If you’re a mountain biker, you likely got into the sport to enjoy time on trails, out in nature and off the road. Mountain biking is meant to be free and adventurous, not data-driven, and restrictive. When it comes to doing intervals on the trail, it can be tricky. Off-road terrain is so variable it can be hard to execute the same workouts you read about or see your road-cycling friends doing.
Doing serious workouts was likely the last thing on your mind. But it is possible to do fun (and structured) workouts on the mountain bike to get fitter, stronger and ultimately, enjoy your ride even more.
With these five simple workouts, you can add variety and a daily goal to your mountain biking without feeling like the fun has been sucked out of your rides and replaced by a never-ending list of reps, sets, and wattages:
TRY A FARTLEK
Fartlek, or speed-play, is an old-school Swedish workout style often done by runners and is the simplest workout to incorporate into your mountain bike training. Simply ride harder than you typically would when you feel like it or at a certain point in the trail — i.e., sprint from one big tree to the next. It’s meant to be free-form to allow a motivated athlete to push their limits while recovering as they need, rather than rigidly prescribing timed durations that may not be optimal for that athlete or that day.
On hilly terrain, you might go hard on most uphills and relax on the downhills and flats. On flatter terrain, you might sprint after each trail crossing. You can progress the total time you do the fartlek (e.g., 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes of Fartlek) and keep the area/trail you use roughly the same over a set of weeks. Start with a few bursts of 5–15 seconds and work your way up to a few full minutes of all-out effort as you get better at keeping your speed up.
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ENJOY AN ENDURO
New mountain bikers often focus on going hard uphill, then take the downhills very gingerly. But focusing on executing well on downhills makes you a stronger rider. Enduro rides are good for off-road cyclists (and even gravel riders) to improve technique, and they’re great sessions for days when you’re not feeling particularly strong but still want to do some serious training.
The concept is simple: Ride slower, or even walk, on uphills, and then focus on descending quickly on the downhills. This type of ride keeps your heart rate lower and reduces muscular fatigue from climbing but lets you get in descending practice. It takes discipline to get to the top of hills while staying within your comfort level. In this workout, you should always pass the talk test and keep your heart rate or power at or below endurance pace. It also adds a great level of variety to your off-road rides and for a bigger day, it can be combined nicely with the Fartleks mentioned above and the path rides below.
HIT THE PATH
With the popularity of gravel and mixed-terrain riding, road cyclists are venturing off of the pavement. It’s time mountain bikers do the reverse and shift from a trail to a more road-like terrain to improve their fitness. Rather than going out on a road or gravel bike — which is a great idea, too, but may not be possible if you don’t have one of those bikes — you simply take your mountain bike and ride on roads, paths, gravel road or flat double track for some or all of your ride to allow your body to get used to pedaling for extended periods.
Because mountain biking typically involves a lot of ups and downs in terms of effort, it can be tough to get steady riding in, but it’s necessary when it comes to improving your fitness. For mountain bikers, the addition of this steady pedaling can lead to a huge improvement in endurance once you get a few of these rides completed. These rides are a chance to keep your intensity low and let your upper body recover from the demands of off-road rides. Feel free to use these to warm up and cool down after your off-road rides as well to sneak in some extra endurance training.
Obviously, not every mountain biker has access to a long climb on a trail or a gravel road, but if you do, completing a long climb on the mountain bike is a great way to increase your strength. If you have access to a longer climb (one that takes more than 7 minutes to climb or offers at least 400 feet of elevation), you can get in several repeats to boost your muscular endurance.
This might not sound like fun, but if you are lucky, a fun descent as recovery between your climbing can make for a very effective and fun mountain biker-friendly workout. The climb might be on road, gravel or fire-road that lets you access the singletrack. To make the most of a climbing workout, try sets like four reps of 8-minute efforts uphill to start progressing the length or number of repetitions as the terrain allows. Recover on the downhill with a focus on smooth technique to aid recovery after a hard climb.
GAMIFY THE TRAIL
Similar to Fartleks but a bit less open-ended, you might want to make a set of intervals that you’ll sprinkle into your ride based on what the trail has to offer. For example, you could decide to sprint for 15 seconds after every trail merge (where two trails come together), do a 2-minute hard effort any time you see a wild turkey or deer, or even get in some strength-based work by pounding out pushups every time you have to stop to check your map or GPS. For a skill-oriented workout you could decide to fully bunny-hop any log or obstacle you see regardless of size, this becomes very hard work on trails with many obstacles. The options are only limited by your imagination and can create fun and challenging sessions by taking the control out of your hands and letting luck and the trail determine your effort for the day.