Mountain Bike Specific Workouts

Sport Specification

Fitness is fitness, right? Ummm…well….kind of. There are certainly aspects of fitness that every cyclist needs. We all need endurance, strength, speed, power, VO2 etc. One piece of the puzzle that many people forget, however, is sport specificity. It’s important to tailor your training specifically to your discipline in order to maximize your preparedness.

That means that while you might complete many of the same workouts as your friends who race road, there should also be some workouts that look very different. A mountain biker’s training plan will take place on all types of terrain. Not only does a mountain biker need to work on skills, but they need to get used to the fluctuations of the trail. Sport specification is not designed to take away from any of the traditional work you are already doing, but rather add to it.

Photo: J Vargus

What’s the Difference?

Riding on the road allows for a fairly steady power output. Even though some roads will be rolling or have turns throughout, the ability to adhere to a specific wattage or cadence can be much simpler when riding on the road. That is one reason why many mountain bikers, myself included, complete most of their hard and focused intervals on the pavement.

Trails, on the other hand, have a tendency to fluctuate greatly. Turns, roots, gradients, rocks, and a plethora of other obstacles require you to shift, sit, stand, or increase and decrease cadence constantly. Overall, mountain biking is fairly inconsistent. It requires you to be able to change paces frequently and efficiently. That means, in order to really maximize your abilities on the mountain bike, you must train for those inconsistencies.

When Should I Do Sport Specific Training?

It’s important to lay a solid foundation before getting too creative with intervals. That means that you really should focus on ‘base training’ or aerobic training before incorporating any high intensity intervals. You can certainly do aerobic rides out on the trails and I highly recommend working on skills whenever you can, but in terms of implementing some of these very specific workouts you should wait until you are a just a couple of months away from racing.

Mountain Bike Specific Workouts on the Road

Not everyone has direct access to trails, so finding the perfect trail to complete the perfect workout can be wishful thinking. The good news is, with mountain biking in mind, we can create workouts that help to mimic the demands of the sport. Here are two types of workouts that I feel transfer really well to mountain biking.

Race Simulation:  A mtb race simulation on the road can be a blast! It just takes a little bit of thought in the manufacturing of the workout. You might even need to write down the numbers on your top tube. It really isn’t an exact science. Create something that fluctuates frequently, gets some good high intensity in, and is realistic for you. It might start with 30 seconds all out, then move straight into 5 minutes @ FTP, followed by 3 x 1 minutes @ Best Effort with 2 minutes easy, and cap it off with about 10 minutes at sweet spot. The combinations are endless. These types of ride can be really engaging mentally as well.

Tempo w/Sprints: A little bit simpler than the race simulation, this type of workout may require you to hold a somewhat uncomfortable pace (such as tempo) for anywhere from 30-90 minutes. During that tempo intensity include a hard sprint every 5 or 10 minutes throughout.

Mountain Bike Specific Workouts on the Trails

Photo: J Vargus

If you are lucky enough to live close to trails then many of your mountain bike specific workouts can simply be mountain biking. Let the trails dictate your effort or, in other words, when it’s steep push a little harder and when the trail is level and smooth, ease up. To take it up a level, here is some extra pizazz to throw into your mountain bike rides.

Race Segments: Sometimes you won’t feel how much a trail is forcing you to make adjustments until you are moving really fast. Throughout an aerobic ride, include several 5-10 minute efforts at race pace. These race pace efforts aren’t about power output, in fact, they can even be downhill. The focus is to learn where and when you can apply power on the trails to be as efficient as possible.

Start Intervals: Start intervals are great when you have short trail segments connected by gravel roads. Starting on the gravel road, sprint to the opening of the trail as if it is a race start. This start effort could last anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute, then once you hit the entrance to the trail, dial back your effort to a 7 or 8 out of 10 and imagine yourself setting the pace for the group. Hold that effort for another couple of minutes before easing up and riding smooth again. Complete anywhere from 3-6 of these intervals throughout your ride.

Have Fun With It

One of the fun things about this type of training is that it isn’t an exact science. Don’t get too calculated. The goal is to create variety and to learn to adapt to whatever the trails might throw at you. Just roll with it…


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