The importance of strength training for mountain bikers

It was not long ago that the answer to the question, ‘How do I get quicker on my bike?’ was simply to ride more. Coaches and pro riders alike would simply say that hours in the saddle was all you needed to be a great cyclist or mountain biker. 

Luckily the times have changed, and we now understand the value of strength training and how it can help us to be better riders. It is now normal for mountain bikers to be in the gym, whether they are downhill or enduro racers, endurance athletes or simply people who enjoy riding on the weekends.

For this article we will mostly focus on how strength training can help trail and enduro riders to improve their endurance and performance.

Why does strength improve endurance?

There are a number of changes that happen within the body as you get stronger:

Improved Economy. Basically you become more efficient in the way you move and pedal, using less energy for a given power output. There are several factors that contribute to this. The first is improved coordination of the muscles in your legs. As you get stronger, the nervous system adapts and changes as well as the actual muscle tissue. This allows you to pedal more efficiently. 

The second factor is that if you can produce a greater maximal force (thanks to strength training), then each pedal stroke is a smaller proportion of what you are capable of. If your legs can only squat 50kg, and a pedal stroke requires 10kg of force, then each pedal stroke is 20% of what you are capable of. If you can squat 100kg, then the same 10kg of force on the pedal is now only 10% of your capacity. It feels easier, because it is.

Improved Peak Power. Yes we are mostly talking about endurance, but if you want a good sprint on your bike, then you need to be stronger. Strength will simply let you apply more force, more quickly to the pedals, letting you sprint hard and fast to beat your friends or to win that race.

Posture: Having a strong body, not just legs, will hold you up in a comfortable and efficient riding position for longer. By strengthening the core, back and shoulders you will be able to spend longer in the saddle. Good posture on the bike allows you to breathe correctly, as well as descend quickly.

Reduced Injury Risk: Strength training may reduce the risk of developing over-use injuries in areas like the knees, as well as helping to protect the lower back, an area that often becomes sore when riding long distances. Strength, when combined with mobility training, can also help to protect you when you crash, especially if you build some extra muscle mass as well.

Strength training myths.

When you talk to riders (especially road riders) about strength training they have a lot of false beliefs about what it does and why they think it won’t work for them. The one that always comes up is the idea that you will suddenly become heavy and bulky with lots of extra muscle, making you heavier and slower on the climbs. This is very rarely true though.

First of all, climbing speed is determined by your Watts per Kg (W/Kg) for a given time. For example, if we talk about a 10 minute climb, a 70kg rider doing 300 Watts would be putting out 4.28 W/Kg. If that rider puts on 1kg of muscle so he is 71kg, but can now do 310 Watts for the same climb, his W/KG will be 4.36, meaning he is faster. 

For high level athletes body weight is an issue to consider, but a good strength programme will minimise increases in body mass, whilst still increasing strength and power. The fact is that most riders who are not elite level would benefit from building more muscle, improving their body composition as well as their riding performance. 

The other thing to consider is that building a lot of muscle is actually very hard to do, especially if you are doing a lot of endurance training at the same time.

The other thing people say against strength training is that it makes you too sore so you miss riding time. This does have some merit, especially when you first start training. When you are still learning the exercises and beginning a new programme it can leave you sore for days, making riding harder and often slower. The answer to this is to firstly start slow and at a basic level. Copying a pro rider on Instagram is probably not a good idea. 

The second answer is to think more long term. Yes, your rides this week may be slower and shorter as you are sore and tired from the gym, but if you start now and adapt to the training, then how fit, strong and fast can you be in 6, 12, or 18 months time? You need to stop thinking so short term and instead focus on a long term plan to be a strong, fit and athletic human and mountain biker. 

Guidelines For Effective Strength Training.

  1. Either see a coach for an assessment or get an online programme. Both of these will stop you from making so many mistakes and will mean you are doing the right training.
  2. Start easy and build up. Forget your ego, focus on the basics and on bodyweight training.
  3. Your training should include some sort of squatting, hingeing (like deadlift), and upper body pushing and pulling work as well as additional work on areas like core and calves. 
  4. Ensure that plenty of the leg training is done on a single leg.
  5. For most people, two sessions of about 45-60 minutes each per week will be enough to make great progress and fit around riding and other commitments.
  6. Train your whole body in each session. Avoid bodybuilding type splits where you have a leg day, chest day and so on as these will leave you really sore.
  7. Start with higher reps (usually 10-15) and low weights and then gradually move to fewer reps with higher weights or simply harder exercises.
  8. Every 4-6 weeks take an easier week to recover.
  9. Have fun, maybe find a friend to train with.

Put It All Together.

The most important thing is to put the strength training together with your other riding to make a plan that you can be consistent with over a long period. That is how you get results over time. If you are always sore and tired then you may be doing too much, or not sleeping and eating well enough. If this is the case, then you can reduce the volume or frequency of training, or you can work on improving recovery.

Every mountain biker should be doing some form of strength training. It will make you a better rider, but more importantly it will make you a better human.

If you are looking for a programme to safely build your strength for mountain biking, then check out our range of online programmes:

The Over 40s MTB Programme

The Complete MTB Programme – For Trail and Enduro Riders

Stay Strong