How To Best Prepare For The Endurance Mountain Bike Racing Season

Training for Endurance Mountain Biking Race Season

BY Taylor Thomas

Endurance mountain bike racing season is about to begin, so here is how to improve your endurance, strength and speed off-road so your training is in line with your performance goals.

With the growing popularity and availability of ultra endurance mountain bike races, the need to focus specifically on the demands of these events is more important than ever. Races are beginning earlier in the year and are more and more competitive with each season. As an ultra endurance racer you no doubt have your sights set on race series such as the NUE, the Leadville Trail 100, or key qualifying opportunities for priority races. Whether it’s a 50- or 100- mile event, these races take a unique and focused approach to training to ensure proper preparation and success. Knowing how to begin your training, and what areas of focus are important to endurance mountain bike racers, will help you start your season off right.

How to Develop Endurance

Endurance is undoubtedly the foundation of mountain bike racing. The ability to overcome fatigue and train your body to continue to be efficient as the hours roll on is the cornerstone for off-road endurance athletes. If you’re coming out of the off-season and beginning to plan your build up to your first priority race of the year, you likely have a solid base on which to build from. You’ve most likely spent the winter focused on aerobic rides, weightlifting and cross training. These things have kept you fresh, allowed you to recharge mentally, and have helped you maintain the proper foundation to begin race-focused training again. Now it’s time to get to work! Unlike shorter XC and short track races, endurance events require a certain amount of time (volume) on the bike to prepare. Here’s several things to keep in mind as you begin training to increase your endurance.  

  • The longer the race, the longer the training rides should be. Completing longer races means completing longer training rides. Make sure you’re building towards long off road rides leading up to your race.
  • Begin slowly as you build volume into your training plan. As you progress, add intensity to your rides to begin to match race-paced level efforts. Eight to 12 weeks out from your first “A” race try a “fast finish” ride (off-road) to test your endurance and aerobic capacity. These rides are completed by riding at race pace for the last 30-45 minutes of a long endurance ride. Try a few of these leading up to your race.
  • Get outside as soon as possible. If you’re in an area affected by winter weather then hit the roads first, and then the trails as soon as you’re able. Mountain bike racing is as much about skill as it is fitness, so ride off-road early and often.
  • Developing muscular endurance is key. This is the combination of both endurance and strength that allows you to overcome fatigue and apply sustained power to the pedals. If you’re using tools such as WKO4, then TTE (Time to Exhaustion) and Stamina are key metrics to watch as you near race day.
  • “Stack” longer endurance rides, especially if you’re preparing for a 100-mile race. Take two to three days and perform multiple long endurance rides. This will help your body prepare for the cumulative stress of training for these longer events, as well as build fatigue resistance.

How to Improve MTB Strength

While it’s no secret that it takes endurance to complete an ultra endurance mountain bike ride, strength can also be just as important. When talking about strength as it relates to endurance MTB racers, we’re often referring to both strength training in the gym, as well as strength (force) on the bike and applied to the pedals. The off-season is the time to build maximum strength in the gym. Weight training in order to help increase slow-twitch muscle capabilities is a great foundation builder for endurance athletes.

Once you begin to prepare for your race season it’s important to continue to keep some type of strength work as part of your training, although it’s usually not focused on max weight, but more maintenance based. One of the unique components of endurance mountain bike racing is the strain that it puts on your entire body. Having a strong core and upper body can be the difference in you having a strong finish, or fighting to keep your form in tact in the final hours of the race. Dedicated strength sessions help to develop well-rounded athletes.

You’ll also want to develop strength on the bike. This can be done with individualized workouts designed to help increase strength and endurance. Hill repeats are a great go-to workout for endurance racers. Most 50 and 100 mile courses have a mix of both short and sustained climbs, adding to the difficulty and complexity of these types of events. If possible, try to match the specifics of the race with your workout. Longer, sustained climbs should be performed off-road and seated if possible. These sessions will not only build strength and endurance, but also refine your bike handling abilities if done off-road.

Another great way to develop leg strength is to ride a single speed mountain bike for some of your shorter training sessions. Shorter hill repeats or endurance rides can be completed on a single speed to increase the force applied to the pedals. You might try riding your favorite trail on a single speed to see how it changes the ride, or challenge yourself with a hard climb. This is a useful and fun approach earlier in your training period to build muscular endurance and leg strength. Be careful with single speed rides though. They often are more taxing than “traditional” geared rides, so be sure to keep that in mind as you plan your training.

How to Improve MTB Speed   

While endurance is of the utmost importance, speed is still a component of training for longer MTB races.This is especially true if your goal is to be competitive in your age group or overall. Races like the Leadville Trail 100 have gotten faster and faster over the years, despite the difficulties of the terrain. Anaerobic endurance is most often associated with XC races, and for good reason, as it’s a much more utilized skill set in shorter races. However, training aspects of these abilities can help you catch a competitor, climb out of the saddle, and keep up with a fast start. Below are a few ways to properly integrate these types of workouts into your training.

  • 10-12 weeks out from your “A” race, work in one to two sessions per week above threshold. These could be shorter hill repeats performed out of the saddle, or intervals of less than five minutes performed at VO2Max,
  • Shorter “C” priority races can act as good workouts to identify weaknesses. XC or marathon distance events are good chances to hone race-day skills. Make sure they’re two to four weeks out from your “A” race at a minimum. You can schedule several of these leading up to your “A” race, but remember to train through them, as they’re not a priority.
  • Working on lactate clearing helps to prepare the body for race paced efforts, fast starts, and recovery on climbs. All three of these can still be valuable adaptations to develop in preparation for longer races.

Ultra endurance races are a dynamic discipline that require specific and individualized preparation. While endurance is ultimately the most critical component of training for these races, strength and speed are still valuable pieces of the puzzle. Knowing how and when to integrate all of these components is important to ensure a successful race season. These events are challenging and take their toll on an athlete’s body. Proper training in the early part of the season helps build the confidence and strength necessary to tackle ultra endurance events.

To get an idea of the types of workouts and schedules that can help you prepare for your first ultra endurance race of the season, download this free four-week build plan HERE.

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About Taylor Thomas

Taylor Thomas is the owner and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. As a USAC and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified coach, he’s helped athletes at every level prepare for and reach their goals in road, mountain, and cyclocross.