Ready to ride more technical trails? Here’s what you need to know.
Bicycling | March 2023
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Once your mind adjusts to the chaos of pedaling through rocky, uneven terrain and your lungs prove that, yes, you are capable of climbing uphillon a bike—sometimes for hundreds of vertical feet—you might start to wonder, where else can I go on my bike? How can I squeeze more two-wheel, off-road adventures into my days?
If you don’t live in the mountains, those technical ascents and descentsmight be calling your name for an introductory trip. Or, you might be interested in exploring a new region. No matter the ultimate goal, here’s how to take your mountain biking skills to the next level with longer rides, improved technique, and what to do if you want to race.
1. Lean into climbs
On flat sections of trails, a rider’s body will be neutral on the bike with their weight evenly distributed between the hands, feet, and saddle. There’s a slight bend in the elbows to help absorb bumps.
As you climb, your body will lean slightly forward, especially as an ascent gets more difficult, explains says endurance mountain bike coach, Scott Tietzel. You can sit a bit further on the nose of the saddle to help keep your weight ahead of the rear wheel. Just remember that if you lean too far forward, the rear tire will lose traction, adds coach Joe Howdyshell, who founded the Summit Endurance Academybased in Breckenridge, Colorado.
When the slope gets very steep, bend the elbows more and get your chest closer to the handlebars to help counteract the angle of the ground. Leaning forward also helps keep the front wheel on the ground.
“For climbs, and especially if you do a longer climb, there might be times when you want to stand while you pedal, because it will engage the muscles in legs differently and you can change your cadence, which counteracts the fatigue and strain that is put on the legs over an extended period of time. It can make the climb a little bit easier,” says Tietzel.
If you want to conserve energy for the downhill, some riders will also walk their bike on super steep climbs and technical uphills in order to keep their heart rate and exertion lower, adds Howdyshell. All of this is totally okay—just make it work for you.
2. Drop to a low gear
A general benchmark for cadence on a ride is around 80 rpm, but on a steep climb you might dip as low as 60 rpms, says Tietzel. “You always want to use the gears you have available on your bike to try and keep your legs spinning and keep the load as light as possible so you’re not getting bogged down,” Tietzel says.
If your trails are loaded with steeper, longer climbs, consider changing the stock chainrings on your bike. “A chainring is a simple, cost-effective way to change the way your bike climbs. It’s a quick, easy swap to go from say a 34-tooth chainring to a 32-tooth,” Tietzel says.
When the number of teeth increases on a chainring, the gear ratio will also increase, which can be physically harder to pedal due to resistance. (Gear ratio is the number of teeth on the chainring divided by the number of teeth on the cog.) In contrast, a chainring with fewer teeth will provide a lower gear ratio, which increases torque, is easier to pedal, and helps on climbs.
While beginner riders may use flat sections on the trail as rest, especially if their heart rate is super high, as your fitness improves, you can add resistance back in more quickly. “As you become an intermediate and advanced rider and get more fit, you’ll be able to click up the gear every time the trail flattens out or the grade lessens,” which will help you move faster, Howdyshell explains.
3. Sharpen your technical skills
Whether you’re going on a ride or racing, your technical skills influence not only speed, but energy expenditure—which can support or hinder your ability to do (and enjoy) bigger rides.
“If you can’t ride over an obstacle, you’re potentially stopping and carrying your bike, and that might be a larger energy expenditure opposed to if you practiced riding that obstacle at the bike park and rode right over it in the trail,” says Tietzel.
A seasoned rider that’s spent time honing their technical skills—their ability to ride obstacles such as pedaling up steep boulders, through chunky rock gardens, downshifting for sudden uphill transitions, steering through sharp turns, or descending quickly and safely, to name a few examples—over a variety of terrain is going to be faster without really using extra energy, says Tietzel. “You can gain speed and efficiency from mastering technique,” he says.
To develop your skills, practice riding at a pump track or bike park, take a lesson, session a technical trail with friends, or watch how other mountain bikers navigate terrain in terms of line choice and body positioning.
Investing in a lift-served downhill bike park season pass is also an optimal way to get high-volume practice, as mastering descents will definitely elevate your mtb rides. “There is no better way to improve your mountain bike skills than to go somewhere where you can take the lift or shuttle up,” says Howdyshell.
“The more skilled you are, the less you’ll use your brakes on the downhill. The less you use your brakes the less you have to accelerate again,” he adds. “You want to pedal as little as possible to save energy.”
4. Focus your training on duration versus distance
When you consider your next big ride, look at the average duration rather than focusing on the distance.
A difficult eight-mile ride with 1,152 feet of climbing might take two hours while another 8-mile segment with 600 feet of gain takes about half that time. Mountain biking’s dynamic nature—with natural obstacles like boulders and fallen trees, drops, and switchbacks, plus elevation change—can increase travel time and change a route’s difficulty.
“Terrain dictates the amount of distance you’ll cover. If it is more technical or it is a lot of elevation change, you will be moving slower,” Tietzel.
As a general benchmark, says Tietzel, beginners might start with two hour-long rides and one two-hour ride per week. A three-hour ride would be a substantial effort. For an intermediate rider, a four-hour ride once weekly is a good marker to grow endurance.
Howdyshell suggests only doing your high-volume ride every other week—be it three, four, or five hours—especially if you ride an hour every day. Otherwise, “you’ll blow up most of your weekday rides,” and make recovery more difficult, he says.
Recording your personal time on mountain rides will help you estimate the timeframe you’ll need to ride longer, more difficult routes. Established mountain bike trails are usually rated by difficulty.
Research routes beforehand on apps like MTB Project or Strava, which show trip durations, or visit local trail crew websites, which may publish the average times for rides. (Helpful note: mountain bike trails are usually rated like ski trails—green, blue, black, double black—though the rating is typically relative. A green in Whistler is not the same a green in Florida, for example.)
5. Fuel up and hydrate
If you’re planning on a several-hour ride, eat a hearty breakfast about one to two hours before you start. The same rule applies for races, says Tietzel.
While you’re out there, eat and drink the entire time. Aim to consume 300 to 400 calories per hour, depending on your body size and the intensity of the ride, says Tietzel.
Howdyshell notes that it’s important to take in calories (carbs in particular) on the climb, with water. A moderately-hard ride with breaks might require 60 grams of carbs an hour, while someone racing at a higher intensity should aim for closer to 100 grams of carbs an hour, says Howdyshell.
One way to get calories is through a concentrated drink mix in addition to solid food, which should be washed down with water. For fluids, target to intake 18 to 24 ounces per hour.
“As long as you ride where there’s water, having a water filter is great. My partners and I ride with water filters, because that goes back to not carrying so much weight with you. Water is very heavy to have on your bike or in your pack,” says Tietzel.
6. Fine-tune your workouts
To help improve endurance and fitness, do training that mimics the power output you’ll be doing on the trail. For example, do workouts on a road bike or indoor trainer that include 30-second power bursts or other interval sessions assigned by a coach, says Tietzel.
Long rides improve aerobic efficiency and overall endurance. But if you’re racing an event or you want to meet a specific time goal, add intensity training to your weekly routine. “Intervals will increase your anaerobic threshold and help you bike at a higher intensity level during an event or ride,” says Tietzel.
“For someone training to race, 20 percent of their total volume of training would be dedicated to higher intensity at their threshold, which is a level you can maintain for 30 to 60 minutes. Do two to three slightly longer intervals [at this effort] that are eight to 20 minutes each,” says Tietzel.
If you do five rides per week, Howdyshell recommends one hard rideworkout per week.
Tietzel warns that burnout can follow too much high-intensity training. Usually one to two workouts per week, balanced with rest and recovery, does the trick. A coach can help offer more specific guidance about how to structure rest and easy rides with tailored workouts.
7. Tailor terrain choice to your races
Racers and goal-oriented mountain bikers: If there’s a specific ride or race you’re targeting, study the terrain profile and do training rides that prep you for that.
“If you’re looking to target a specific ride or race that has more climbing than what you’re used to, do climbing as part of your regular ride routine,” says Tietzel.
If you live in a flatter area, you can practice climbing indoors using resistance on an indoor trainer like Zwift. Or, ride against a headwind outside.
“No matter how perfectly you fuel and execute your ride, if you train three hours a week, a five-hour ride will suck—doesn’t matter how expensive your bike is or how many massages you got,” Howdyshell says. “If you want it to feel good, you have to train.”
8. Know your effort level
Using tools to measure your output level can help you understand the effort and duration you can sustain on a mountain bike. A power meter is the most reliable tool for mountain bikers to measure energy output, followed by heart rate, says Tietzel.
To make the most of a power meter, you should also run a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test to know the average number of watts per hour that you can sustain on a ride. The test helps hone your threshold and personalized training zones based on power.
Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) and TrainingPeaks are both standard sources with tools for cycling FTP tests, notes Tietzel. Zwift also offers FTP tests so you can perform the 20-minute effort in a controlled environment on your trainer.
Training zones correlate with the average power output and heart rate (HR) zones, according to Training Peaks. “Zone 2 [which is 56 to 75 percent of FTP] would be where your endurance training would happen—that might be at 160 to 180 watts. Someone who is training for an endurance event will spend up to 80 percent of their total training volume in that zone 2,” says Tietzel. Howdyshell agrees.
Utilizing power zones for training can help ensure variety in your workouts, which leads to greater fitness.
“The two biggest mistakes athletes make is riding too hard on their easy rides, and not riding hard enough on hard rides. If you go too low power in the VO2 max zone and too high in the endurance zone, you are closing the gap rather than doing polarized workouts. You won’t gain as much,” explains Tietzel. Fatigue will also accumulate if you ride too hard on easy days.
During events, “a racer keeps the same effort level and power output the whole way. They will gear down when it gets steep and gear up when it flattens, adjusting to the grade,” adds Howdyshell. That’s a good goal to work toward.
Additionally, using heart rate data is the “best bang for your buck. You can spend a couple hundred bucks on a really good hear rate monitor, do a lactate threshold test, and figure out your heart rate zones,” adds Howdyshell.
Natalie R Starr
9. Be aware of altitude
Pedaling at 1,900 feet above sea level differs from riding at 12,500 feet. Even physically fit travelers can experience altitude sickness. So if you’re traveling to a higher altitude to bike, your body will need time to adjust upon arrival, says Tietzel.
Through the Boundless coaching program, Tieztel prepares athletes for high altitude riding, focusing on the annual Leadville Trail 100 MTB: a 105-mile event with 11,928 feet of elevation change and a pinnacle at 12,516 feet. His advice for those traveling to higher locations: expect your performance metrics to go down. “You’re looking at a drop in power for every 1,000 feet you go up, and it could be more, especially if you’re not acclimated to the altitude,” he says. In other words, a rider’s FTP is lower at altitude than it is at sea level.
Research backs this up, as a PLOS One study published in 2015 found that the peak power output and maximal mean power output were lower when cyclists raced above 9,000 feet, compared to racing near sea level.
Every person’s body adjusts differently to altitude based on genetics, how long they’ve lived at their home altitude, the altitude difference where they plan to race, and other health factors, such as cardiac history.
Be sure to speak with your physician and coach to create an acclimatization plan that’s tailored to your health needs if you’re trying to get a place on a podium. But if you’re traveling to a high-altitude location to elevate your riding skills, just know your power numbers might be lower—and your breathing more labored. Slow down when you need to so you can keep riding.