MTB Training: 21 tips for XC racers
It’s that time of the year where most MTB racers are training or at least preparing to train for the upcoming season.
It’s an exciting time of the year too. There’s everything to play for and a lot of different training sessions to be planned and tackled.
The question is, what will you do to make the coming season’s performance better than the last?
Here are 21 quick-fire mountain bike training tips to inspire some ideas and give you some actionable strategies to make this season your most successful.
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1. Create a “concentrated” training loop
Want to feel more confident on race day? Here’s a tip…
Design a loop in your local mountain bike spot that has a “concentrated” collection of features that you’d find in a race.
Include a few corners or berms, a steep climb and a rooty or rocky descent.
You can then ride loops at race pace to dial in the sensation of riding fast on this terrain to prepare you for off-road racing.
2. Use plyometric cross-training
Cross-country racing is becoming shorter and more explosive year-on-year, which demands different abilities than in year’s past.
How do we adapt to these changes?
Try adding explosive jumping and hopping to your training to develop your fast twitch muscles. Hopping up stairs works well and adds something a bit different to your training.
Here’s a great video of Christoph Sauser from a while back related to plyometrics:
3. Work on “specific pedalling”
What’s specific pedalling you might ask?
Well, pedalling dynamics are very different from discipline to discipline, e.g. road to MTB.
Mountain bikers produce power off-road in a low cadence and high force fashion when racing. On the road though, most of the pedalling time will be at a higher cadence, whether high or low force (climbing compared to coasting in the bunch)
This places unique demands on the muscles of MTBers and therefore needs to be trained. You can work on this within road rides, or schedule MTB rides for this purpose.
4. Ride easier, but for longer
Increasing training volume rather than average intensity is a sustainable way to improve fitness long term.
What’s the best way to increase volume? More low intensity time.
Low intensity allows you to ride for longer and is relatively less stressful mentally and physically, promoting sustainable and consistent training. Try dialling back the intensity of your long rides in favour of a bit of extra duration.
Running, like the plyometric training mentioned above can help develop the strength of your fast twitch muscles.
More than that though, it can help in other ways…
The main benefit is that running can help fill “strength leaks” from muscles that get neglected by cycling alone. I’m talking about the glutes and hamstrings.
Try adding it to your plan conservatively.
6. Vary your training rides
Making sure you have a bunch of training sessions in your arsenal is key for two reasons:
Motivation and training stress.
There’s always more than one way to target a specific ability, so vary up your training with a few workout variations for each type of training session you do.
For example, VO2Max can be trained with longer intervals or by surging and recovering repetitively. Change things up week on week to keep your plan fresh and exciting.
7. Try “block periodisation”
Block periodisation is the concept of developing one specific ability by blocking multiple sessions together to create a greater specific stress and then maintaining those gains.
In practice, this might look like 5 interval sessions in the first week of a 4-week block, and then 1 maintenance workout per week in the remaining 3 weeks.
This is in contrast to a linear organisation where you’d train 2 interval sessions per week for each of the 4 weeks.
The benefits that result can be a greater improvement in a particular part of your MTB fitness, often one very specific and critical to race performance.
8. Periodise training via “mode”
Do you periodise your training?
If you don’t, there are quite a few ways you can do it. All it means is that training characteristics change depending on the time or “period” of the season afterall…
One way that world class athletes across endurance sports periodise is though the training mode, i.e. the type of activity itself.
For MTBers, try spending more time on the MTB and off-road as you get closer to the competition period, dedicating more training time to specific activities and less to non-specific.
9. MTB recovery rides on the road
Recovery rides are often best done on the road, thanks to the consistent surface, gradients etc.
You don’t have to ride your road bike though…
Try getting more time on your MTB simply by riding it on the road for an hour or so on a recovery ride.
This gets you used to pedalling in the exact position you’d race in, optimising your muscles and conditioning your body to your MTB’s geometry.
You can also test that the gears, brakes etc are all working right before racing.
10. Practice your starts
Ever got a bad start because of a slipped pedal? I know I have…
Even World Cup front row pros miss their pedal and it makes a big difference to where you enter the first section of singletrack.
Practice your starts throughout the build up to the season, starting stationary, clipping in and sprinting.
This will develop your muscle memory and reaction times, so you’ll know exactly where to put your foot in a flash when racing comes around.
11. Ride more corners
Getting better at cornering is “free speed”. What’s free speed?
Free speed is where you have the ability to get faster without much extra effort and cornering is certainly an area you can capitalise on.
Practice your line choice, entrance speed, exit speed and body position across a range of different turns and berms to dial in your technique.
You should find you’re more confident, faster and can make up lots of time you’d otherwise lose over the duration of a race.
12. Work on looking ahead
Another tactic to get free speed is to develop your ability to look ahead and scan the trail.
This is something that we all know we should do, but many don’t actively practice. Try scheduling some technical skills rides on the MTB and include some drills where you focus on looking further down the track.
Use your peripheral vision to alert yourself to obstacles in close proximity, and then use your central vision to assess what’s further ahead.
You’d be surprised how much faster you can go the more you practice.
13. Take advantage of pump tracks
Pump tracks are fun, and as a bonus can teach you how to ride more smoothly when it comes to racing.
This is because the whole idea of them is to gain and preserve momentum by moving the body efficiently.
Find a local track and develop the ability to pump and generate speed through turns and over obstacles.
You can then take this into racing to carry better speed over transitions in the trail or over features like rocks and roots.
14. Hit the road
Now this might seem counterintuitive in a post specifically aimed at mountain bikers, but stay with me…
Riding on the road is almost always going to present a more consistent platform with which to train on. Essentially, you’re able to perform an effort without dodging a tree, freewheeling over roots or having to slow down into a berm.
Therefore, when it’s time to train some very specific intervals, tarmac can be the best setting for these precise intensity goals.
Of course, as an XC racer, you need to balance time on the trails (specific training) with your road riding (less specific), but there’s certainly a place for both.
15. Periodise HIIT
As mentioned, periodisation simply means to alter the characteristics of your training depending on what time or “period” of the season you’re in.
Periodising the intensity and duration of specific sessions can go a long way to helping you prepare for the XC season successfully.
Try approaching it like a funnel, where the further out you are from your goal, the less specific your training is, i.e. work more on your peripheral fitness, and then hone in more centrally as it comes time to peak.
This can be done by starting out with longer, less intense MTB intervals and progressing to shorter repetitions with greater intensity. As an example, you might develop from 8 minute intervals to 2-3 minute workbouts as you get closer to the season.
16. Label rides
On tactic that has really helped me when it comes to being focused and disciplined with my training?
A simple labelling system.
All it involves is labelling a day as “training” or “recovery”.
When a day is labelled as “training”, it means that whatever I do that day has to be sufficiently challenging to cause a strong adaptive response. That could be a long ride where the duration is the challenge, it could be a very intense session, or it could mean training twice in that day to induce greater fatigue. This is a day where you’re allowed and in fact encouraged to get tired.
On the flip side, if a day is labelled as “recovery” then the goal is clear: I do everything I can to make sure my recovery is as high quality as possible and I shouldn’t try to build fitness through inducing stress.
By being very clear and asking the question of what today’s label is before every workout, I can be very clear on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If you can’t assign a label like this to a ride or a particular day, it may be that your plan isn’t focused enough and you might be slipping into a grey area of mediocre training.
17. Think about a dropper post
This one is a bit of an equipment tip.
Something I’m confident we’ll see more and more of in season’s to come is dropper seatposts, and it’s an evolution that I’ll be trying to use to my advantage this coming year.
I’ll be working with Yep Components and riding with their Uptimizer range of posts, and will be both training and racing with a dropper post to help with my descending speed, which has been a limiter for me in past seasons.
Maybe you already ride with one, but if not, it might be something you want to try out and work to adapt to.
18. Train heavy, race light
A tactic I’ve seen a few top XC racers use is to train on a bike that is far heavier than the one they race on.
Obviously, this is a luxury, but even if you don’t have two bikes, there are ways around it.
The idea is that when you then hop on your race-ready setup on the day of competition, you feel agile, fast and generally have a better mental experience. A lighter bike will mean you’ll be climbing faster, able to manoeuvre the bike around more easily and use less energy for a given task that you’re used to in training.
This can be done simply by using heavier wheels on your race bike (greater rotational weight is easily the best way to add more resistance in this manner) or just using heavier tyres with greater rolling resistance.
19. Include sprint training
Sprinting is something which I and a lot of XC racers forget about or at least don’t do enough of in training, but it’s to our detriment not to train this ability regularly.
MTB XC racing has been described as a series of sprints out of corners, and it’s a huge advantage to be able to lay down a lot of power from a low start speed.
In this vein then, try to work in some maximal sprints on both your road and your MTB rides, experimenting with high cadence and low cadence accelerations.
Far from just improving your absolute maximum power, it’ll also be very effective training for your muscles when it comes to overcoming high levels of torque, which is something very specific to off-road riding and racing.
20. Improve recovery
A little tip that can really help improve the quality of your training?
Think about recovery in advance of actually finishing a workout.
One tactic that I have found to be very effective is to incorporate a warm down within training rides.
This simply involves spending the final 5-10 minutes of a session spinning easily and coasting, and saves you having to jump on the turbo after a ride, which is about the last thing most riders want to do after returning home from a tough workout.
21. Ride multiple surfaces
Like the very first tip of creating a loop designed to make you feel more confident on race day, ensuring you ride on a multitude of different surfaces regularly is also key.
I realised this after spending the year racing across Europe, and coming into contact with a wide variety of different climates and types of dirt, and it’s something I’m incorporating more into my training to the best of my ability.
Making sure you know how to ride in everything from mud, to sand, to gravel will put you in a better frame of mind come race day, but obviously increase your speed and competitive advantage too.
Turning up the day before a race and trying to learn how to tackle an alien surface from scratch is far from ideal, and can have a large negative impact on your stress levels.
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I hope you found these tips useful in your buildup to next season. Please leave me a comment if you have any thoughts or suggestions of your own.