Workouts to improve mountain-bike fitness

Simple and effective tips and tricks to get faster on your mountain bike.

Photo: Courtesy Hannah Finchamp

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One of the most basic principles of training is to mimic the demands of a race. It’s important to ask yourself: ‘What skills will I need to use on race day? How will the race be won? What challenges will I face?’ Of course, there will be similarities between each discipline, but there will be differences as well. For example, almost all cyclists need basic endurance, strength, and power. You can get by with these basic principles, but if you really want to excel and exceed, you’ll need some sport-specific training.

Also read: How to overcome the fear of crashing

Focus on terrain

As a mountain biker, you may be able to complete some workouts with your road cyclist friends. You might even do endurance rides with triathletes. There are some workouts, though, that will be unique to your specific mountain bike goals. A mountain biker’s training will take place on all different types of terrain and will incorporate all different kinds of intervals.

Every mountain biker I know does some sort of training on the road. The reason for that is simple; the road is much more controllable. The road allows for steady power output for interval sets and it allows for cadence control. Doing interval sets on the road will make you stronger because the controllable environment will allow you to hit higher power outputs and therefore challenge your muscles to a greater extent.

Training on the trails, on the other hand, allows for a mountain biker to practice his or her skills. Furthermore, trails fluctuate greatly. Turns, rocks, roots, varying gradients, and other obstacles will require you to shift, sit, stand, or increase and decrease your cadence constantly. In general, mountain biking is fairly inconsistent in power output. It requires you to change paces frequently and efficiently. The only way to truly dial in this skill is to practice it.

Road workouts for mountain bikers

As mountain bikers, we can use the road in a few different ways. We can use the road for consistent power output, but we can also use it to simulate some of the inconsistencies that we see on trails. These workouts are good for all mountain bikers but even better for those that don’t have immediate access to trails. Keep in mind that these ‘road’ workouts can be completed on the trainer as well. Here are some of my favorite types of mountain bike workouts completed on the road:

Steady intervals
Any time you are looking for maximum power output or a consistent power output, the interval should be done on the road. If you are completing intervals on the trails and looking for specific wattage, you may be selling yourself short. If you are forced to coast during an interval, even if it is just to execute a turn, then your power will decrease and you will give your body the opportunity to recover. Doing interval sets on the road means that you are able to exert your muscles and your body to the fullest extent without interruption.

Also read: Five things to make a successful race-day routine

Race simulation
Simulating a mountain bike race on the road can be really fun, and requires a little bit of creativity. You can even tailor this workout to the next racecourse that you have coming up. Create something that fluctuates frequently and has lots of high intensity. The race simulation should start very hard, just like a mountain bike race. It might level off into threshold, have a few recovery intervals simulating a descend, and of course some sharp sprints or surges replicating steep and punchy climbs. If you are simulating a specific course you’ll be racing in the future, then the training efforts should help simulate the length of each climb, the steepness of each climb, and where you hope to attack or surge.

Tempo with sprints
Consider trying a workout that maintains a very steady and uncomfortable pace for an extended amount of time (such as tempo intensity). Then throw in some surges throughout. You might begin with 30-45 minutes at tempo intensity with a 10-second out-of-the-saddle surge every 5 minutes.

Practice race-specific trail work to simulate the demands of racing. (Photo: Marcelo Rypl)

Mountain bike specific workouts on the trails

The concept of completing a mountain bike workout on the trails can be a little bit simpler than on the road. If you’re lucky enough to live in a location with a wide variety of trails to train on, then you may be able to simply use the undulations of the trails to dictate some of your workouts. If you want to take it to the next level, try some of these workout ideas.

Race segments
This workout doesn’t center around power. Instead, it centers around moving fast on the trail. Obstacles and corners look different at speed. Pick a route on the trails ahead of time, then plan some race-pace segments at set intervals. For example, every 20 minutes you might complete 5 minutes at race pace. Then, no matter where you are after 20 minutes, complete those 5 minutes fast! It doesn’t matter if it’s uphill, downhill, or undulating. You race on all types of terrains so you should get used to going fast on all types of terrain as well.

Start intervals
These intervals are excellent practice to simulate the start of a mountain bike race. This workout is best completed with a road or gravel road that empties into a singletrack. Begin on a gravel road or double track, sprint up the road, and then enter into the singletrack. The importance of these workouts is to start really hard on the gravel road. Once you are fatigued, then you’ll enter into the trail and need to navigate the terrain in a fatigued state. These intervals could last anywhere from 3-10 minutes. The portion on the gravel road should be above threshold, or at a 9:10 effort level, and then once in the singletrack trail focus on carrying momentum at more of a 7:10 intensity level.

Remember your goals

When experimenting with mountain bike workouts you should always go back to the basic principle of training for the demands of the sport. Mountain bike races traditionally start hard, level out with several attacks, and then require one to finish strong. Mountain biking as a sport requires variety and versatility so don’t be afraid to have your training be the same.

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