There are two tracks you can take to improve your mountain-biking abilities: You can either white-knuckle it, or you can use your head.
“Learning in the school of crashes and hard knocks is the tough way to go,” says USA Cycling–certified coach Lynda Wallenfels, a past 24-hour solo national champion and the founder of LW Coaching in St. George, Utah. “Focusing on building your skills and fitness is worth it to fast-track your riding.”
Simply hopping on your two-wheeler and logging as much saddle time as possible will get you partway to where you’re going. But to truly up your game without needing too many Band-Aids, it’s important to hone your skills, build strength and mobility, and expand cardio fitness — especially your anaerobic fitness, advises Trapper Steinle, a USA Cycling–certified coach at Life Time in Centennial, Colo.
Road biking and off-road biking require similar fitness, but with some key differences. Mountain biking, or MTB, is more anaerobic in nature, explains pro racer Emily Schaldach of Boulder, Colo. “It’s all about varying terrain: Sometimes we’re on long, steady climbs; other times we’re faced with rolling hills that require punchy power. This means doing intervals that last as long as 20 minutes or as short as 10 seconds.”
All of our experts stress core strength as essential to success. And if you creatively combine exercises, cross-training can prep you for the most tortuous singletrack, says Steinle.
“MTB involves more upper-body strength and stability because you’re typically out of the saddle a lot, having to absorb shock with your upper body — versus on a road bike, where you get into the drops, tuck, and go.”
Ultimately, astute training will increase your enjoyment of the sport as well. “Mountain biking tests my capacity and capabilities, and I think that’s the most rewarding part of it,” Steinle says. “Pushing through my perceived limitations to come out stronger on the other side has been catalytic for me in my growth as an athlete. You get to explore nature — and explore the limits of what you’re capable of.”
Keeping the Joy Rolling During Mountain-Bike Intervals
Pro MTB racer Emily Schaldach offers hard-won tips for having fun while doing tough training.
When I started mountain-bike (MTB) racing, I was still spending most of my time running around in the woods, making up games, and feeling generally enthralled with the world around me. In middle school, I truly hadn’t hit the teenage-angst phase or feeling that I wanted to be more “adult.” I loved to play, to get really covered in dirt, to make up songs, and to climb trees.
It became hard to remember this genuine type of fun when my planner filled up and studying and cleaning the kitchen became a priority. However, riding mountain bikes continued to hold this joyful space for me. Even as I started to feel more independent and responsible for my own well-being, I let cycling be a few hours of each day when I let my to-do list flutter away and I simply focus on how splendid it feels to be pedaling along and ripping up some berms with a great friend on my wheel.
As a professional cyclist, I have felt myself slip into times when biking is not fun and workouts feel like something I have to do rather than something I want to do. Cycling can seem extremely serious; however, at the end of the day, it really is all for fun and games.
As soon as I don’t want to ride, or as soon as biking is not fun, it’s time for me to step back and consider why I was excited about this sport in the first place. For me, I love to compete, and even more important, I love riding next to friends, laughing and feeling giddy to make it over the next hill. I love squealing after a sweet corner and feeling stoked after nailing a tricky switchback.
From a results perspective, there are very few people who are the Best Cyclists in the World. Personally, I would rather be full of joy and love each day I have the opportunity to ride or race than leave behind all the fun and make something that is rooted in excitement just another to-do-list item.
EMILY SCHALDACH is based in Boulder, Colo., and races mountain bikes and cyclocross for the BitchnGrit Race Team. Find more about her training and racing at emilyschaldach.weebly.com.