstacle on the trail (or side of trail) that you want to stop by (rock, root, tree). Not on a trail? Put down a cone (or dog toy, or bright colored anything) to mark your stopping point. Ride towards the obstacle and practice applying your brakes and coming to a complete stop. Practice stopping at the very end, waiting to apply your brakes until you are closer to the obstacle.
Notes for Success
Seems simple enough, right? Start playing around with speed and reaction time. What happens if you are riding faster – do you need to apply your brakes sooner or later in order to stop by that obstacle? How quickly do you need to apply our brakes?
Next, wait to apply your brakes until you are closer to the obstacle – are you still able to stop in time? We run into situations like this out on the trail all the time – when we unexpectedly need to come to a QUICK stop.
ProTip: For times when you are going fast, encounter something unexpected and need to stop NOW! Initiate NEBS, the Ninja Emergency Braking System. As soon as you start to apply your brakes, add weight to the pedals; get heavy in your FEET. Then as you ease off the brakes the bike will become lighter again and you can use your momentum to carry you down the trail.
It seems counterintuitive, but braking really does help you become FASTER. Enabling you to conserve energy (and keep your form) so you’re not constantly trying to adjust slow-to-fast as you flow down the trial.
I have been riding single speed mountain bike for 6 or 7 years. Reading this I see techniques that I have figured out through necessity. I have some bad habits as well that articles like this help correct.
Great advice, tho a disclaimer maybe necessary about rear brake is on the right hand, here in the UK the brakes are the opposite, right hand is front brake. Otherwise a great article.
Hey Davy – Good point! We do point out the different brake setup in our Braking 101 Article – https://ridelikeaninja.com/2020/05/26/braking-101-the-what-why-and-how/ – but I agree it would be helpful to mention it here too! I’ll see if I can get that updated! 🙂
I’ve been told that whenever going on a decent to use both front and back brakes. I’m guessing speed is not taken into consideration in this suggestion, but I’m curious if braking with only the back brakes may cause my bike to skid.
Hi Al, Absolutely! Using only the back brake is a drill, and not for normal use on the trail. It will take a lot longer to slow or stop with only the back brake without skidding so choose a place that gives you enough room.
Practicing that modulation of the brakes to avoid skidding and still using the maximum grip available is valuable. The muscle memory built during the drills can help you slow or stop faster when trail riding because you won’t be leaving any grip unused and you will avoid sliding or skidding.
To echo what Francois said, the “rear brake only” described in this article is intended as a drill to get you familiar with your rear brake and that magic spot where your brake engages and starts to slow you down, but your rear tire still maintains traction. You are correct in that the vast majority of the time when you are descending if you want to slow down or maintain a set speed, you’ll want to use both your front and rear brake.
Great drills! These are helpful just about any stage or experience of riding!