Perhaps you are in the middle of a training block and your fitness is starting to plateau and stagnant or maybe you’ve been road riding the same loop day in and day out and motivation is starting to wane. Picking up another discipline of cycling might be just the right move to boost fitness and reignite the motivation flame. In this article, I’ll anecdotally unpack my personal journey of incorporating a mountain bike race season as I transition into racing on the road. In my experience, jumping on the mountain bike coming from a road racing background has not only improved my motivation for training, but has also improved my bike handling as well as my overall fitness level. 

Like many athletes across the country, the middle of February typically means building base and starting to incorporate race specific efforts for a Spring road season. Except this year, the race season has been pushed back to starting closer to Summer. Now there’s quite a large gap between the end of the offseason and the start of racing. Motivation can definitely start to take a hit with racing so far on the horizon. It can be really hard to keep building without any short term targets. My solution for disrupting the stagnation was to turn to the mountain bike. Taking myself out of my comfort zone and starting back near square one has done wonders for keeping me on track and staying in the right headspace. Grassroots mountain biking is one of the only forms of competition for me at the moment, so I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to get some race days in and springboard my fitness into a great road season.

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Apart from increased motivation, the skill crossover is very apparent as well. Mountain biking leads to faster reaction times, improved cornering at various speeds, and improved balance on the bike. All of these skills easily transfer over to the road to add confidence when cornering in a crit, maneuvering around obstacles in the road and keeping the bike upright in sticky situations. Racing the mountain bike has also drawn attention to more technical aspects that are often overlooked on the road. Tire pressure comes to mind, as it is an ever evolving discussion and when given some thought, tire pressure can be the difference between sticking the corner at high speed or washing the bike out. Another aspect the mountain bike teaches is how to read the terrain to anticipate gear selection. Getting stuck in the wrong gear up a punchy climb can cost precious seconds in a mountain bike race. Learning to always be in the right gear translates to road racing as well, especially in tight, hilly, technical crits and road races. In addition to the skill crossover the mountain bike provides, there is a clear fitness advantage the mountain bike offers that is hard to replicate on the road. 

Incorporating mountain biking and racing into my training plan has been a big boost to my early season fitness while keeping things new and fresh. The torque loads of mountain biking are quite different to road racing/riding. There are a lot of accelerations from low speed in mountain biking and this style of riding can improve force production, translating to better anaerobic and sprint power on the road. Training on the mountain bike can be an unstructured workout with similar benefits that you would find from standing start work or low rpm accelerations for improving high torque production. Nailing the start in a mountain bike race is very important as well and practicing hard starts gets you ready to fight for position from the gun in a hard, technical crit. I’m using mountain biking to also improve power at VO2max as well as threshold power.  

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Here are a couple screenshots of my latest mountain bike race. I don’t have any power data but the heart rate data paints a nice picture of the energy demands of a XC mountain bike race.

The first graphic has a nice graph of heart rate undulation throughout the race and the second graphic breaks down the time spent in each heart rate zone. The race lasted for an hour and 23 minutes and of that time, 43 minutes were spent in my threshold heart rate zone and 13 minutes in my VO2max zone. The effort has a lot of parallels to a hard hilly crit where there is a hard effort to start the race and fight for position, then settling into a pace near or slightly under threshold with lots of hard surges over threshold throughout the race.

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Incorporating some mountain bike racing and training can be a really good tool for improving FTP or functional threshold power, as the typical XC race will consist of lots of time near or at FTP. Along with FTP improvements, power at VO2 as well as repeatability, is likely to improve as well.

So, have I convinced all you roadies to switch it up and hit the dirt?? Mountain biking is not only super fun but has tons of crossover benefits to take with you on the road. This article delved into some of the specifics of mountain biking but there is value in trying out any new discipline. Ride the track to improve your tactical sense and leg speed. Ride gravel to explore new terrain and get in some of those same benefits from the mountain bike. Check out cyclocross to improve your technical skills and anaerobic repeatability. All disciplines of cycling have value and you might be stunting your overall growth without exploring what else is out there.

Taylor Warren Source Endurance CoachAbout the Author: Taylor Warren’s journey into the world of bikes started back in 2009 when he would join his dad once a week to cross train on the West Orange bike path in Orlando, Florida. In 2015, Taylor earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science with a focus in Sports Medicine at Colorado State University while competing in collegiate racing on the road and track, rising to the rank as Category-1 racer in both disciplines. After graduating school, Taylor raced professionally on the road with the Colorado-based team, the 303 Project. Today, Taylor calls San Diego home where he works in a bike shop performing bike fits, trains to meet the demands of the US Pro Road Tour calendar, and applies the latest sports science to the athletes he coaches including himself. At the core of his coaching, Taylor believes balancing life demands with the eustress of training, while keeping the process fun, is the key to progression and a lifelong passion for health and fitness.  Learn more about Taylor Warren.