Mountain/Off road Biking (Physiological demands and training tips!)

As we are based in Sligo, how could we not talk about training and mountain biking. This blog is all about the physiological characteristics of mountain biking and some tips to help you build a solid training plan. We are going to look at the data from Cross-Country cycling (CC) as there is a greater amount of publications on this form of mountain biking, however we will reference downhill mountain biking (DH) via the tips and possible crossovers.

Mountain biking especially DH is a full body workout. It requires a large aerobic capacity, muscular strength, a high level of skill and a touch of fearlessness.

Traditional CC races are carried out aver approximately 120 minutes. During this race 82% of the riders total run will be at a heart rate over their Lactate Threshold. This means that the riders spend 82% of their time at an exercise intensity where lactate is being produced quicker than it can be removed. Furthermore, their average heart rate is sustained at around 90% of their max. This equates to 84% of their V02max. So, what does this mean? This means that riders are relying highly on oxygen as a source of fuel for their muscles, due to the duration of the race. However, there comes a point where the oxygen demand cannot be met due to the increase in exercise intensity, possibly due to a hill or a high intensity effort etc. Therefore, the body needs energy and fast. We then produce lactate, which begins to accumulate in the muscles because of the increased reliance on glycolysis for a faster source of energy production. So why not just train at high intensities? It is a good idea to periodically train at high intensities, however, we first have to consider that a high intensity for you may be cycling at 3.5 w/kg, but for another, that may be a stroll in the park. We need to train at lower intensities to improve our oxygen carrying capacity and transportation, as well as our blood buffering capacity. Therefore, decreasing our reliance on endogenous sources of energy and shifting that threshold of high intensity from 3.5 w/kg to a possible 4 w/kg.

It is important to understand the aforementioned paragraphs because when testing and training we need to know what test to carry out, what training zones to be in and why. We know from research that V02max (the maximal rate of oxygen uptake into the body during exercise) and lactate threshold are two key predictors of endurance performance, which you can get tested and compare yourself to those you cycle against or the elites. For example, according to recent literature 70mL/kg/min is pretty much a prerequisite for those hoping to class themselves as elite CC cyclists. However, for those dreaming of professional DH cycling, don't fret, V02max is less of a prerequisite due to the high level of bike handling skill and tolerance for risk for those that are successful. Recap + Training Tips

Mountain Biking is a highly aerobic sport due to the longevity of the races as well as for those that link up DH trails. If you are starting out a training plan you need to consider the following. Build an aerobic base first. Longer slower rides. Tie this in with muscular endurance or hypertrophy training in the gym. Once you have built a solid foundation, chase that intensity. Start mixing in short bursts of high intensity efforts via hills etc... or lowering the reps in the gym. Consider your work to rest ratios and work on lactate tolerance by making the shift to training the glycolytic system (both fast and slow). This system will help with those moments of increased high intensity during the race.

A clear difference between DH cyclists and traditional cyclists is the need for a strong upper body, particularly due to the prolonged isometric contractions during a descent and the pulling and pushing of the handlebars during your run. Unfortunately, some people rush into 'sport specific' training adding uneven surfaces etc. You need to remember that there is a reason you are coming to the gym to train. You want to be in a controlled environment where you can load up safely. The reason for training in a controlled environment is so that you can load to a greater extent than you would when out on the trails. This creates a greater stimulus for the muscles to react and develop.

Although an isometric contraction is largely evident during a descent in DH cycling, athletes need to ensure they are not just training with isometrics. Isometrics can improve strength, however, this is in a particular range. Furthermore, due to the static nature of the exercise, there will be no significant increase in cardiac output or stroke volume. Therefore, no particular improvement in endurance performance, which as we have discussed is vital in mountain biking.

Moreover, you want to work on imbalances which you will get if you only ever complete the same mode of exercise, for example just carrying out DH runs. By ensuring the antagonistic muscles are just as strong as the agonist muscles you can decrease your chances of injury. Moreover, by training the antagonistic muscles you improve their range of motion (ROM) and speed of contraction and relaxation. For example, we all know that the glutes (hip extensor) play a role in running. However, did you know that if you do not work on improving the ROM and feedback of your hip flexors (a group of antagonistic muscles to the glutes) you will lessen your stride length and power output of the hip extensors, therefore decreasing your overall performance.

Recap + Training Tips

When carrying out resistance training you need to ensure that the majority of your physical prep work is done in a controlled environment, working on both the agonist and antagonist muscles. Change up the tempos of your exercise depending on what you are working on. Make sure to use a mix of concentric, eccentric and isometric exercises and carry out theses exercises using a full ROM (again depending on what you are working on). If you are looking for a new physical preparation plan or a rehab program please feel free to contact us at

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