Deliberate Practice and Mountain Biking

I’ve argued in a few places recently for the value of deliberate practice (see here, and here, and here). My argument in short is that five principles of deliberate practice can help teachers to maximize their improvement, and the synergy of the five principles together is particularly powerful. The five principles are:

  • Push beyond one’s comfort zone
  • Work toward well-defined, specific goals
  • Focus intently on practice activities
  • Receive and respond to high-quality feedback
  • Develop a mental model of expertise

I recently encountered an interesting example of deliberate practice outside of teaching that reminded me why I think these principles are worth sharing.

In December, I registered for a 100 mile mountain bike race this summer. I started mountain biking a little less than two years ago when I moved to Colorado, and I ride regularly when there’s no snow on the ground (which is only from May/June to October around here) and when I have the chance to get down to the desert during the winter. The race is in my town and starts just a few blocks from my front door. Several friends have ridden it, so there are plenty of people around who know some things about endurance racing.

If you had asked me in December how I was going to train for the race, I probably would have said that I need to go on a lot of long rides starting as soon as I can, and that I should do rides with long climbs as there are five long climbs in the race. I would characterize that perspective as naive practice — it lacks focus, and while I would definitely improve, I wouldn’t improve as quickly as with more effective practice techniques. Having done more research into training over the last few months, I have some more purposeful ideas about how I want to get better.


The goals of “go on long rides” and lots of climbing” could become much more specific. After more research, here’s a list of some things I’m working on:

  • Leg speed
  • Power while climbing
  • Aerobic capacity
  • Descending
  • Pushing my bike (everyone except Lance Armstrong ends up pushing their bike up at least one or two really tough sections)
  • Being in the saddle for 5+ hours
  • Starting in a crowd of 2000 riders
  • Climbing in a crowd of riders
  • Intervals work to improve my climbing
  • Technical climbing
  • Nutrition for a 10-11 hour race

I’m sure I could get even more specific with many of these goals, and the more specific goals I have, the more effective my practice will be.

Comfort Zone 

Connected with specific goals, I need to be willing to work on my areas of weakness and try things I haven’t before. Relative to my other goals, I have pretty decent power while climbing, but my leg speed isn’t very good. I don’t enjoy spending 15 minutes of a ride working on sustained leg speed, but that work is likely to lead to more improvement than focusing on goals that I’m more comfortable with.


Naive practice might be going for a fun 3 hour ride rambling through some of my favorite trails every day. Instead, I could do a shorter ride focused on leg speed through a few flat sections, do intervals while climbing, and work on efficient descents going downhill. The next day I can rest with a fun casual ride. Focus means quality over quantity.


I’m still a beginning rider in many ways. One area I know I need feedback on is my bike setup — I bought my bike used from a friend, and haven’t changed much of anything since then. While I don’t know enough to do this myself, with feedback from a more experienced rider I can optimize my seat, handlebars, brakes and more to my body size and riding needs. That’s just one area I can use expert feedback — I’m sure there are plenty more opportunities for feedback that I don’t know about, but that I will learn a great deal from as I seek out feedback this summer.

A Mental Model 

A mental model means having the knowledge to link deliberate practice to the goals I’m working toward. I need an accurate mental model based in exercise science of how my body responds to different workouts as I plan my training. I need to understand how my goals fit together and synergize to get me ready for race day. Without that understanding, the elements of deliberate practice can start to fall apart.

Training for a mountain bike race has some other interesting things in common with practice in teaching. Different riders will focus on different goals, just as teachers have different elements of teaching that they choose to prioritize. Feedback is tough because I can’t see how much I improve from a particular workout. In the same way, I may think students learned from a particular lesson until a few days later when I realize nothing I tried to teach has made it into students’ long term memory. It’s hard to make effective use of the principles of deliberate practice and there’s no perfect training technique.

My biggest lesson from thinking about my training has been that it is both easy and natural to fall into naive practice. For most things in life, that’s totally fine. But using the principles of deliberate practice offers an opportunity to increase the quality of practice and maximize improvement, and those techniques are often lying unused right under my nose.

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