BURKE, VA — A few weeks ago marked a big week for world-class mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) with the arrival of World Cup Event 1 and European MTB Orienteering Championships in Poland from June 17 – 21, 2013. As the first event in the MTBO World Cup series, this season opener helped preview the teams and athletes to watch in the upcoming World MTBO Championships (WMTBOC) being held in Estonia this summer. From the field of almost two dozen countries, the teams from Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic are proving to be the power teams to beat. With both Finland and Russia wrestling for domination of the World MTBO standings in each of the four MTBO diciplines (Sprint, Middle, Long, Relay), they will most likely be the teams that take the podium in August 2013.
Analysis of the World Cup MTBO statistics over the past few years reveals that there is a good chance of the same athletes will place almost identical to their World Cup standings during the World MTBO Championships. The past and present performance of recent MTBO athletes provides an excellent leading indicator when predicting who will be the lead contenders, and who will not. As a result, the data would suggest that it is a forgone conclusion that the teams from Finland, Russia, and possibly the Czech Republic, will sweep the World MTBO Championships.
However, there is an anomaly in the elite MTBO rider trend analysis that stands out. This outlier proves that the normal distribution of athletic success within World-class MTBO is not a constant. Almost all of the data supports a normal curve upwards when tracking the career of an elite MTBO athlete from World competition entry to their hallmark year. Some start either at the bottom or middle of the ranks, only to chew through the competition year after year, earning the chance to stand on the podium after 3-5 years of consistently improved performance. But since there has only been 11 World MTBO Championships, that data anomalies are few and far between. This is why the single most important exception to the MTBO normal distribution of athletic success is the career of Australian MTBO Champion, Adrian Jackson (AUS).
Jackson hasn’t been on the world stage since 2010 (rumor has it that he left World MTBO racing due to the expense of traveling to Europe and to teach at an Australian University), but his career from 2005-2010 was an impressive display of 22 first place finishes in which he DESTROYED the European elites so badly, that they eventually removed Australia from the European MTBO Cup competition just so they could have a chance to win back their own medals (but kept Israel and Russia in). Additionally, the correlation between Jackson’s retirement from World MTBO competition, and the renewed rise of Finland and Russia in the World rankings, is also no coincidence. The Euro-Centric nature of MTBO was not prepared for the Jackson’s style of riding in which he combined intense MTB racing techniques with orienteering navigation strategies. In fact, if it was not for Jackson’s explosive entry into World MTBO competition, modern MTBO racing would not be what it is today.
Adrian Jackson’s impact on MTBO is historic, and there is no arguing with the fact that no other MTBO athlete in the history of the sport has ever accomplished what he accomplished in just five years of World-class MTBO racing. But it is in exploring HOW he so effectively dominated the European riders for so many years that we begin to understand that Jackson’s accomplishments — although impressive — are not impossible to recreate given the right physical fitness base, discipline, and dedication to the sport.
So how do we embrace the same competition strategy that proved so effective for Adrian Jackson? We do it by following the Jackson Method of MTBO riding that includes three main tenets: (1) Focus on your strengths, (2) train like you race, and (3) build on your successes. At a glance, the Jackson Method would appear to be much like other training criteria, but as you explore further, you will soon see how the Jackson Method can be applied to your own MTBO training!
Focus on Your Strengths
In any given MTBO competition, many try to do all, but few are successful. This is why the first tenet behind the Jackson Method is to focus on your MTBO riding strengths, not unlike the way runners do. In Track & Field, runners are divided into two specialize categories: sprinters and distance. There are few sprinters running marathons, just like there are few distance runners who can sprint. Sprinters are built for quick bursts of speed over short distances, while distance runners are built for endurance and a slower, methodical pace over long periods of time. When you apply this basic thinking to the Jackson Method, what you find is that Adrian Jackson was not built for Sprint-level events. It is not to say that he was not athletic enough to race a Sprint MTBO race — because he proved he could with two 1st Place finishes in World Sprint MTBO competition — but that he did not come into the sport as a sprint-distance rider. Before 2008, Jackson did not have a single Sprint Distance finish recorded during a World Ranking Event (WRE). It is not to say that Jackson didn’t compete in the Sprint Distance events during local or regional competition, but when it came to WRE, Jackson focused on Middle and Long distances.
Jackson’s MTBO career does include his late interest in racing Sprint Distance events at the World MTBO Championships after 2008. However, during each of Sprint races that Jackson place 1st in, his performance in the Middle Distance event suffered. By going all out in the Sprint, his years of embracing his strengths in endurance style riding just did not translate enough to allow his body the chance to recover fast enough for the next event. This change in Jackson’s strategy may have been an attempt expand his sweep of the competition, but may have been too much, too soon for an athlete who had built a reputation on being a powerful endurance racer.
The evidence that mixing sprint with endurance MTBO racing does not produce effective results also appeared during this year’s MTBO World Cup. The leaders of the Sprint Distance MTBO event did not fare well during the Middle Distance MTBO event either. Riders who took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place during the Sprint event, found themselves placing 6th, 11th, and 52nd place during the Middle. In fact, Jussi Laurila (FIN) almost raced his World Cup event similar to Jackson’s efforts during the World MTBO Championships in Israel in 2009. Both Jackson and Laurila placed 1st in the Sprint, but then fell behind during the Middle Distance MTBO Event. They both surged again during the Long Distance Event to take 1st place and become the overall champion, but the drop in performance during the Middle Distance event could have cost them the championship. Both athletes prove that going too fast and too hard right out of the gate has a costly impact on their physical capabilities. This is why the Jackson Method works when focusing on your strengths. Either you’re an endurance rider, or you’re a sprinter, but you are probably not both.
Train Like You Race
The Jackson Method requires a training strategy that focuses on muscle confusion based on a steady diet of local and regional all-mountain riding. Adrian Jackson did not simply walk onto the World stage without ever being in a race before. In fact, Jackson’s storied past includes numerous domestic race victories in road, enduro, and cross country events. This means Jackson didn’t just excel at MTBO overnight, he had to work his way up to an elite status through practice, cross training, and numerous race diciplines. Many believe that nothing prepares an athlete for competition other than more competition! There is just something about riding against other humans that makes us perform far above the level of effort experienced during training. As part of the Jackson Method, any perspective MTBO athlete needs to be a highly seasoned rider first. But they also need to be a highly seasoned mountain bike orienteering rider too. This requires competition, different venues, multi-day events, and a good selection of course layouts that mirror WRE courses.
The advantage Adrian Jackson had living in Australia was a well-established mountain biking community that embraced mountain bike orienteering as part of their sporting culture. This allowed Jackson to hone his MTB orienteering skills within a MTB and MTBO racing environment that supported regional and national level competition, not unlike what MTBO athletes have in Europe and Asia. The establishment of a robust MTBO community and circuit is crucial to the success of the Jackson Method. However, lacking any MTBO support, the next best thing is often endurance and adventure racing. Although most adventure races beyond 6-hours in length lack the urgency of a MTBO race, sprint level adventure races do contain a MTBO-like element that can be harnessed by a rising MTBO athlete. All the same skill sets are present provided the promoter does not place controls beyond the trail (e.g. hike-a-bike).
Many of Australia’s MTBO races are local events where MTBO athletes simply collaborate with each other and setup their own courses without the overhead of e-punches or promoters. This is why MTBO events do not need to be full-fledged races, but can be basic events in which only a handful of riders compete on courses that they setup themselves. It is surprising how easy it is to build a MTBO map using OpenCycleMap, Google Maps, or even the map provided by the park. Training events can be low budget, easy to create, and extremely effective; especially if smart phone GPS applications like Strava are used to track riders in order to gain valuable knowledge about what does and does not work. The importance of MTBO training is undeniable and proper local or regional competition is essential to making the Jackson Method successful.
Test, Evaluate, and Build on your Successes
Adrian Jackson was a powerful Middle and Long Distance MTBO racer. However, Jackson had to win at home first before he could put Australia on the MTBO map. This is why the Jackson Method promotes the idea of having local and regional race success BEFORE moving into National and World race competition. Jackson was a constant figure within the mountain bike and orienteering communities in Australia. He traveled from local events in his own backyard to regional events hundreds of miles away in order to compete with some of Australia’s best mountain bike racers. With many of the World MTBO Ranked athletes now considered elite UCI ranked athletes, Jackson had to test his mantel against the Australian MTB elite before he could consider himself ready to face the top riders within a heavily European dominated sport. The obvious outcome is that Jackson’s efforts “Down Under” proved that Australia’s cycling circuit is robust enough to be an effective gauge of competitive readiness.
Jackson’s grassroots success demonstrated to those who plan on following him need to win local, regional, and national-level competitions as a fundamental to World MTBO Championship success too. One cannot just decide to race in the World MTBO Championships one morning and expect to a champion. Just like any sport, competition does not exist in a vacuum, and athletes needs to always gauge their level of readiness against other athletes. The Jackson Method dictates that success at home is required before you ever compete on the World stage. Just like in Olympic competition, all World competitions are seen as a venue for demonstrating national pride, your countries athletic reputation, and for exhibiting the best athletes your country has to offer in the sport. Jackson did not go the World MTBO Championships just to show the Australian flag; he went there to win! And Australia did not support his efforts to see him place at the bottom of competition. This is why the Jackson Method also requires a proven system for vetting athletes before they travel to an international event. If the US Olympic Committee, USA Cycling, and even Orienteering USA (only for Foot Orienteering) requires that you to be ranked at the top of your sport to be selected, then you should be working to earn that rank before entering World-level competition.
The Jackson Method
Adrian Jackson and the Jackson Method proves that focusing on your strengths, multi- disciplined training, and success at home can translate into medals at the World MTBO Championships for five consecutive years. The Jackson Method is named in honor of Dr. Adrian Jackson (Yup! — He has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering; fast and smart), it is a competitive philosophy that can shape future MTBO athletes who dream of one day following in Jackson’s tire tracks.
Although I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Jackson, I think from what I’ve observed from his MTBO career that his method of MTBO riding is the model that should be emulated by our own American MTBO athletes. In fact, if I had it my way, I would go as far as to suggest that Orienteering USA forgo the World MTBO Championships for a while, and send future teams to the Australian MTBO Championships next year. This way we can have our MTBO athletes learn from an MTBO program that was the impetus to the Jackson Method — the most successful MTBO racing method in MTBO history!