Mountain biking can mean different things to different people. While one person may do long rides on gravel roads and double track, another may use a chair lift to get to the top of a mountain so they can descend technical trails to the bottom. Despite these striking differences in technical and physical demands, it is intriguing how a strong rider in any off-road discipline must still have the technical skill, ride off-road frequently and work to increase their fitness to thrive in their own version of mountain biking.
DOWNHILL MOUNTAIN BIKING
These athletes ride mostly downhill because they use a chairlift to get to the top of mountains to ride technical trails back down. Dressed in clothing and protective gear that resembles dirt bike attire, and riding bikes that aren’t far off their motorized cousins, these riders specialize in going fast over technical terrain.
Holding onto the bike while pedaling maximally over any flat or short uphill sections to maximize speed takes tremendous strength and power. Spending days practicing and doing several maximal runs over the course of the day can mean long days that benefit from higher aerobic fitness so top downhillers generally mix in some aerobic training.
Sample week: 2–3 days of strength training, 2–3 days of downhill riding at a hill or shuttling a trail using a truck, 1–2 lower intensity aerobic endurance rides on a road or cross-country bike. When a lift is not available, many downhill racers use enduro bikes to pedal up and descend trails in their local area to work on fitness and specific technical skills.
This newer discipline is basically a big fun ride with a few timed segments over the course of the big day that accumulate to crown the winner. Enduro races often take 5–6 hours to complete and some races span multiple days so endurance is important. The tricky part is riders must be able to finish the long day on their bikes but also record very fast times on mostly downhill segments to win the race. A given stage could take roughly 5–10 minutes and require several maximal efforts between 10–60 seconds between very technical descents.
Sample Week: 2–3 days of strength training, long endurance rides with some road and path mixed in riding a variety of trails and including some new trails. Sprint and power work in the gym and/or on the bike should be included. Hike-a-bike workouts help become proficient with walking on steep climbs between the stages (non-timed portions of the race.) Building functional threshold power in the offseason can be an effective way to increase tolerance for volume and intensity during the race season.
These types of races are usually less than 3 hours in duration and in recent years have generally gotten shorter with most races falling between 90–120 minutes. These races require strong fitness to climb up hills and the skills to navigate technical drops, rock gardens and even jumps on bikes that are generally better suited for climbing than technical skill. These races generally are on shorter courses that can be pre-ridden so having great skills for learning a course and executing the same obstacle repeatedly at high speeds and with very high levels of fatigue is essential.
Sample Week: Skills are increasingly important for cross-country, so riders who struggle in the technical aspects should prioritize skill training at a bike park or on technical trails at least twice weekly in addition to specific off-road interval workouts and rides. Road training allows for recovery, and low-intensity endurance training 2–3 times a week is helpful depending on the time of year.
Since it’s a longer race, marathon mountain biking is generally less technical and does not allow the pre-riding of shorter cross-country races. Marathon favors riders who have strong fitness and sufficient technical skills to handle obstacles they haven’t seen before all while fatigued. Navigation and mechanical skills become much more important for marathon racers versus cross-country since the distance between feed and mechanical support is much greater, if not non-existent in the case of a self-supported event.
Sample Week: 2–4 days road bike endurance, 2–3 days of mountain biking with a lot of climbing and time on new trails working on riding new/different terrain. Beginners should spend time on skills to ensure foundations become automatic. Core and yoga can help riders avoid overuse from higher volumes and more static seated time in the saddle during hard races.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The weekly training performed for whichever mountain biking style you practice should help you become technically proficient off-road, develop your equipment set up and build your full-body strength, while providing enough aerobic endurance to make it through your goal rides and races while being quick and agile to the end. Even in extreme downhill mountain biking, there is a requisite level of fitness required for success in racing and for the enjoyment of long days of riding that makes a traditional mountain biker’s training regime relevant across disciplines.