Sports Training 101: Mountain Biking

In this article, I am going to disginguish the different types of mountain bikers. Once we have that cleared up, we will take a look at some training.

Welcome to the first installment of our newest feature, Sports Training 101. In it we bring you insights and suggestions geared toward tailoring a program to a specific sport or activity. We hope that our readers, especially the trainers, find it to be a valuable reference when constructing a program for a sport you are not intimately familiar with (yet). We're going to kick this feature off with one of the most popular and fastest growing sports, mountain biking.

For those of you who bike, we shine some light on how to integrate your strength training and riding programs. For those who haven't tried this sport yet - what are you waiting for? Hopefully this article will motivate you to get out and see some countryside. Either way, enjoy this first edition of Sports Training 101 and look for future installments ...

The sport of mountain biking is many things. It is an adrenaline-charged buzz in your ears as you pull off that miraculous save from impending doom. It is a fully recognized Olympic sport and a grass-roots environmental awareness program. It is the serene beauty of a spectacular sunset from atop a glorious vista. It is the thrill of arcing perfect turns through an ancient forest in the rain. It is equal parts cardiovascular demand, muscular strength, meditation and exhilaration!

The Types Of Mountain Biking

In general, mountain biking is divided into either cross-country or downhill categories. Cross-country is the most typical form of mountain biking. It usually involves riding a set trail with varied terrain that is either point to point or a loop. Timeframes for competition can vary from 30 minutes (beginner cross-country) to over 3 hours (Expert, Pro and Semi-Pro Cross country).

Downhill, on the other hand, is solely focused on descending trails as fast as possible. Where cross-country rides can last anywhere from 1-6 hours or more, downhill is usually on the order of 5-10 minutes. A 45-minute plunge is considered a true luxury. Downhill competition is normally divided into categories based not on event length but on technical demands. Typically a beginner course will include wide open fire roads and some singletrack with obstacles of appropriate difficulty (small rocks, tree roots).

Professional courses are far more extreme and can include rock gardens, 2-5 foot drop offs, and multiple steep pitches (45-plus degree) of gnarly rock and root strewn nastiness that is difficult to walk much less race down at full speed. Fortunately for the recreational rider mountain bike trails are often categorized by difficulty in much the same way as ski trails (blue = intermediate, black = expert).

For the purpose of this article I must first make a distinction between the recreational rider and the hardcore, competitive rider. A recreational rider is classified as someone who rides 1-3 times per week at moderate intensity and without the goal of high-level competitive results. Competitive riders are classified as individuals pursuing a racing schedule and seeking to maximize their physiological development to push their competitive level to its highest. Now that we have that cleared up let's take a look at some training suggestions for mountain bikers of all levels.

The Importance Of Weight Training

The differences in style, technique and substance between downhill (DH) and cross-country (XC) means that each puts unique demands on the physiological systems of the body. In recent years the value of weight training for cycling has become more clearly accepted and is advocated by nearly every coach and physiologist in the business. The gains in muscle endurance, strength and flexibility associated with lifting are numerous and extremely beneficial.

Upper Body

Upper body work is often neglected by aspiring cyclists. "Why bother? I only use my legs for riding," is a common axiom of the rookie cyclist. Upper body strength is particularly important in mountain biking. Arms and shoulders are repeatedly jarred and twisted while negotiating obstacles and must have the requisite strength and endurance to avoid making costly mistakes.

This is especially true late in a ride or race when fatigue plays an expanded role in decision making. Additionally core body strength (pectorals, back and obliques) is vitally necessary to move the bike and rider during all phases of cycling. Specific exercises to improve as a cyclist include shoulder work (including rotator & flexibility),arms (bi/tri for strength and endurance), chest, abs, and low back (balance and endurance).

Lower Body

Quadriceps immense and chiseled. Hamstrings taut with tension. Calves shaped by long hour in the saddle. These are the tools of the cyclist. Every rider, no matter their age or ability, must rely on the legs to create the force that turns the pedals that spin the gear that push you down the road. The best way to develop cyclists' legs is to ride. Riding is your best form of muscular conditioning but other things help as well.

Squats, with excellent form and attention to the intensity/duration relationship, help develop the core of strength necessary to be a successful cyclist. Hip sled, lunges and any other multi-joint exercises are also strongly recommended, as long as form is maintained throughout. Isolation exercises like extensions and curls are useful for fine tuning strength and endurance but should not be mainstays of a lifting program.

You can do effective strength work on the bike. In general this involves riding a big gear (hard to pedal) at very low RPM (50-60 RPM) for short periods of time (3-7 minutes). This simulates many of the above mentioned strength training exercises but should not be used as a replacement for lifting.

Deciding when to lift is as important as what to lift is. For recreational riders strength training can be included as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Many riders will follow a 3-to-4 day per week cycle of whole body conditioning. This allows them to balance the demands of a lifting and cycling program throughout the year.

Cardiovascular Training

While strength-training can make a huge impact a bikers' performance, traditional cardiovascular training still forms the crux of any cycling program and represents the cyclists' most important physiological element. Before we touch on this subject further let's take a look at the differences between cardiovascular conditioning for cross country riders and downhillers. In the world of endurance athletics, cycling ranks second only to cross-country skiing in terms of cardiovascular demand. The multiple hours spent riding at high heart rates and lactic acid concentrations in cross-country demand a highly refined system. Successful cross-country racers have high VO2 max values, lactate threshold values and excellent recovery.

By contrast, downhill events typically last between 4-and-7 minutes and require more explosive power and focused concentration while still demanding excellent recovery and base fitness. Downhillers will often talk about not wanting to do long rides for training because they only race for 5 minutes. This is a critical mistake. If you do not establish a base of cardiovascular fitness then the gains you see in high level tolerance will not be nearly as complete as with a well-rounded program. Today's Downhill World Cup competitors are all in excellent cardiovascular health and many of them compete in cross country events as a way to improve their fitness.

It should also be noted that both cross-country and downhill mountain bike competitors make use of road bikes for a majority of their endurance training. Road riding allows for better control of workout variables and is not as physically taxing on the joints and musculature of the body. This means you get more out of your workouts while saving the real abuse of mountain biking for events or specific workouts.

The best way to approach training a prospective or current cyclist is through a modification of the progressive overload system you use in strength training. In cardiovascular terms this is also referred to as periodization. Basically it involves gradually increasing both duration and intensity of workload over a period of time, recovering for 4-7 days and starting over with a new program. Periodization specifically means planning each week's riding (micro-cycle) and combining weeks to form a macro-cycle (4-8 weeks in duration) depending on history, goals and current fitness. Macro-cycles become gradually harder as the racing season approaches. Once in season the athlete reverts to more of a maintenance phase with racing making up the core of harder efforts.

Over the last 10 years heart rate based training has been considered the forefront of cardiovascular conditioning. Calculations based on max heart rate (MHR) were used to measure effort and, as theory advanced, to approximate lactate threshold concentrations. Today's cyclist is much better served by working with power (watts). While heart rate provides an excellent tool for assessing recovery and identifying potential over-training problems it comes up a bit short with regard to athletic performance.

By contrast, power is an easily quantifiable measure of effort. The beauty of the watts system is that it allows for replication of workouts and direct comparison of effort across time. For example, if a rider gives an all out effort on a 2-minute hill interval it may require 400 watts the first time. However, as their conditioning increases maybe that same rider is able to generate 430 watts on a subsequent retest and, not coincidentally, decrease their overall time for the event. Having said that, let me qualify that watts-based training is difficult to quantify without appropriate equipment. Currently there are several options for the athlete or coach to choose. SRM and PowerTap have equipment that measures output through a customized rear hub assembly.


Early training should focus on base fitness and technique development. Young and inexperienced riders must develop the requisite skill set before true high level performance can be achieved. These skills are developed on the bike and involve hours of riding and technique refinement. These rides should start conservatively in both duration and intensity. Generally it is recommended that a cyclist not do any terribly long or highly intense riding efforts for the first 4-6 weeks of training. This allows the body to adapt to the demands of a riding regimen before being subjected to higher stresses.

Once base is established, riders must turn their focus to intensity. Short forays into higher intensity zones (either HR or Watts based) should be heavily structured upon the intensity/duration relationship. The higher the intensity the lower the duration. Often times coaches will utilize the Borg rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale with inexperienced to help gauge effort and to increase the cyclists own body awareness. A modified Borg scale is also employed to simplify the process (usually a 1-10 rating, 10 being maximal effort).

Pedal speed is another consideration in training. A good rule of thumb is a cadence of 90 rpm at any given time. Efforts at higher and lower rpm are also good for developing a rider's overall strength but the wise coach is aware of the biomechanical limitations faced by the younger rider who has yet to complete their growth and development.


Early training should follow the guidelines of the cross-country program. It is important for downhillers to develop their base and technique before attempting specific protocols to improve lactate profiles, power and strength. Once a base line is established DH'ers can begin to do more interval work to simulate race intensities. The same intensity/duration relationship should be used.

Initial interval formats should be of lower intensity and duration to allow the body to develop gradually. It is easy to become over-trained and lose all the gains made to date. Of equal importance for the DH competitor is development of technique.

The concentration and split-second decision-making skills of downhill are only honed through experience. It is recommended that aspiring downhillers find an appropriate area to practice (not the local multi-use trail!). Often State Recreational Vehicle areas will have either specific trails dedicated to bikes or have numerous one-way trails that can provide safe passage. If you have access to the land, take the time to build your own downhill course. You'll enjoy the experience and will gain valuable bike handling skills that will give you a competitive advantage.


It should be cautioned that racers, recreational riders and their trainers recognize the value of rest and recovery periods. Be aware of how you feel day today and don't feel obligated to "push the envelope" during every gym session or every ride. Though you may be more interested in the physiology and biomechanics of this most eclectic of sports, never forget the beauty and inherent connection with nature that is what truly draws people into the sport. And once they're in, they're sure to be hooked!