The physiological needs of a mountain bike athlete
As trail racing grows in popularity, the physiological needs of a mountain bike athlete become increasingly important to examine and understand. Racing a bike along a trail will require a different set of skills compared to racing on the road. Knowing how to power through a turn on the trail at 20 mph takes skill, and your entire body. Core strength is an essential element in off road cycling, as is the ability to produce greater amounts of power and force, working above your threshold ranges, for short to moderate durations. But core strength and the ability to perform short powerful efforts is not the only need of an off road cyclist. The ability to recover from each effort while continuing to pedal at a moderate to fast pace will play an even more important role.
Developing muscle endurance is one of the most important performance factors for all mountain bike athletes. More than 50% of all mountain bike races are done at a moderate intensity, which requires muscle endurance (1). Approximately 30% of all races are spent working at a high intensity (1).
Trail races will require navigating rocky terrain, hopping over logs, or climbing short steep hills. All of these challenges will require a rider to produce short to moderate bursts of power at threshold or above. The ability to recover from hard short efforts, while continuing to pedal at a fast pace, is a key element to increasing fitness and speed as a mountain bike athlete. Unlike a road cyclist who can draft from a team of riders while recovering, or coast downhill, a mountain bike cyclist needs to recover without the help of others while pedaling uphill or downhill on the trail. Riding downhill on a trail is work, requiring isometric muscle contractions and a strong focus. So the more power you can produce while recovering, working in your aerobic power ranges, and dealing with other forms of muscle fatigue, such as isometric contractions, the faster you will be in the race.
Riding at a moderate intensity, while recovering from hard efforts, demands muscle endurance. Increases in aerobic enzyme activity, mitochondrial density, and capillary density, are a few of the adaptations that happen within the muscle that relate to an increase in muscle endurance. These adaptations happen while working various aerobic intensities with mainly deep breathing and steady paces. Ironically, a road is the best place to work these steady efforts. An increase in muscle endurance will allow you to utilize more oxygen within the system as well as the ability to burn more fat as fuel at higher intensities. This all relates to an increase in overall endurance during a race and allows a mountain biker the opportunity to utilize more potential top end power more often, thus resulting in a faster athlete.
A recent study done on the physiology of mountain biking, studying elite mountain bike athletes, shows peak power outputs up to 500 watts during the start of events and while climbing short steep hills (1). A mountain bike athlete spends most of his/her time working against gravity, whether on the hills or against the greater rolling resistance of the trail (1). Thus, a mountain biker is required to produce power above threshold ranges, from 3-10 second efforts to 1-3 minute efforts, while powering though short steep climbs, over logs, or during tough technical sections of trail. Thus, increasing power at threshold and above is yet another important aspect of an off road cyclist, and can be achieved while working force efforts on the roads, riding trails on a single speed, or racing a few friends on the local trails.
So, when in the training mindset, working good force for short to moderate durations to make gains in upper end power is important. But, keep in mind that working on this type of power must be well timed throughout the year. If you are always focused on working hard efforts, you will then miss the opportunity to make gains in muscle endurance, which – as noted above – is one of the most crucial aspects of training for an off road cyclist.
At the same time, the importance of core strength for an off road athlete can not be underestimated. One could argue that a strong core is the most important aspect of off road cycling, since a core that fatigues fast will result in a loss in power. As a mountain bike cyclist, you will need to maneuver over obstacles such as logs, large rocks, and varied terrain. If the muscles in your abdomen, lower back, or upper chest become weak from this required maneuvering, you lose the potential to utilize power in your legs.
A fatigued core leads to a loss of power, as a result of poor mechanics on the bike. The more mechanically sound you are on the trail the more potential you have to produce power for a longer period of time. Once you miss a line around a rock or over a log consistently, due to a weaker core, you expend more energy throughout the race, particularly in your legs, resulting in additional energy used. Working through technical sections with a stronger core will allow you to remain stable and efficient, and reduce mistakes. So, said simply, the more core strength you have, the faster you will be on the trails.
A mountain bike athlete must be able to work steady moderate efforts for longer periods of time, produce power at threshold ranges and above, and recover from hard powerful efforts. But just as important are a strong focus and the will to succeed. The trail can be an unforgiving place, especially if you are feeling a great amount of fatigue. There are no other riders to pull you along while working on the trail. With smart training resulting in gains in overall endurance, power and core strength – along with strong motivation – a mountain bike athlete possesses the potential to work efficiently and faster over a longer period of time.
Mike Schultz CSCS
1 – Impellizzeri F, Marcora S. The Physiology of Mountain Biking. Sports Medicine [serial online]. January 2007;37(1):59-71.
2 – Baechle T, and Earle, R., 2000, Essentials of Strength and conditioning, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Il, 658p.
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