How To Train For Mountain Biking

There are a number of different reasons why you might want to seriously train for mountain biking, but perhaps the main reason why you should do so is if you want to participate in a mountain bike race. It might sound simple to train for a race, but there are a number of factors that must be considered before you can even approach the start line.

To a novice who is new to this sport it may seem like there is only mountain biking and that is it. However, there are actually multiple kinds of mountain biking and multiple kinds of mountain bike races. Although they all feature the same general characteristics, there are a few important differences.

Two of the most popular mountain biking disciplines that have races are downhill mountain biking and cross-country mountain biking. Downhill is pretty straightforward, since the race course is entirely downhill. Cross country races can vary, but they usually consist of forest paths, trails, and include segments that are flat, uphill, and downhill.

When it comes to different races, the preparations that you need to make in order to participate in these races can be a little different, as well as the training methods that are best suited for each kind of race. There are some training methods that suitable for every kind of mountain bike race, and this is what I will be focusing on.

Not all of the techniques that you can use to train for races are suitable for beginners. Like every other kind of discipline, more experienced and accomplished riders can do things that are not suitable for less experienced riders.

This being the case, one of the first things that you should keep in mind is your own skill set and capabilities, and although it is a good thing to push yourself, you should never take this so far that you get yourself injured. Then there are other important things to, such as how to prepare a mountain bike for a race and what kind of bike is necessary for each kind of race.

Cross Country

One of the most popular mountain bike disciplines is cross-country cycling or “XC”. The terrain is what sets cross country riding apart and cross country courses usually involve a combination of rough forest paths and smoother, flatter areas with very few pathed paths.

Although these are generally not as physically demanding as downhill races, XC races present their own challenges. They can feature difficult obstacles including trails along slopes and hills, rocky outcrops, and even bridges.

XC races also tend to cover longer distances presenting a different kind of endurance test. Technical skills are also still important. Because of the distant covered, a rider can encounter many kinds of terrain during a race and may have to make split second decisions on how to approach a unique stretch of trail.

Although it doesn’t require the explosiveness of a downhill race, endurance and stamina is still critical. Riders must be able to keep pace for longer, sustained periods of time. A rider must also be able to accelerate quickly when necessary. In other words, aerobic endurance is key here, or the ability to sustain a motion for an extended period of time.

Training methods vary, but riders usually focus on improving their speed and distance. Additionally, riders work on the technical skills required during a transfer from a long, smooth tracks to more rugged ones.


Downhill mountain biking is exactly how it sounds. The entire race is downhill and features jumps, drops, bridges, and many other obstacles. It is truly a test of one’s endurance and technical riding ability. Downhill races are different from traditional mountain bike races in a variety of ways.

For starters, a different bike is required to compete in a downhill race. The bike is heavier and thicker with stronger suspensions in order to withstand the unique wear and tear of a downhill race. Furthermore, they tend to have both front and rear suspension.

These unique features are necessary if a bike is required to traverse the tough terrain encountered during a downhill race. A smaller bike with only front suspension won’t be able to power over tree roots, rocks, and other debris at high speed. Additionally, downhill bikes have fatter tires which, again, are a necessity because of the terrain.

Racing formats can vary. In some races, riders are granted a double attempt to finish the race. In other words, what this means is that if they leave the boundaries of the course, which is known as breaking the tape, they are granted a second attempt to finish the course. In other races, they are only granted a single attempt to finish.

The strategy is also unique. Because downhill races often feature intense obstacles, the rider has to make a choice between the shortest possible route to the finish line and the route that can be traveled at the highest speed. This is a more difficult decision than it seems.

The route that is the shortest often features far more obstacles. However, if a rider is confident in his technical skills, the shorter distance of this route might be enticing. The route that can be traveled at the highest speed might be better suited for less experienced riders.

The riders are sorted at the start line into intervals, often from slowest to fastest. Races usually only take two to five minutes to finish which means margins of victory are often very tight, often less than a second. If a rider violates the rules or leaves the course, then they can be docked time as punishment.

While riding downhill doesn’t sound that physically demanding, downhill mountain biking is much different than even downhill road biking. Downhill mountain bikers simply cannot coast down the track without pedaling since this would make a crash inevitable.

On a downhill course the rider must constantly alter his speed depending on the obstacles before him. If he is going over a patch of rocks he must remember to hit the brakes before he reaches that spot and not during it. Navigating such obstacles also requires a great degree of balance.

All of this makes for a very physically strenuous activity. If a rider doesn’t prepare properly, their legs might end up turning to jelly half-way through the race. However, competitive downhill riders don’t merely want to finish the race, they want to win the race.

In order to do this, they don’t simply want to cautiously make their way through obstacles, they want to power through them as fast as physically possible. This requires a tremendous amount of endurance where every pedal stroke must be focused and performed with vigor.

There is no universal way to get ready for this kind of a race. Each rider is different, so each routine should be a little bit different. However, most routines contain the same general ideas no matter who you are or where you are starting from.

Many riders incorporate high-intensity interval training into their routines. These are designed to push your body intensely for a short period of time. Each interval should focus on a different skill or body part. These exercises are a great way to strengthen the body in preparation for a downhill race.

Interval sessions shouldn’t focus entirely on muscle building. They should also focus on improving balance, flexibility, and range of motion. There are also a few other things that you could work on in order to train for a downhill mountain biking race, and a few exercises that are really good to do.

Rules For All Race Types

As mentioned, there are some general training rules that apply to every kind of mountain bike race. Following these tips are necessary for success in your next race. Remember that a key part of performing well is preparation and the effort that you put into preparing for your next race directly relates to your chances of success in addition to your training.

Learn about the Course

Every mountain course is different. These differences may seem insignificant, but when you are flying down a mountain at 30 miles per hour if you failed to account for subtle bumps then this can have a severe consequence. It is very important to familiarize yourself with the course before a race if at all possible.

When you are learning the terrain you want to pay close attention to the curves, especially looking out for the blind spots, which parts are uphill that might be technical, and which are downhill that you might need to brake before.

Having an in-depth knowledge of the course that you will be racing on as far ahead of time as possible means you can better focus your training. It also means you won’t encounter any surprises on race day. For example, if you know that an enormous uphill climb lies at the end of a race, you will know to pace yourself early on and can work on your uphill abilities.

There is a detailed map available for the most popular courses. If you can’t find a map, you can sometimes inquire with the races organizers and they will likely be able to provide one for you. If it is possible, at least take a ride around the track before the race.

This is obviously the best way to learn the track since a map doesn’t always properly illustrate the idiosyncrasies of terrain. Sometimes you don’t truly appreciate how big a hill is until you are actually trying to ride it. However, it is not always possible to ride a track immediately before a race, and this is something that might have to ask the race authorities about.

Make Sure Your Bike Is Good Condition

Making sure that your mountain bike is in good condition is perhaps most important thing that you could do the day before the race. You won’t win many races if your bike breaks after the first mile. Take your bike on a test ride on terrain similar to the kind that you expect to see in the race.

Taking your bike on a test spin is also a good way to check your tire pressure, if you are feeling too many bumps you might have a tire pressure issue. Also, clean your bike until it sparkles. Bike cleanliness is important on race day, but it also increases the longevity of your bike. Finally, lube your chain to ensure it works smoothly for you during the race.

Before The Race

Making sure that your body is prepared is as important as ensuring your bike is prepared. You will expend an incredible amount of energy during a mountain bike race even if you are no trying to win. To win a race you need the necessary calories to give you the energy that you need.

While you might want to go all out training the week before the race, this often is not a good idea since you don’t want to be exhausted on race day. It is better to do only light exercises the week of the race so that you will be fresh on the race day.

Your pre-race is the time period a week before the race and your preparation should be as much mental as it is physical. Your routine shouldn’t have a lot of intense workouts and long rides. You should spend time going over the course map, eating the right food, and getting in a good state of mind. Take a slow ride around the course if you have time and the organizers allows it.

Have everything you need ready for race day the night before. Scurrying around getting everything ready in the morning will cloud your focus. The morning of the race should be spent getting your mind in the right place. Additionally, you need time before the race to make sure your bike and all other gear are in the best possible shape.

Improve Your Stamina 

Mountain bike races can be a grueling test of one’s physical fitness. This being the case, you will need to be in great biking shape in order to compete in any respectable race. This, of course, requires training. In particular, you should get used to riding your bike for long periods of time.

Building endurance doesn’t always mean riding on difficult mountainous terrain, you can start by simply riding on simple trails. After you are able to ride for long periods you can start to practice the more technical aspects of mountain biking.

Just remember to always push yourself. Start off riding a distance that you are comfortable with and add a little bit more each time you ride. Additionally, change up your course. Get used to riding up steep inclines, severe slopes, and everything in between.

Maybe your race isn’t until the summer and there is currently a foot of snow on the ground. You don’t have to go outside to train. If you can afford it you can get a stationary bike and train from the comfort of your home. Though these are not as good as training on the trail, many of the most basic stationary bikes have features that allow you to track average mileage and speed.

The most important muscles when it comes to mountain biking are your leg muscles. Because of this, exercises like squats, wall sits, lounges, and other such ones are great options to get your legs working and start building muscles in your quads, calves, and thighs. Stronger legs mean that you will be able to accelerate quicker, push through tough terrain, and last longer.

It’s critical that you get used to riding in “the red zone”. The red zone refers to the burning sensation a rider feels in their thighs in the later half of a race. The burning is a result of the lactic acid that is produced during aerobic exercise.

This feeling can be painful and it requires mental toughness to push through and maintain a decent speed. The best way to get comfortable riding in the red zone is to actually practice riding in the red zone.

After riding in the red zone a person’s legs may feel like wet noodles, but this is a good thing. It may be difficult to recover initially but after each time recovery should get a little easier. A rider’s legs no longer feeling like jelly after a red zone ride is a sign of progress.

Master the Art of Goal Making

Make sure your goals are achievable while pushing yourself. If you are a new mountain biker, remember to have fun while you are at it. If you have fun during the race then you will be encouraged to train harder for your next one. It is understandable to want to finish in a certain position, but start small and push yourself to improve every time you race.

Technical Skills

Getting out on the track is very important. Practice your skills on technical tracks that are challenging to ride. At this stage failing is a good thing, this lets you know the areas you need to work on. Don’t be shy about finding others to ride with since practicing with others, especially experienced rides, is a great way to learn new skills and get solid advice.

Work on Sprinting

Usually, the entire course for the race does not feature obstacles. Most downhill races will include some relatively flat and smooth areas where the rider can really push faster. This type of riding is called “sprinting”.

Being fast and explosive during a sprinting area is an important part of a successful downhill rider’s abilities and this is an easy skill to improve on. Simply find a flat area without obstacles and practicing riding as fast as you can, not even necessarily for a long stretch of time.

Ball Throws

Ball throws is a great exercise that you can do in order to work on explosiveness. The exercise is as basic as it sounds. Simply take a dense, heavy exercise ball and throw into a wall, floor, or simply high into the air.

You could also do this exercise lying on the floor, simply toss the ball into the air and have a partner catch it. Your partner will drop the ball back down to you and you can repeat the exercise. Fire the ball up into the air as high as you can each time.

Squat Jumps

Bike control during a race is critical with your core strength being necessary for bike control. A great way to develop your core strength is to do squat jumps. Simply place weight across your shoulders, squat down, and then explode into the air.

This is a great way to strengthen your legs and your core. Additionally, it is also an excellent way to increase your explosiveness. However, always perform this move with a manageable amount of weight and warm up first so that you do not pull a muscle.

Box Jumps

During a race, you will often have a drop that is a few feet that you have to do. It is very important for obvious reasons that you are able to land on two wheels at the end of this. Balance and core strength are obviously at the center of this skill.

Box jumps is a great to learn how to control your bike during a drop. The exercise is simple and to start you have to stack two exercise boxes, climb on top of them, and then drop down onto the floor. The height of the boxes should be just greater than your vertical leap. Practice keeping your balance each time you drop. If you trip or stumble upon landing you know you need practice this more.

Side Planks

This is another great way to strengthen your core. The key here is to hold a flat position for as long as you are able to do so. When you’re unable to hold any longer, stop and rest. Repetition is key to this exercise.

You should work on holding your side plank longer each time. During a downhill mountain bike race you’ll have to learn to balance and stay upright in awkward positions. The side plank is a great way to develop this skill.


With every kind of mountain bike race, nutrition is critical as is hydration. XC riders with long trails should take in one liter of water per hour. It also might be good to mix in Gatorade or another electrolyte fueled drink.

Additionally, maintaining a constant speed over a long period of time means carbs. However, these should be carbohydrates that are low in fat with good amounts of protein since you do not want to be weighed down during the race. You will know if you ate right if you have good stamina even in the later stages of the race.

How to Find Get Involved In Mountain Bike Racing

There are a number of different organizations that organize mountain bike races. The United States Cycling Association is good place to look for training materials and information about upcoming races. There are also many organizations that list upcoming local races and trails, such as the MTB Project.

The MTB Project, and other sites that are like it, also give in-depth information on popular trails including their difficulty level, the terrain involved, and the average time it takes to complete it. These organizations also host classes where people can learn important mountain biking skills such as how to prepare your bike.


Taking part in a mountain bike race is truly a test of one’s physical and mental strength. Rarely are so many different physical skills tested in single athletic event. To finish, and be competitive, in a mountain biking race a rider must have great physical strength, balance, flexibility, and stamina.

In addition to these physical attributes, a rider should possess technical skills like how to maneuver around different obstacles and how to approach sharp turns at fast speeds. Indeed, before competing in a competitive mountain biking race a person should do the necessary training and planning.

Some of the more common training routines and exercises were discussed above, but in no way was this discussion complete because every rider is different, and so each training regiment is different. Often times, a rider learns the best way to train after years of participating in races. It takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Additionally, learning the type of race you’re best suited for, and find most enjoyable, is also a process. It’s possible to love, and excel at, downhill racing while not taking to XC racing and vice-a-versa. The best way to learn this is to participate in a variety of different races.

Furthermore, training for, and participating in, numerous unique events is the way to become a great all-around mountain biker. Finally, although every rider wants to compete and win races, they should never lose sight of the overall objective – to have fun.

Mountain biking is a phenomenal way to strengthen your body and mind. It is also a great to test yourself and build confidence. Being able to appreciate and spend time in the great outdoors is an added bonus. Mountain biking is considered an adventure sport for a reason, it involves new experiences and is best done with excitement and enthusiasm.

Mike Rausa

I'm a 42 year old married father of 3 that fell in love with mountain biking late in life. Mountain biking quickly became my go to fitness activity. I created this blog to help beginners to advanced riders with tips and strategies to improve your riding experience. More About Me...

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