Most of us are constantly looking for ways to improve our riding skills. SO, how do you become a better rider? This question gets asked frequently. The answer is multi-faceted, of course. For starters, there’s a difference between riding a lot and practicing a lot. Riding the same trail over and over may get you into shape, but if you never challenge yourself to try what you’re afraid of, you know, those impossible looking obstacles, are you really becoming a better rider? Maybe. Maybe all you want is fitness, great. You got it. If you want to progress your riding, read on…
There are, of course, many ways you can practice and improve upon your riding skills. For Starters, you can simply ride with people who are better than you. If they are faster, trying to maintain their pace will certainly get you into cardiovascular shape. If they are the type of riders who “play” on the /trail, you’ll start to notice examples of what obstacles can be ridden, what lines to take and what speed is within reason.
You can take a skills clinic (Hint, Hint, Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge…Ninja MTB Performance comes highly recommended, by the way). This gives you a safe, positive and encouraging environment coupled with expert knowledge and lots of repetition, which is never a bad idea.
Or… D) All of the above, coupled with Session Work.
What Is Session Work?
Surely you’ve heard people say they’re going to stop and “session” something on the trail, you may have even heard Ninja reference session work before, but what is “sessioning,” really? Session work is a little like learning the lyrics to a song you just heard. You might get a few of them the first time, but then you listen to it again. You may pick out a few more lyrics the second time, but you listen again… and again and AGAIN, until you’ve memorized ALL the lyrics and can sing the song in its entirety without skipping a beat. Session work is like that, only with mountain biking.
In mountain biking, you do session work by going over a piece of terrain or a particularly tricky feature repeatedly, in order to become more familiar and proficient at negotiating it. If you’ve ever done any rock climbing, it’s akin to a bouldering problem.
Common Features To Session
Have you ever been on a trail and thought “I think I might be able to ride the first part, but I don’t know about the second”? Or “Not sure I’m going to get my 29” tires around that corner”? Maybe you’ve encountered terrain that seems too rocky, too loose, too steep, or all of the above. Well, sessioning helps you solve those problems by riding what you are able to clear first and then trying to adjust your technique to get a little bit further with every attempt.
Ahhhh switchbacks, everyone’s favorite trail feature (*likely sarcasm*). We’ve all found ourselves at a particularly tough switchback (going up or down) with a line that’s difficult to figure out. Sometimes you look at it and wonder, “which line is most efficient”? You may even wonder if one line is more fun than the other, or maybe which line is most difficult. Luckily, session work is something you can do in the moment (over and over and over) to answer those questions. Try all three! Ride the inside line, did your tire make it around the corner? No. Start over. Ride the outside line, were you able to keep both tires on the ground? Yes. See another option? Attempt to ride that one too. Next time you come to a switchback, you’ll be able to make a snap judgement of which line to take because you’ve taken them all before! End of Session.
Session work is not only something you can do on the trail, but also a good way to work on advancing your jumP skills. Go to your local bike park and pick a jump that seems “friendly.” Become BEST friends with that jump by going over it… again and again and again, until you can reliably clear it. Not every jump is perfect, that’s normal. The point is to get your body (and bike) to do what you want without having to think about it (muscle memory), and this requires repetition. Don’t have a bike park near you? Get a Portable Jump Ramp and set it up in a park or your driveway. Hit the jump, over and over and over until it becomes no big deal. That, what you did right there, will enable you to feel comfortable taking jumps ON TRAIL – no big deal. Once you’ve mastered smaller jumps, move on to higher, or longer ones and start the process all over again. Mastering every step up…one bite at a time.
Progressing on drops can also be aided by doing session work. For instance, find a small drop. Preferably one you can already do, then start riding it repeatedly and refine your technique on each pass each pass. Once you feel you’ve mastered the small drop, move to a slightly bigger drop. Repeat the same process at each level, until you increase your drop height to a point you are no longer comfortable, which, by the way is perfectly normal.
Why should I session?
Sessioning is great for learning how to overcome obstacles that are familiar so you can make quick judgements on what is best done when you encounter similar obstacles on different trails. If we’re being honest though, it’s also just fun to hit hard obstacles, overcome them and get a feeling of accomplishment when you finally ride them free and clear (or even just a little bit better). Remember: one bite at a time…
Working over a difficult feature or obstacle can be an excellent bonding experience for you and your riding friends. The brother/sister-hood of shared adversity, if you will. These are the things discussed over beers or coffees before and after rides in the future. “Remember when…” memories get you and your buddies motivated to RIDE!
Working in a group with a variety of skill levels also has advantages. The more skilled riders can give pointers or examples of good technique. Those with emerging skills can learn real time and also serve as an example to motivate newer riders. Sometimes just watching someone you consider a peer clear an obstacle is all the encouragement a rider needs to muster the confidence to try it.
ProTip: Session work is best done in small groups or pairs, this way you can look after one another. Sometimes there’s more of a risk factor, an exposed hill, a large rock, etc… When you ride with friends, you can spot for one another or help guide whoever is tackling the feature at the moment.
Ninja Wisdom: If the group is too large, it will limit the amount of time and number of repeats each person is able to practice.
How does it work? Recon, Ride, Refine, Repeat.
This depends on a few factors. Are you at a bike park or on a trail? Are you on a group ride, or riding with only one other person?
During a longer, unfamiliar ride, when you arrive at an intimidating feature, do a little recon. Walk through it, walk your bike through or over it, and look at it from several angles.
Why not just wing it? Well, imagine you roll along and all of a sudden, the trail seemingly disappears. Where has it gone? What’s on the other side of that ledge rock? Can you roll it? Is it a mandatory gap jump? Always stop and scout the line (look at it with a rider’s eye) then decide if it’s within your capability and if you want to session it. If it looks okay, ride it.
Did you make through clean, or did you have to dab a foot? Did you have to dismount? Could you have managed it better if you had gone faster, or slower? Were you in the right gear? These are the questions to address with yourself and your partner(s) and refine with each attempt. Maybe you make it this time, maybe you don’t. Repeating difficult features and problem solving builds proficiency. The point is to repeat, over and over and to have fun doing it.
Another way to session is by riding to a specific feature or piece of trail you know well, haven’t quite mastered and want to work on. The steps are the same as described before; recon, ride, refine, repeat. Enduro riders do this all the time before a race. It’s important when you’re trying to shave seconds off a run to find the most efficient path. However, the shortest distance isn’t always the fastest or most efficient. Sometimes your initial decision puts you in a different line than anticipated and you need to quickly decide to bail or continue on the “wrong line.” These problems can be worked out ahead of a ride or race by sessioning obstacles you know you might have trouble on.
ProTip: Always stop and look at a feature if you can’t see the other side and haven’t ridden the trail before.
Sessioning is great way to have fun with your friends, learn how to be a better rider, and test your skill. You may already do this without knowing the proper term. If you haven’t yet, give it a try on your next ride.