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How to Build Endurance for Mountain Biking

Coach and former pro, Melanie McQuaid, shares tips and workouts to help up the endurance ante.

Mountain biking requires technical skills, endurance and capacity for high intensity efforts. Navigating technical terrain, hills, and twisty single track quickly while racing involves short bursts of power repeated over and over again. Without adequate endurance, fewer of these efforts can be performed, and you will fade in the latter portions of the race. The following tips will help you build your endurance for mountain biking.

Log Mileage

There really is no substitute for more mileage on the bike. It doesn’t matter which bike you ride, as riding a mountain bike or a road bike is effective in building aerobic fitness. However, addressing skills riding singletrack on a regular basis is important for maintaining timing and coordination, so reserving one to two rides per week to be on the mountain bike is a good idea.

Even if you don’t have time to get to the trails, executing sessions pedaling in the position you are going to be racing is beneficial. Don’t be afraid to do quality sessions on the trainer on your mountain bike as well but sometimes riding a mountain bike on the road is necessary to keep the effort aerobic for longer rides. Endurance mileage should be completed at a comfortable pace. Zones 1 and 2 or about 70% or less than Functional Threshold Power (FTP) allow you to ride longer and recover quickly to ride again the next day.

Log milage

Build Strength

Improving strength on the bike starts in the weight room. Challenging your maximum strength with lifts like squats and deadlifts builds a platform of force production on which you build your sport specific strength and endurance. A strength program in the gym ideally includes a phase in pre-season building to maximum strength with lifts in the 5-8 rep range to prepare you for more specific strength work on the bike.

Specific strength training on the bike is incorporated using a combination of maximum force and strength endurance workouts. Here are two workouts addressing these qualities. You can perform these workouts on the H3 on your mountain bike in order to create more resistance. The benefit of using ERG mode on a trainer is the precise loading of efforts and recovery. Sometimes it is difficult to find a hill long or hard enough or a section where recovery can be optimized.

Creating a workout for exact dosing of training takes all the guesswork out of where you are going to do a session. Similarly, going all out on a mountain bike is sometimes unnerving as you still need to control your bike during and after the interval, so the terrain you are riding is a factor. This is a skill specific to mountain bike racing and should be practiced but not necessarily every session.

Max Force Repeats Workout Example

  • Warm-up 10 minutes
  • Ramp by 30 seconds for 2 minutes to prime the legs
  • 5 minutes easy
  • 6 x 20 minute maximum effort at 50-60 rpm to build maximum force
  • Easy spin in between

Max Force Repeats.

Strength Endurance Repeats Workout Example

  • 20 minute warm-up building intensity
  • 4 x 15 seconds hard / 45 seconds easy
  • Adjust watts as you feel comfortable. This should feel very hard, like a leg press. Not super hard, like a speed interval.
  • You can spin a bit longer in your warm-down, if you have time to build endurance.

Strength Endurance Repeats.

Perform Some Fasted Training

Athletes with limited time can boost the endurance benefit of a short session by performing some fasted sessions. This means starting sessions first thing in the morning before breakfast. This stress increases mitochondrial biogenesis, or production of the little power plants in the muscle cells responsible for energy production, and trains the body to use fat efficiently as a fuel source.

Fasted training should be performed at low intensity. This ensures the training remains aerobic while in a low energy state. Combining both low fuel and high intensity training is risky as it becomes very difficult to recover from. This training should be used carefully.

Simply adding 30 minutes to an hour of low intensity fasted training in the morning to a day you are planning cycling workout in the evening boosts the endurance training stimulus to that day. Over time, these short additional workouts pack a significant training benefit to your overall training stimulus.

Endurance training does not mean all easy, low intensity training. A well rounded program addresses maximum strength and strength endurance while incorporating long bouts of lower intensity mileage. Adding some short, fast bursts of speed just having fun riding your mountain bike is enough to stay in touch with higher zones of intensity while you are building endurance. Good luck this season!

Melanie McQuaid

Melanie McQuaid is a former Canadian National Team Pro mountain bike and road cyclist and is a 5x World Champion professional triathlete. Her elite and age group athletes cycling and triathlon coaching program, MelRad Multisport, is at www.melrad.com, and on Instagram.