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3 Workouts to Train for a Mountain Bike Race

BY Lynda Wallenfels

Going out for a mountain bike ride does make you fit, and it is fun, but if you want to be faster you need to put some structured training into your plan. 

Most mountain bikers enjoy riding trails recreationally for a long time before thinking of racing. The more time a rider spends on the bike the better their skills, fitness and speed becomes- leading to thoughts of racing and testing their limits. Those tests range from racing a cross country event to completing a 50 miler or more.

After a couple of races everybody wants to get faster. That’s what racing is all about! Just riding around made you fit, so even more time riding will make you fast, right? This is the training strategy a large majority of mountain bike racers default to– just going out and riding more. This strategy does make you fit, and it is fun, but if you want to be faster you need to put some structured training into your plan.

Mountain bikers are an independent group of people who love their dirt. The good news is you don’t have buy a road bike or give up your trail time to get structured training done. Here are three workouts done in the dirt on your mountain bike to improve your race speed.

Climbing Endurance

Not surprisingly, mountain bike races are typically held on mountainous to hilly terrain. Even in the Midwest race organizers find every hill they can. To do well and finish strong you’ll need to be a strong climber. 


Find a long, steady jeep road climb connecting to a single-track descent. Alternate terrain for those riders living in the flatlands is a long flat dirt road with no stops connecting to some fun trails.


Warm up, and then ride up a jeep road in the middle of heart rate zone 3, power L3 or tempo pace. Stay on the gas non-stop the entire climb. The key is keeping your heart rate up with no breaks. Start with a 30 minute climb and work your way up to a 90 minute climb over a few weeks. Climbing in heart rate zone 3 will feel easy for the first half of the tempo. Hold back and stick to the target intensity so you can keep it up in the second half. When you achieve 90 minutes non-stop with no fade in the middle of zone 3, increase your heart rate to the upper end of zone 3 for your tempo target intensity. This is also a great opportunity to work on your cadence. Do this workout 1-2 times per week in the base training period.

At the top of your climb, take a short rest to refuel then hit the single-track descent. Descend how you feel. Focus on riding quietly, smoothly and flowing down the descent, or rip it and practice your race pace descending skills.

Climbing Power

Along with stamina, you’ll need sheer power to get up the climbs. When you encounter a steep grade that is rutted out or has roots over it you’ll need to put out a big effort to power through and just stay on the bike.


Use a short loop or an out and back on a trail with a 3-4 minute climb. The trail can have some moderate technical features but you must be able to ride them 100% of the time. The goal is to ride non-stop up the climb.


Warm up very well, then ride uphill for 3-4 minutes in heart rate zone 5 or power L5 or VO2max pace. Without stopping, descend to the start, coasting and recovering for 3 minutes. This is one interval. Start with 4 intervals and work up to 6 intervals over a few weeks. Do this workout once per week in the build training period.

Fast Starts

The start of a mountain bike race is a crucial separation point. Getting the hole-shot to the single-track gives you the advantage and strings out your opponents on the trail behind you. The ability to start fast and recover at race pace is trainable and key for cross country racers.


Mimic the start of your most important race or your next race. Generally this is a flat wide open area that narrows down to single-track after a few minutes.


This is a great session to do with a group of riders to increase your motivation, add some competition and adapt to riding at max pace elbow to elbow. Practice your race-day warm-up before the start. Line up on your start line with one foot clipped in and the other foot on the ground. Check you are in the correct gear for a fast acceleration. Practice different gears on each start until you have it nailed. Clip in smoothly and accelerate quickly off the start line. Ride at max pace for 1 minute then without stopping settle in at threshold pace or heart rate zone 4 or power L4 for another 9 minutes. Spin easily back to your start line. Do 2 starts and work up to 4 over a few weeks. Do this workout once per week during the month leading up to your most important race.

Any mountain biker with no interest in riding on the road can add a smart structured mountain bike training plan staying 100% in the dirt. A few well-placed structured workouts added to a base diet of just riding around will quickly increase performance and improve race results.

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About Lynda Wallenfels

Lynda Wallenfels is a Level 1 certified USA Cycling coach. She coaches mountain bike, cross country and endurance athletes to personal bests and national championships. Lynda has been coaching off-road athletes for 16 years and racing professionally for 18 years. Contact her through her website for information on mountain bike training plans, coaching and consulting at

Visit Lynda Wallenfels's Coach Profile