In motocross, where the thrill of high-speed jumps captivates spectators, the spotlight rarely turns to nutrition and training. Finnish rider Pekka Nissinen unveils the hidden world of athlete development in a sport where heart rates soar.
Motocross isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when considering the importance of athlete nutrition and training. However, the intensity of motorcycle racing on dirt tracks, with its high speeds, jumps, and maneuvering through challenging terrain, requires substantial physical effort and can significantly impact a rider's heart rate.
On average, riders can experience heart rates ranging from 85-95% of their max heart rate, peaking even higher in intense situations. “This level of cardiovascular exertion is comparable to other high-intensity sports. It's a physically demanding sport, even though some think the motorbike does all the work,” laughs Pekka Nissinen, who has been competing in the Finnish championship series since 2019.
“My average heart rate during a motocross race can reach 185 bpm, but it can reach 190 bpm… it depends on the track. Our sport has developed over the last ten years, with the world’s best riders now elite-level athletes. It was once more about the rider’s skills and the bike, but today, they won't be able to consistently compete at the highest level if they're not physically fit.”
Two Distinct Motorcycling Careers
After starting to ride at the age of five, Pekka began competing at the club level just a year later. He competed actively through junior classes and rose through the Finnish championship classes until he had to take a break in 2015 to finish his education and mandatory military service.
“After resuming in 2019, I won the 2020 B-class championship, moving to A-class for the Finnish series. Since 2021, as part of the EastMX GASGAS team, I secured 10th place in the 2021 MX1 class, improved to fourth place in 2022, and maintained that position in 2023. I rode a couple of events in the European championships in 2022 and participated in one MXGP World Championship race in 2023, finishing 23rd.”
Describing himself as having had two distinct motorcycling careers, he explains that they are separated by the realization that he didn't completely understand how an athlete should train.
“I did a course called ‘From Athlete to Coach’ and began a Sports Technology Masters course, which has taught me a lot about training. The more you can train with quality, the better you will get. To be able to train a lot, you have to be smart and focus on the important things like recovery, nutrition, injury prevention, and how much, how hard, and when. The challenges are not just something you push through; it involves planning and preparation to maximize the benefits and improve you as an athlete.”
Optimal Nutrition in Motocross Racing
Motocross competition days are hectic, leaving little time for food digestion. Pekka recalls a period when he would also forget to drink enough water, leading to dehydration headaches. “Riders sweat a lot because of the riding gear and racing in the summer, so I would randomly choose sports drinks from the supermarket. When I realized the importance of nutrition, I began to develop a routine to level up competitively.”
He describes the journey as a rocky road. “I had never been that precise with nutrition before. I just ate normal food and sometimes had stomach problems. When you race, there are lots of jumps and bumps, so you need something easy to digest—you don't want to feel like you’re going to vomit. I started to test different products, learning that some don't mix well, are slow to take effect, have poor taste, lack nutritional value, or cause digestion issues.”
Pekka now uses Maurten’s gels and bars and Tailwind’s endurance fuel and recovery mix. “I’ve had no stomach problems and can feel the difference during longer training sessions. Before, I was exhausted after three hours of cycling and only drinking water. Now I am hydrating myself with something containing calories and carbs; I can go even longer than three hours.”
Now a convert, it pains him to see fellow riders drinking only water. “You're just diluting your system; everything comes out in your urine. There’s no salt, sugar, or electrolytes, and that won't help you. You need nutrition through the good ingredients in your sports drinks, or you won’t have the energy to train, give your best, and develop yourself.”
Training for Endurance and Performance
Enhancing endurance and overall performance in motocross racing requires maintaining cardiovascular fitness. The training programs are designed to improve agility and balance, preparing riders for the physical demands of the track.
“My off-the-bike training revolves around cardiovascular exercises, such as cycling, cross-country skiing, running, and weight training, especially during the off-season, when outdoor riding is limited in snow-covered Finland. During these sessions, a weekly long session is complemented by others lasting 90 minutes to two hours, focusing on building aerobic capacity.”
The training regimen adopts a structured year-round approach. The racing season ends in September and changes to primarily building aerobic capacity and strength training from October to December. This aims to prevent injuries and build maximal strength, enhancing riding economy. January sees a reduction in training volume and an increase in intensity, scaling down weight training to once a week.
“This year, we had a training camp in Latvia during March to switch to summer tires. As the riding season commences, cycling becomes the primary supporting exercise, with other activities supporting the overall training framework.”
Revving up for the International Stage
After making his debut in the European championships last year and participating in his first MXGP World Championship race this year, Pekka has seen firsthand how those competitions differ in intensity and physicality from the national races. Still, he didn’t have to adapt his current nutrition strategy.
While he is currently negotiating with the EastMX GASGAS team for the upcoming season, he is hopeful for as many international races as possible in 2024. He has his eye on a podium finish and a medal in the Finnish championship, but he must avoid further injury.
“Unfortunately, I broke my ACL on the left knee in the season's last race. My foot slipped and stubbed into the ground. It was just bad luck. I have been to rehabilitation for the knee. Everything looks pretty good so far. I have been able to do all the off-the-bike training, so it's not an issue.”
Aside from the unfortunate injury, Pekka proclaims himself to be physically fit. He is confident that dedicating more time to on-the-bike training and refining the bike to suit his riding style better will make a significant difference next season. “Just like with nutrition, it is all about fine-tuning the details to further my development.”
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