Training and racing on a mountain-bike is no easy task as rough trail, tight turns, and steep climbs demand a sharp mind be coupled with a strong body.
These trail conditions and the highly variable nature of MTB riding can make it difficult to harness the benefits of a structured training program to gain maximum fitness.
That is why even the most hardcore MTB racers and off-road purists are shedding their baggy-shorts in favor of tight-fitting lycra to perform some high-quality training on the open road.
These riders, and MTB-enthusiasts of all skill-levels and abilities can (and should) use road cycling as a way to supplement their trail-centric workouts to enhance fitness and race-day preparation.
Road cycling, as in riding a road-bike or an MTB with suitable tires on the road, can benefit mountain-bikers in many ways, not the least of which is developing greater aerobic fitness.
Training on the road can also be used to develop a quicker/smoother cadence and pedal stroke, perform evenly-paced steady-state efforts, take it easy for a proper recovery ride, and even narrow the distractions to complete maximally-paced anaerobic intervals.
It is these benefits, and more, that will enhance your training and help you maximize every hour of preparation you have to dedicate to your goal event.
MTB bike-handling skills have to be practiced and honed, but there is something to be said for riding on the road and how it develops the human engine that powers our bicycles! Photo Credit: Brian McCulloch
Aerobic Economy & Volume:
There is a lot of value to developing a deep base of aerobic fitness for any Endurance Athlete. Base fitness equates to high-volume training miles with moderate/minimal intensity.
This is where the intense nature of mountain-biking can complicate an MTB Athletes quest for base fitness. That is because ‘volume’ and ‘intensity’, from a training perspective, exist in an opposing world.
This means that for training ‘volume’ to increase ‘intensity’ needs to decrease.
Conversely, an increase in training ‘intensity’ predicates a reduction in training ‘volume’.
Enter training on the road…
Road-centric training provides the opportunity to increase training ‘volume’ while keeping ‘intensity’ at a manageable level.
By adding in a road-focused volume workout to their training regimen, an MTB Athlete can grow their aerobic-base fitness without adding unnecessary intensity that can compromise training quality.
This means a bigger engine to hit the trails with the next time you take out your shred-sled!
Any BWC Athlete, MTB or not, will attest to the importance of developing a smooth and quick pedal stroke; it’s something we hammer home with all of our Athletes.
With that said, MTB Athletes, generally speaking, are notorious for having a slow ‘preferred’ cadence.
Although it can be said that this is the result of the climb-heavy nature of most off-road riding, any MTB rider can benefit from road-focused ‘cadence development’ workouts.
Developing a quicker preferred cadence benefits more than just your fitness, it can ease the pain of one of the most common ailments that afflicts any off-road rider…cramping.
Despite the various studies arguing for a particular cause of cramping and how to avoid it, one thing is clear: reducing the workload on leg muscles by using a quicker cadence increases muscular endurance and reduces the instance of cramps.
This simple change shifts the training load from leg-muscles to the aerobic system, an important consideration for any discipline of cycling!
Evenly-Paced Steady-State Efforts:
Mountain-bike races and time-trials feature similar physical outputs in that they are ‘all-out’, maximal efforts.
Where they differ is in the variability in those power outputs. Time-trials tend to be evenly-paced efforts with minimal variability, while MTB races generally see a large degree of variable with large power fluctuations.
Because training on the open-roads generally offers more consistent gradients and smooth roads, an MTB Athlete can use this terrain to perform evenly-paced, long duration steady-state efforts that even the most consistent trail cannot mimic.
Whether the sustained workout is of an Endurance, Tempo, or even Threshold output is immaterial.
What matters is that the smooth and consistent gradients of a paved surface allow the Athlete to add in consistent, sustained workload to their training program.
These sustained efforts can make a big difference when preparing for an MTB Gran Fondo or Endurance XC Race.
What’s more adding just one workout per week that includes steady-state intervals can enhance fitness significantly.
BWC Athlete Van Geslani loves all kinds of bikes, he rides road, dirt, and 'cross to keep his fitness sharp and skills honed. Photo Credit: Loma Linda PossAbilities
Proper Recovery Rides:
Although Recovery Rides are not considered a ‘workout’, they absolutely are integral to any training regimen.
Recovery rides or ‘easy spins’ are best performed on flat or minimally rolling routes. This notion almost completely eliminates mountain-bike trails from being used to accomplish our active recovery goals.
Most mountain-bikers notice an immediate increase in their ability to recover from intense training when they embrace road-centric active recovery.
It should be said that recovery rides do not have to be long, just 60-minutes of easy spinning is enough time to achieve the desired effect.
Incorporating one, or even two, recovery rides a week on a road-bike can enhance any MTB athletes training regimen by preparing them for upcoming workouts.
As with any recovery ride, it is always important to maintain a quick cadence and light pressure on the pedals, while avoiding spikes in power or heart rate through out the ride.
Measurable & Repeatable Anaerobic Work:
It can be very useful for the MTB-focused rider to utilize a consistent stretch of road, and a power-meter, to perform focused anaerobic-capacity intervals.
By getting off the trail and away from the rocks, twists, and undulations that characterize off-road workouts, an Athlete can focus their effort on putting-out maximum power and getting everything out of their bodies during these high-output efforts.
Although they won’t have this luxury on race-day and will have to account for roots, rocks, and other obstacles, training on an open road is the best way to isolate the physical element of training and teach our bodies to go all-out!
Being able to repeat these hard efforts week-in and week-out can do more than build your fitness, it can build confidence in your ability to ‘go-deep’ ahead of a tough race!
Sustained fire-road or double-track climbs offer great training, but for some portions of the training cycle, a road climb is preferable for interval training. Photo Credit: Joy McCulloch.
With the need for exceptional bike-handling skills plus a multitude of equipment considerations, MTB riding and racing is without question a specialized form of Endurance Sport.
However, despite those specialized needs, the human-performance side of the equation changes very little.
Whether you are pedaling a ‘cross bike, preparing for a TT, spending long days in the saddle on a road bike, or shredding the local trails on an MTB, a powerful human-engine is what you need to propel your two-wheeled adventures.
It is for this reason that it makes a lot of sense for ‘off-roaders’ to consider some road-centric training to enhance their fitness.
Taking the benefits that training on the road offers, and then adapting them to an MTB-focused training program can pay big-dividends for even the most staunch MTB ‘purist’.
And the best news is that these benefits can be had by adding only one or two road-based workouts per week to an MTB-focused training program.
That’s a fairly minor investment for a whole lot of performance benefit!
Until Next Time, Be Safe, Train Hard, & Have Fun!
-Brian and Joy McCulloch
Big Wheel Coaching