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Emily Batty attacking a climb on a World Cup course in the Czech Republic. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.

It’s that time of year where most mountain bikers are thinking about preparing for next season’s rides instead of just the next ride. It’s easy to get couch locked when the weather’s bad, watching endless GoPro footage from last year and race highlights on YouTube, but right now is the perfect time to get ready to hit the bike when the season picks up again.

We’ve covered fitness topics on Singletracks for years, and we’re going to summarize the greatest takeaways from previous posts and consolidate them here. Look for more fitness topics in the coming weeks as well.

In this podcast from July 2017, we cover some basics about mountain bike fitness. There are some helpful tips on where to start and how to maintain your mountain bike fitness. Greg Heil, Aaron Chamberlain, and Jeff Barber discuss how to take it slow if you’ve been off the bike for a while, planning for long-term goals and races, and cross-training.

Let’s look at each topic more closely now.

Endurance

Photo: Derek Hermon

Endurance and cardiovascular capabilities are lost quickly in the off-season, and sometimes with work and life’s daily tasks, it’s challenging to build during the on-season.

Of course the best way to increase endurance is by increasing the distance of our normal rides, bit by bit. The overload principle is one of the most basic theories in fitness and says that in order to improve, we must continually make our workouts (or rides) more challenging since our bodies will adapt to our current challenges and ride intensities.

In Paxton Wiers’ story about how he trained for his first endurance mountain bike race, he used a base phase of 12 weeks to build a solid foundation of endurance, followed by a phase where he incorporated anaerobic training to build power.

Wiers incorporated probably the most practical approach to fitting more miles into his week: he started riding to work regularly, which is 17 miles away. That gave him 34 miles a day, multiplied by how many days per week he chose to ride.

In a Singletracks podcast in April of 2018, cycling coach Ben Turits shared his tips on building endurance.

In another podcast from 2016, Singletracks talked about training to improve better endurance.

Turits trains mountain bike athletes and those who want to achieve specific fitness goals. He starts by identifying the goal and working it into a training plan. Ideally, he wants the rider to be able to mimic the goal during training, but if that’s not possible, there are creative ways to accomplish training goals without riding the actual goal distance or time in training.

“As a coach, you have two dials you can turn: Intensity and volume,” says Turits in the podcast.

Mammoth 24-Hour Enduro Race, California. Photo: Mammoth Mountain.

Intensity is of course how much effort the ride or workout requires, and volume is that ride distance or total time. If your schedule doesn’t allow volume, you can up the intensity, says Turits.

Turits spoke of a client who wanted to finish the Leadville 100 in under ten hours, but only had six hours per week to train. Since they couldn’t turn up the volume they turned up the intensity. It worked and the client finished in his goal time.

This can mean instead of longer rides with less elevation gain, you could hit a few rides per week with more elevation and a shorter distance.

Or, you could session a certain hill or sustained climb for intervals, which are a recommended method for boosting endurance.

Climbing

Jeff Barber tackles a climb in Bootleg Canyon, Nevada.

Some people hate it and others thrive on it, but every mountain biker has to climb at one point or another.

Climbing ability goes hand-in-hand with endurance, though climbing also includes a technical aspect.

Either way, none of us like to be the one that the group is waiting on at the summit.

In this podcast from June of 2018, we shared our tips for better climbing.

First off, there are a few simple modifications that can be done to a mountain bike to enhance its climbing ability. By choosing a set of handlebars with a lower rise, or taking out a spacer or two under the handlebars, it will shift the rider’s weight forward for more weight on the front end of the bike.

Jeff Barber said in this podcast that weight position is one of the biggest factors for him when it comes to climbing.

“For me, getting in the right position when climbing becomes key,” he said.

Photo: Tristan Tabangay.

Barber says that it’s ideal to put your body weight where power is transferred to the ground. For climbs, that’s the back wheel. By staying seated and also adjusting your body weight forward on steep sections, it should help to keep traction on steep and loose climbs.

Red Bull commentator Rob Warner talks and practices climbing tips in this video, also.

Opening your suspension is another technical tip that can help when the climb gets bumpy and loose. Locking out suspension is a good idea on fire roads and buff climbs, but when things get a little bumpy, it’s more helpful sometimes to open the rear shock and allow the bike to contour to roots and rocks.

In this past article, a contributor gives his nine best tips for climbing as well.

Intervals (mentioned above) are also a great technique for fat burning — which can ultimately help improve climbing. Power-to-weight ratio is important when it comes to climbing ability.

“Losing weight and maintaining the same power is going to make you a much faster rider uphill,” said Aaron Chamberlain in the podcast about climbing.

Photo: Patrick Goral

Another physical tip is to keep posture in mind. By keeping a straight back with the shoulders open, the lungs will also open up more and should allow you to take in more oxygen.

Lastly, practice makes perfect. Pick a section of trail that is troublesome and session it until you have it down. If your tires are slipping, try to keep your hips lower or planted on the seat. If the front keeps coming up, lower your chest toward the handlebars. Body position can determine whether you conquer the slab or have to dab.

Strength training

Photo: Thoroughly Reviewed via Flickr.

Strength training plays a very important role behind the scenes of mountain bike fitness. By adding strength training into your routine regularly, you can become more powerful on the bike and more resilient.

One of the best benefits of strength training in relation to mountain biking is increased bone density. The anticipation of broken bones is probably not the most motivating factor for working out, but the payoff is definitely there.

Wolff’s law indicates that form follows function, but in less confusing terms and applied to the situation, it means that bone structure will follow bone function. When bones are subjected to stress, like weight lifting, or doing a pull-up or pushup, the body will respond by increasing the amount of bone tissue and density.

Your legs are also not the only busy muscles when you’re mountain biking. Your chest, shoulder, and back muscles play important roles in controlling and handling the bike on unstable descents. Similarly, the core muscles are very involved during cornering, pumping, and stabilizing your position on the bike.

James Wilson talked strength training and fitness in this recent Singletracks podcast.

Photo: Wilson Bilkovich / Flickr

“You don’t want to train muscles, you want to train movements,” says Wilson. This means that compound movements like a squat, pushup, or pull-up, which trains back, core, and bicep muscles together is going to serve your fitness better than a strict-arm bicep curl, which is really only intended to make your biceps look better instead of function better.

Becky Parker recommends cross-training in this piece. We can’t be on our bike every minute and getting into other sports can be a good way to prevent burnout or over-use injuries.

Rest and recovery

This topic can be a hard pill to swallow during the summer when it’s go time, but it’s just as important as any other element in fitness. If you’re doing two, three, or even four rides per week, your body needs a rest day.

That doesn’t mean that you’re confined to a couch. Get out for a short ride to the coffee shop, or a stretching or yoga session, or a light workout to get the blood flowing again. The effort on an active rest day should focus on movement though, not pushing your limits.

One of the best ways to kickstart recovery is by myofascial release, otherwise known as foam rolling. If you’re not used to foam rolling, then you’ll probably grimace with pain at first when you put all of your weight on one muscle and roll it out with a piece of foam. But the results are worth it.

In this post by evo.com, you can learn the benefits of foam rolling and how to do it. Foam rolling can push lactic acid out of the muscles and loosen tight fascia that cover the muscle. By loosening the fascia, it can help loosen tight muscles and relieve imbalances. There are also helpful tips for hip, hamstring, and forearm recovery in this post.

Yoga and proper stretching can help reset your body and make you a better mountain biker too. Unfortunately, the position our bodies are in on a mountain bike are similar to the positions that they’re in sitting at a desk, and there are a lot of negatives to sitting down.

Our chest and abdomen muscles can become tight, along with the hamstrings and other core muscles that may develop imbalances and lead to injury or pain in joints.

In this post from 2015, Helena Kotala shows eight different yoga poses that can help us mitigate imbalances, short muscles, and pain.

In this podcast, we talk about the frustrating topic of mountain bike injury and recovery. It’s something that we’ll all face sooner or later, given enough time participating in the sport. It’s important to remember to ease back into it, start small, and set realistic expectations.

In this post, AJ Heil shared five tips that helped him recover after a major injury. For Heil, the healing time was a chance to catch up on old or less frequent hobbies, plan more mountain bike adventures for the future, enhance his self-care, and stay positive.

Nutrition

In this article, Cianna Swanson shared her strategies for nutrition for an endurance race. This involves properly fueling the body with the right nutrients.

Swanson relies on carbs primarily for endurance racing, because our bodies can burn carbohydrates easier than fats and proteins. It’s still important though to take in enough of the latter two nutrients since your body will metabolize different macronutrients at different exercise intensities.

Coach Turits also shared a few nutrition tips in the podcast mentioned above.

“You need to be eating every 30-45 minutes during an endurance race.” The same can also be said for cross-country rides with a constant work pace in order to avoid a blood sugar crash.

Hydration is of course also important since we’re all sweating when we ride. With sweat loss, comes sodium loss as well, and riders should be taking in sodium as part of their nutrition to avoid cramping.

How to make it happen

While it’s not the answer a lot of us want to hear, hiring someone to assist with goal setting and progress might be what we need to hit the mark.

“A lot of people don’t know what they’re paying for when they’re buying a cycling coach,” said Turits about his role as a mountain bike coach. “Really what you pay for when you get a coach is somebody who is building a relationship and providing an objective point of view. I help organize people’s lives so that training fits in there.”

Jake Carsten, mtb coach, with student

Coach Jake Carsten helping a student understand techniques.

A coach can help set and narrow goals, devise a plan, and hold a rider accountable so they can focus on exactly what they need without any of the extra stuff.

If you can’t afford a coach, the next best thing is to find someone to ride with that is faster than you. Riding with others that are faster up or downhill will usually provide a greater incentive to ride to your full potential and not slack on the climbs or push your limits on descents.

As Paxton Wiers stated above, another way to fit more riding in is by making it a practical portion in our lives. By ditching the car and opting for a bike when it’s possible, we can build endurance, save time during the week, and be a little happier and healthier during the process.

One more way to dedicate more time to fitness is by cross-training. A lot of us that live in mountain states probably already do this come winter time when we strap on a board or skis. Although the benefits aren’t very direct, it’s another way to get exercise outside when the conditions aren’t right for mountain biking.

Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool

Another way to cross-train when the trails are snowy is by picking up a road bike, since any bike is better than no bike. The benefits are much more direct and the muscle groups, at least while climbing, are very similar. Road biking is also another way to improve endurance since you can stay in a climbing zone longer than you often can on a mountain bike.

Training tools

Imported routes created in Strava.

Training tools aren’t an absolute necessity for improving your MTB fitness, but they can help with positive reinforcement and tracking actual progress.

A heart rate monitor can help you stay in the optimal cadence and intensity. Crank-based power meters can also help you dial in a pace and intensity, and even a freebie like Strava can at least help you stay on top of your ride distances.

In this video, GMBN talks about heart rate monitors and how to use them

In this video, Colton Lock goes over two popular heart rate monitors, the Wahoo Tickr and the Garmin Premium Soft Strap.

Crank-based power meters are another way to get accurate power data. Quark, Stages, and Race Face all make power meters. In this review, Aaron tests a power meter by Rotor. He connected it to his Garmin to get real time data when he went on several big rides.

Rotor INpower REX 1.1 cranks (photo: Aaron Chamberlain)

Although data can be a great tool, be wary of its pitfalls, says Ben Turits.

“Data is great for focused workouts and for holding people accountable to what they’re doing, but sometimes it can be a rabbit hole.”

Strava is free on any smartphone, and we all know what it does. It can be a useful app to record ride distances and estimate power and calories, but the data there is often just an estimate. Don’t get lost in the rabbit hole of comparing yourself to others, either, since your body is different than everyone else’s.

Start sweating

There’s a lot of information in here. Remember to start small, set achievable goals, and keep going. With a little time, perseverance, and sweat, you can make it happen.

Your turn: Which mountain bike fitness topics would you like Singletracks to address? What are your fitness and endurance questions?

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# Comments

  • Ken Harris

    Matt,

    Thanks for the great article. I was just thinking the other day. I’ve worked hard this year to lose weight, build endurance, and re-engage in my love of cycling (trail, MTB, gravel). Now the hours of light are diminishing, and with my work schedule my “middle of the week” ride is all but gone. So I am looking for ways to not lose ground in the winter.

    So, I’d like to see some focus on “off the bike” ways to maintain your cycling fitness. The tips above were a great start, but I thing each one of those topics could be a complete series (and yes, some of them already are).

    Thanks again,

    Ken

    • Matt Miller

      Ken, you’re right about that one. We covered a lot of topics, just a little. We have a few other fitness articles planned for the coming new year, so we will dive into a few things more specifically.

  • Taylor Atchley

    Great article, Matt. I really liked the recent podcast with James Wilson.

    I’ve been logging a lot of hours on the trainer the past 3 months. I’m going to take a break from that and focus on practicing skills (trackstands, manuals) and strength training. Does anyone have any tips on how long to rotate other types of training into your routine? For example, I’m thinking 3 months of riding (trainer or on the trails/road w/ rest weeks built in), 2 weeks of other training.

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks, Taylor. James had some great points on that podcast. Hmmm, not sure on the training rotation, but maybe we can dig into that. I think the winter is a great time to mix in a lot of different types of training, since you don’t necessarily need to be in peak endurance shape for a while.

  • Brian Gerow

    This is a sweet resource, Matt. Nice work!

    I would love to learn more about nutrition. I feel like I am often eating sugar to keep from bonking, or I preload too much and can’t work as hard as I want to early in a ride. Likely there is a better middle ground?

    I would also love to read more information about rebuilding strength and fitness after an injury. I broke my shoulder a year ago and would have appreciated some solid resources to help build a re-training plan.

  • turn1113

    One thing I’ve always been disappointed with in these articles, is that they always mention cross training but keep the description so general that it’s hard to get any actual advice from them. I’d love to see a few weeks worth of exercises. Give out a beginners guide to the what and the why of each movement. I hope I’m not going to sound like I’m being greedy, but it’s hard to commit to a program, Bike James, Fit4Racing, etc. without really seeing what they have to offer or why.

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks for the comment, turn1113. I understand where you’re coming from. We do have some more specific strength and fitness articles planned, that aren’t as general, coming soon, and maybe we can incorporate some sort of beginning-phase workout as well.

      Bike James and actually most fitness coaches and trainers will offer sample programs. (https://www.bikejames.com/products/) check out the tab on the right labeled Free Stuff.

      Any decent coach should have a sample to at least get you intrigued in their program, but a sample workout will also differ greatly from a personalized plan. I’d recommend shooting an email to whomever if you don’t see one and bet that 9/10 times, they’d let you in on a little bit of the training.

  • Lisa E.

    Lots of ideas here, and that’s pretty cool. But…

    RE cross-training: author states “Another way to cross-train when the trails are snowy is by picking up a road bike.” Well, when the trails are snowy, pretty good chance the roads are going to be worse. Snow, salt, slush… and he wants us to ride a skinny tire bike in that mess? No thanks.

    RE a coach: author states “If you can’t afford a coach, the next best thing is to find someone to ride with that is faster than you.” Aren’t we getting away from that thinking? Expecting someone without the skills to keep up with a faster person/group is pretty much asking for trouble.

    Just a couple thoughts that made me stop and scratch my head.

    • Matt Miller

      Hi Lisa, thanks for the comments!

      My reasoning behind those statements is – Where I’m at in Colorado, and other places as well, the roads dry much quicker than the trails do. Snow usually packs on from November to April on MTB trails in mountainous state, with shade from trees blocking the sun, and the angle of the sun in winter. It snowed here on Saturday, and has been in the 40s and 50s since. The roads are pretty much clear, and the bike paths definitely are, making it opportune for some road miles. I’m sure this isn’t only specific to Colorado.

      I also think no matter what, riding with people that are faster than you are is a great way to progress. I agree there is a risk that goes along with this, but folks should still ride within their own reasonable limitations. There are probably jumps you wouldn’t want to make in categories either. I wouldn’t regularly ride with people who are pro level fast, but maybe someone who has definitely been riding longer than me and is more skilled is someone who is going to be good to learn from and isn’t going to charge you for it.

      Have a great week!

    • Brian Gerow

      I find it helpful to train with my mountain bike on the road when it’s really cold. If I drop the tire pressure to 18-20psi (1.2-1.4 bar) I can get a solid workout in while moving relatively slow, drastically cutting the windchill of road riding.

      In northern Italy, where i live, road training on mountain bikes is quite common, as a lot of folks only own one bike.

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