MTB sessioning: Why it's good for your practice regimen and how to do it better
Sessioning frequency poll results included
Three weeks ago, I published a poll asking y’all about the frequency of your sessioning. The results after one week:
That’s a pretty even split. I hope that after reading this, more of you partake in sessioning more often. And for those who are regulars, I hope you see more possibilities for variation.
Before the poll results became available, there was some interesting discussion, with comments by Rusty Baille, John Harris, Richard Radcliffe, and Glemak. Thanks, guys!
What is Sessioning?
When I rode mototrials, sessioning was the norm for recreational practice. We didn’t call it that, but it’s built into the sport (and, of course, for bicycle trials, too). Creating a section for others to ride involves adjusting the boundaries and other elements to find the Goldilocks zone for the class of riders who will attempt it—not too hard, not too easy. And when you practice mototrials with your buddies or yourself, you frequently do the same thing.
When I shifted from mototrials to mountain biking in 2011, I learned the word ‘sessioning’ from this 2008 post by Bike198 publisher Robb Sutton:
How To Become A Better Mountain Biker; Part 2 – Sessioning: The MTB Art of “Practice Makes Perfect.”
MTB sessioning along a trail involves multiple slower-speed attempts of a technical obstacle where a rider can safely operate without hindering others. Sessioning at a bike park involves multiple higher-speed attempts of a one-way segment. For example, along a trail, you could use one or more of these six sessioning tactics (Credit goes to Michael Houlden for suggesting some of these in a comment thread about MTB practice frequency back in August):
Ride the obstacle backward from the usual approach.
Ride it from different angles.
Reduce the starting distance of your approach (and, therefore, your momentum).
Ride it faster or slower than usual.
Use different riding techniques, such as classic and manual front-wheel lifts over a log.
Make a game of it. For example, if you’re by yourself, set a target to clean it X times in a row or X out of 5 attempts. With others? See who can get the best score for the challenge.
[NOTE: Never alter a section or obstacle to make it easier or harder without the explicit approval of those who manage the trail or bike park.]
Video Examples of Sessioning
A month ago, I posted this video to my Instagram, showing me cleaning a log skinny in both directions along a nearby MTB trail:
What the video didn’t show was me sessioning that log. I attempted it over 30 times, trying different gears, speeds, and initiation techniques (3/4 pedal stroke and manual front-wheel lifts). The fails that day were similar to the nine fails shown in this 2016 log skinny video on my fat bike:
Here’s a two-minute video of me sessioning a boulder along a trail. It shows a dozen of 25 attempts with 10 fails:
Here’s a two-minute video of me sessioning a boulder (poor technique!) using different lines over it. I kept tightening up the approach to make it more challenging:
Here’s a 45-second video of my riding buddy Patrick Mitzel and me using two different techniques for straightening our approach to get through a tight passageway between two trees. I was rocking my front wheel (AKA a rear-wheel pivot), and he was doing a rotating nose pivot.
We each failed repeatedly, and it became an undeclared game to see whose technique was more effective. We each finally cleaned it once, but Pat won on style points with an elegant rollback and track stand to follow his nose pivot:
Some people divide sessioning into two broad categories: sessioning features or sessioning skills. I can see the advantage in the simplicity of that categorization. But I’m not sure it’s helpful since every feature requires at least one skill and that skill typically has several subcomponents. Sessioning the length of a log skinny seems like a feature. But the skills required usually include some type of front wheel lift, unweighting the rear wheel, holding a line, and focusing ahead.
So I’ve identified these four sessioning categories that I think are more helpful. There may be more.
Sessioning a challenge with others along the trail or at a bike park typically emphasizes performance and fun more than learning a new skill or a chunk of a technique. The video of Pat Mitzel and me sessioning the trees above is a good example. We weren’t trying to learn something new. We each had a modest skill level at our respective techniques and wanted to apply them in a new situation framed in a bit of informal competition. Sessioning like that can provide an incentive to improve one’s technique or consistency on another day.
Sessioning a challenge alone on the trail or at a bike park is usually a type of practice where the goal is either getting more consistent (“I’ve only cleaned that log on the back loop once this year. I’m going to try it five times today.”) Or it’s learning what your level of skill is (“I’m able to consistently clean that plank skinny in my garage. I wonder if I can now clean some round log skinnies along the trail.”)
Sessioning to learn a skill, improve a chunk of a technique, or fix a problem— alone or with others—is quite different. In this situation, there’s usually some feedback involved. Capturing video and reviewing it on the spot for technique feedback can be done alone or with others. Participants can also ask one another for verbal feedback.
Sessioning alone or with others to improve how you practice. (I’ve not done this yet!) Examples could include mental and body rehearsal, gamification, setting a proficiency-based goal for the session, mindset review/adjustment before each attempt, and focusing, for example, zeroing in on where to look or what to feel.
The six tactics and four categories of sessioning should give you some ideas for how to use sessioning to improve your riding and your practicing. I’m eager for your corrections, additions, suggestions, and criticism. Comment below.
February, 2023 Update
My free MTB Sessioning Online Challenge (mini-course) is now available.
RLC Sessioning Resources
RLC founder Ryan Leech authored an article for Pinkbike last year titled, 5 Tips from Ryan Leech to Help You Practice Like a Trials Rider which included a section on sessioning.
He followed that up with a one-hour webinar and Q&A session for RLC members.
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