By Dan F.
Just like with any sport, recreational or competitive, Mountain Bikers can improve their performance with proper strength and conditioning specific to this sport. When talking about mountain biking, it is important to differentiate between cross country versus downhill racing. While the two may seem similar, the actual physiological needs are drastically different.
Cross Country can generally be 15 to 25 miles in distance and last 45 minutes to two hours; Downhill racing usually lasts between two to four minutes. With conditioning, these differences require completely different energy systems. Cross Country is going to require endurance training and will focus on the oxidative energy system, with short bursts of strength and power. Downhill demands strength, power, and power-endurance, and the body relies on the anaerobic energy systems of ATP and Anaerobic Glycolysis. Because of these differences, the training on and off the bike will have to differ greatly as well. This article will compare the differences of off-bike training, and how to use this training to get the most out of your season!
One of the most important aspects of strength and conditioning, is the principle of periodization. The most basic idea of periodization is that you break your training into Macro-, Meso-, and Micro- Cycles. A Macro-cycle is the whole training program; to reach the complete end goal, these macro-cycles can last for several months to a year, and every one consists of many meso-cycles that can last for weeks to months. Finally, every meso-cycle consists of micro-cycles that last a week to a few weeks. For this article, we will focus on the meso-cycles for mountain biking.
The goal of meso-cycles is to create physiological adaptations in the body. The other advantage to periodizing training is to allow an athlete to train year-round, which allows athletes to continuously get results without risking the negative effects of over-training. Meso-cycles should be designed around the different parts of the sport season. For mountain biking, they will to be broken into Off-Season, Pre-Season, In-Season, and Post-season.
Off-season should be used for training adaptations that can take longer to obtain. It’s also the time of the year that the athlete can train with the most intensity; there is less concern for training affecting the performance of riders, since riding is significantly decreased in the off-season.
Pre-season is the time of year that the training should start to transition to more sport specific training. And the time to start to match the energy and muscular demands of their sport.
In-season is when cyclists focus on their riding and competitions. The strength and conditioning goals of in-season are to maintain the results achieved during pre- and off- season, as well as reinforce agility needs for their ride. During in-season training, it is necessary to make sure the athlete is not sore or over trained/fatigued for their rides.
Post-season is a shorter meso-cycle used for recovery after a long, intense season.
The ideal periodization for a cross-country mountain biker would be as follows:
Off-season would consist of an 8-week hypertrophy phase, with the goal being to develop muscle growth. Hypertrophy will lead to the rider having more muscle mass–which will be further trained to respond to the specific needs of the rider– and tend to produce the most intensity in the body, due to the rep ranges, and percentages of 1RM need to promote muscle growth. Due to the physical demands of hypertrophy, it is best to perform these workouts in off-season, where there is ample time to have a full recovery between workouts.
Pre-Season can be broken into two six-week training goals. The first six weeks develops total strength. Strength training will utilize the muscle built during the off-season, and train it to increase the total load it can handle. The cross-country mountain biker will require strength when faced with trail obstacles requiring maximum power. The uniqueness of cross country riding is that it balances the need for maximal strength/power and endurance. So, the next 6-week micro-cycle would be endurance.
Endurance trains the muscles to be able to withstand demands of a long ride that is mostly not-stop action with very little rest, and is the phase where the athlete starts training lactic acid buffering.
Lactic acid is a byproduct of the breakdown of glucose in the muscles during exercise. When lactic acid is produced faster than the body can process it (during times of intense or extended exercise), lactic acid concentrations rise. It is necessary to train the body to process lactic acid so that the concentrations do not reach a level which inhibits performance. Pre-season is also the when bike time would significantly increase, which also helps increase the aerobic capacity needed to perform when the cross-country season starts.
There are a few ways to train the aerobic capacity. First– spend increasing times on the bike. The more the athlete rides, the better they will be able to handle the aerobic needs come in-season. The cross-country mountain biker should spend approximately 15-25% of trail time to road riding, because road cyclists can focus on maximal work rates without worrying about terrain. This allows the CC cyclist to really focus on building lung capacity. Once he/she reaches a steady baseline of aerobic capacity, and gets closer to in-season, the next method would be Overdistance.
Overdistance (the act of riding 1.5-2x more than a typical race) training has been proven to increase mitochondrial and capillary density, thus improving aerobic capacity and helping muscles process the metabolic byproducts of exercise.
The final way to increase aerobic capacity is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a type of training combining both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, that does this by utilizing timed intervals of maximal effort training and periods of a slower active recovery. HIIT will increase both aerobic capacity and lactic acid buffering. The best method of aerobic training for the cross-country athlete would be to do a mix of both HIIT and Overdistance. This combination will match both the needs of endurance and periods of extreme power and exertion.
Next is In-season, where the main goal is to focus on maintaining the results achieved in the previous cycles. This training needs to reinforce the previous months of training, while not inhibiting performance, and it is best to limit this training to 1-2x per week. The focus of these workouts is plyometrics, strength, and agility drills.
Plyometrics reinforces power output needed for overcoming obstacles; strength keeps muscles strong through the season; and agility drills work on fast-twitch response and reaction time, to better handle the change of terrain and unexpected obstacles. Due to the low reps experienced in strength and plyos, it is unlikely that the athlete will be extremely sore.
Finally, is Post-season which has a goal to rest and recover. An ideal week or two of complete rest would be completely okay followed by light rides and low intensity weight lifting. It is crucial to let one’s body fully recover from an intense season, before starting the next Macrocycle to get ready for the next season!
Periodization for the Down Hill Mountain Bike Racer is slightly different than Cross-country. The off-season is slightly longer, followed by a shorter pre-season.
The off-season consists of two 8-week cycles. The first 8-weeks will be hypertrophy, with the goal of building muscle mass—which will be used in later cycles to be trained for the specific needs of downhill. Once a baseline of increased muscle mass is accomplished, the next 8-week focuses on strength and plyometrics.
Since downhill is a fast-paced shorter ride with lots of jumps and obstacles, it is crucial to increase power output. Strength and plyos are necessary to build this power output. This is also the time to start working on power endurance. The definition of power, in the sense of strengh and conditioning, is max effort movements that last for up to 10 seconds with two to five reps. After 10 seconds of continuous movement, the body moves from the phosphagen energy system, which utilizes ATP for energy, to the glycogen system which uses glucose for energy—which is important because a downhill ride will last for two to four minutes, but the rider will need to use power to overcome obstacles. This second 8-week cycle should have the rider working on power endurance, which will allow the rider to utilize power throughout the whole ride.
An example of how to do this is complex training–a max strength move (heavy weight for maximum amount or reps [2-5]) immediately super-setting with a plyometric movement. This teaches muscles how to use max effort and still perform a power move. The goal of pre-season is to match the physiological needs of the season. So one needs to train all the energy systems needed during a downhill race.
Each energy system is equally important, so the downhill racer will have a unique training program that consists of rotating days of hypertrophy, strength, and plyos/power, allowing the athlete to train each energy system while not being completely recovered from the previous workout.
While this is not typically recommended for most workouts, it is necessary to condition the body to use each energy system while the muscles are already semi-fatigued. This matches the demands of the race. Due to the intense nature of this type of training, the athlete only performs this pre-season cycle for six weeks, in comparison to the cross-country athletes’ 12-week pre-season. The on-cycle conditioning for the downhill racer focuses mainly on High Intensity Interval Training. HIIT most closely matches the demands of a race.
The best way to perform HIIT training is to build up to maximal effort that lasts significantly longer than an actual race, which increases both anaerobic and aerobic capacity. In-season and post-season will be similar to the cross-country athlete, with In-season focusing on maintenance to retain the off-season and pre-season gains throughout the entire season.
Workout frequency will also decrease to help the athlete perform at peak ability at the time of competition. Off-season will be identical to what was mentioned above, with sole focus as rest and recovery before starting the training for the next season.
Now that the athlete’s training is periodized and planned for the whole macrocycle, there are a few other things to consider—specifically, the types of and which exercises to choose for resistance training. Exercises themselves should match the movement patterns of the ride. For example, split stance exercises are perfect because they closely match adding load to the position your legs are in while riding. Unilateral exercises ensure the body is prepared to handle the uneven loads it experiences during a ride. Using dumbbells can also aid in strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the joint, helping the rider handle sudden bumps experienced in a typical ride. Variation in training speed will also assist in the change in output while riding. When a program like this is matched with proper exercises and a periodized training schedule, the increase in performance from one season to the next can be exponentially greater! Strength and conditioning off the bike allows the body to grow to be able to handle the physical demands better than ever imagined.
General Manager & Personal Trainer
Dan’s journey into fitness began as an overweight youth. Being extremely overweight he took steps to change his life starting with proper nutrition and a little bit of exercise. He attended Clemson University receiving a BS in Management. He spent most of his free time in the rec. center getting hooked on exercise. Upon graduating he moved back to CT and decided to learn everything he could about the fitness industry and how to properly train the human body. He attended The National Personal Training Institute receiving a diploma in personal training and nutrition consultation. After NPTI he participated in a 4 month mentorship to learn the intricacies of training athletes. This is where he found his passion! He has spent the last 4 years training athletes, of all ages. He has extensive experience training athletes from middle-school all the way to the pros, in all sports! He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, CSCS, through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is also has an Advanced Certified Personal Trainer (A-CPT) certification, and is currently working on his Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator certification.