PT on the Net Research

Training Considerations for Mountain Biking

There are three general areas of mountain biking: trials, downhill and cross country. These three areas differ greatly in their metabolic needs and therefore the training approach. This article will concentrate on a few conditioning suggestions for cross country mountain biking (CC-MB).

Most competitive mountain bike events that are offered are CC in nature such as Adventure Races, Off Road Dualathlons or the weekend Mountain Bike Ride Race. These suggestions are for you to apply on and off a bike and to examine for new ideas to use in your own training theory. There are no end-all-be-all training programs for anything. We must continue to learn from each other, share proper training ideas and use science to help us expand our own training methods.

This article will focus on two points of conditioning for CC-MB. Remember, when training other people or yourself, you should always try to use common sense. If the stress level is too high for a person, adaptation may not take place at the necessary level needed to recover, and over training or injuries may result.

Developing Muscle Power

Development of muscle power is an essential part of performance improvement. When training for any sport, training specificity should be kept in mind. When trying to gain momentum before an uphill, a sprint or at the start of a race, muscle power and pedal power are a vital.

To develop muscle power, a fast, rhythmical motion is suggested. By focusing on higher velocity patterns of movement, there will be a greater transfer to sport activity. Faster training movements (using eight to 15 RM with fast rhythm) produced almost the same results at both high and low velocities, while slow training movements (using one to three RM, heavy and slow) only produced improvement in slow velocity exercises. This does not mean you should avoid slow, heavy training. On the contrary, some heavy lifting should be added to a training program. Resistance exercises in the three to six RM range help provide further neural stimulation and muscle strength. This type of training predominately stimulates fast twitch (FT) muscle tissues and helps provide a stronger nervous system "base" for future muscle power development.

However, the best way to improve muscle power is to train with faster movements. There are several reasons for this difference, one of which is the brain. It seems our brains organize fast and slow movements differently and may be evidence for neural adaptation. Another reason is specificity of movement. This not only means the joint angles and simulated patterns of movement but the speeds at which one moves during the event. One method for developing muscle power is to use a moderate resistance and move it with fast but controlled rhythm. The level of resistance that seems to produce the best results is 30 to 60 percent of 1RM. This load should be moved rather quickly for five to 10 reps at maximum effort level. If you start to deteriorate or slow down, then you stop. Allow some recovery (two to three minutes) and repeat the effort. The principle is to force the neurons to recruit new muscle tissues and high threshold motor units. Optimal neural stimulation will help recruit both fast and slow twitch (ST) muscle fibres and improve power output.

Some research indicates a combination of training patterns will provide the maximum benefit. This can be achieved by alternating your training patterns. The training examples may help understand this concept. For a thrice weekly resistance training program: Day 1 uses heavy resistance to provide high threshold motor unit recruitment and hammer on some FT muscle tissues. Day 2 decreases the amount of weight used but moves it faster. Use 30 to 60 percent of one RM values with fast, rhythmical movements, which will stimulate FT and ST muscle fibres, provide an elevated lactic acid level and improved neural drive. Day 3 provides further body power training by combining plyometrics and 40 percent one RM lifts with speed in a circuit training fashion. This training can be very stressful. It provides elevated lactic acid levels, stimulates the nervous system and both types of muscle fibres and can produce extremely high heart rates. All three resistance training days use three to six sets of each exercise. Any more than that may start to produce an over training effect, especially when trying to improve aerobic capacity at the same time.

Example Exercises

Day 1. Warm up and ab work before training. Recovery between sets should be 2-3 minutes.
BB Squats 80%-90% 3-6r x 4-5s
DB Push Press 80% 4-6r x 3-4s
Seated Chest Press 90% 3-4r x 4-6s
DB Modified Cleans 80-90% 3-6r x 3-5s
Cable Pull down 90% 3-4r x 4-6s
Day 2. Warm up and ab work before lifting. Try a recovery of 1-2 minutes between sets.
DB Front Squat w/ Press 50% 6-8r x 4-6s
Seated Leg Press
(one leg at a time)
30% 6-8r x 4-5s
Standing Cable Pulls
(one arm at a time)
50% 8-10r x 5-6s
Bar Dips
(add weight if needed)
50% 8-10r x 5-6s
Hamstring Curl (no max. test) Moderate weight 3 x 12-15r
Day 3. Circuit Training Fashion. Use 40%(1RM), w/8-10r, 20- 30seconds rest between stations.
4-5 minutes rest Between Laps. 2-4 laps total
1. DB Squats 4. DB Mod. Cleans 7. Seated Leg Press
2. Cable Pulldowns 5. Cable Up-right Rows 8. Back Extension
3. 1 Legged Hops (10yds.) 6. Plyometric Box Jumps 9. Plyometric Pushups

Improving Aerobic Capacity

Mountain bike riding or racing usually has a great deal of terrain variation. This variation can create a constant change in pedalling cadence. Twisting downhills, hairpin turns, steep hill climbs and narrow trails are common. All of these things influence pedal cadence and turn a ride into an interval workout. Because there is a lot of interval type work done on a ride, interval training (IT) is an excellent way to train and has been found to improve aerobic capacity as effectively as steady state training.

IT develops aerobic capacity by a combined stimulus of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Look at the following chart for further understanding.

The high intensity work of IT improves oxygen uptake by increasing cardiac output and enhances the arteriole-venous oxygen exchange of O2 and CO2. These adaptations provide a greater oxygen delivery exchange system and help in buffering the elevated levels of lactic acid. IT relies on both ST and FT muscle fibres and places a large stress on energy demands by both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism.

During intense work, aerobic metabolism utilizes the stored oxygen of the myoglobin. As training continues, the oxygen of the myoglobin is drained and the energy demands are fulfilled anaerobically. Elevated levels of lactic acid increase the acidity within the muscle cells and the blood stream. As the pH value drops and acidity rises, the ability to produce or maintain force is reduced. At this point, light activity (20 to 30 percent V02max/RPE = 2-3) is recommended to help restore oxygen levels and clear out the monster level of lactic acid in your blood, which will help you get ready for the next interval. IT also exposes the athlete to the psychologically punishing workouts parallel to those that are encountered in a race.

IT needs to be high intensity or at least over your comfort zone. If you usually train at 70 percent effort, then the interval work level should be a little higher. An example workout is listed below. The duration of an interval between two to six minutes seems to provide the best training effect. The work:rest ratio can be 1:2, 1:1 or 1: 0.5. An example of a 1:1 ratio would be (work for three minutes: pedal easy for three minutes). Or if you are in great shape, cut the rest period to 1.5 minutes. You can provide different levels of stress by increasing the intensity, the number of intervals completed in a training session or cut the rest periods down. Be careful not to turn the training session into a half-ass distance ride. Take the rest for what it is: rest. Then hammer when it is time to work.

Example Interval Workout

Day 1. There are several ways to measure the intensity level of IT. Some people use %Vo2Max. Another way is to use Borg's Scale of Rate Perceived Exertion. Give effort level a number, like 1-10. 1= very light, 10= super max. It is very good way to estimate how much work a person "thinks or feels" they are doing.
Reps @ Intensity Level Duration of Work Rest Interval
  • 3 @ RPE 6
  • 3 @ RPE 7
  • Ride easy for 5 minutes
3 minutes 2-3 minutes
  • 2 @ RPE 8-9
  • 2 @ RPE 9
  • Ride easy for 5 minutes
2-3 minutes 1-2 minutes
Day 2. Always warm up before hammering out the work load. Make sure to cool down after training and stretch all leg and back muscles.
Reps @ Intensity Level Duration of Work Rest Interval
2 @ RPE 7 4 minutes 2-3 minutes
2 @ RPE 8 5 minutes 2-3 minutes
2 @ RPE 9+ 6 minutes 2-3 minutes

The application of training information is a very individual task. If you decide to try out a few of the suggestions, do so in small doses. I would recommend a bi-weekly adjustment to your present training program with a few of the new ideas. This will help you adjust to the new training stress, help avoid over training and let you break from your normal routine in small pieces. Like with any new training stress, there may be some muscle soreness and psychological uncertainty. But, as you have no doubt heard before, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”


  1. Moffroid,M. and R.Whipple. Specificity of Exercise Speed. Physical Therapy vol.50, pp1693-1699, 1970
  2. Behm,D. Neuromuscular Implications and Applications of Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9:264-274.1995
  3. Stone,M. and R.Borden. Modes and Methods of Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning vol.19, no.4.1997
  4. Desmedt,J. and E.Godaux. Voluntary Motor Commands in Human Ballistic Movements. Annuls of Neurology 5:pp415-421
  5. Stone,M. et al. Training to Muscular Failure: Is It Necessary? Journal of Strength and Conditioning vol.18, no3.1996
  6. Fahey,T. Power Peak Training. Powerlifting USA vol.19. no10. May 1996
  7. Wilson, al. The Optimal Training Load for the Development of Dynamic Athletic Performance. Medicine Science in Sports and Exercise. vol.25,no.11,pp1279-1286
  8. Astrand,P. and K.Rhodahl. Textbook of Work Physiology(3rd.ed.) New York. McGraw-Hill 1986.
  9. Young,W. Training for Speed/Strength: Heavy vs.Light Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning vol.15, no.5, 1993
  10. Sale,D. and D.MacDougall. Specificity of Strength Training: Review for Coach and Athlete. Canadian Journal of Appllied Sports Science. 6:87-92. 1981
  11. Powers,S. and E.Howley. Exercise Physiology; Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance Dubuque, IA. 1990
  12. Tabata, al. Metabolic Profile of High Intensity Intermittent Exercises. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 29: 390-395. 1997
  13. Astrand,P. Aerobic versus Anaerobic Energy Sources in Exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 13:22-37, 1981
  14. Shepard,R. Aerobic versus Anaerobic Training for Success in Various Athletic Events. Canadian Journal of Applied Sports Science 3: 3-15, 1978
  15. Hermansen,L. and M.Watchlova. Capillary Density of Skeletal Muscle in Well-Trained and Un-trained Men. Journal of Applied Physiology 30:860-863, 1971