How To Train for a Mountain Bike Marathon Event

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I was having a quick scan around the internet at the information available on training for endurance events and thought it would be useful to write an article on training for Mountain Bike Marathon Events.

So how do you train for a mountain bike marathon event? The best way is to break your training down into specific areas to meet the demands of your event, here are 6 of the most important:

  1. Build endurance and aerobic fitness by doing easy rides that develop your technique and physiology to be as efficicient as possible;

  2. Build your ability to ride hard and fast by doing short interval sessions and short hard rides so that you increase your average riding speed and your ability to tackle steep sections;

  3. Improve your skills by riding technical terrain, learning appropriate skills, so that you don’t waste energy and go faster without using more energy;

  4. Develop a nutrition and hydration strategy that works for you and practice it so that eating and drinking the right amount becomes a habit;

  5. Thoroughly research the route so that you know what to expect, where you can refuel if you need to and when to expect the hardest and most technical sections;

  6. Take your time and be consistent with your training: getting fit is a gradual process that requires small incremental steps over time, trying to do everything at once or doing some super long rides without adequate basic fitness will just wear you out and could make you ill or injured, or both.

Fortunately, getting fit for endurance events isn’t complicated and much of it is an opportunity to enjoy doing what you love, riding your bike in the countryside. However, there is a saying:

“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”

which has a strong element of truth to it. So, it is better to spend some time planning your training and how best to prepare, so that you are in the best shape possible when you get on the start line.

What are the requirements of your event

Think about the fundamental elements of what you will need to meet your goals in your chosen event.

Have a look at

  • the course (or the route of the previous year if your route isn’t released),

  • previous finishing times,

  • the rules,

  • likely weather conditions,

  • how many climbs are there, how long are they and how steep are they?

  • how long are the descents, do they look technical?

  • how technical is the course, is it mostly fire roads or is there a lot of single track?

  • how long do you think it will take you?

  • where are the aid stations and do you plan to carry all your food and drink, or use aid stations for resupply?

  • etc.

Basically, spend some time listing anything you can think of, even if it doesn’t seem relevant, you can cross it off your list later.

Once you have this list you will have a much better understanding of your event and how to prepare for it.

Now write down your main goal for the event in one sentence, it is worth spending time thinking about this as well as why you want to achieve it. The more you understand your goal and why you want to achieve it, the more your chances of success. You will have some obstacles in your preparation and in your event, getting over these will be much easier if you understand why you are doing it and have a clear objective.

Next spend time thinking about whether you could achieve your goal if the event started tomorrow. I guess that you wouldn’t be able to achieve your goals, if you could then you don’t need any training and you can stop reading if you like. If you couldn’t achieve your goals if the race started tomorrow, spend some time listing the areas you need to work on to make the goal a reality. These might be:

  • You can’t ride the distance you will need to cover in each day;

  • You can ride the distance but not as fast as you would like to;

  • You don’t have the right equipment;

  • You don’t have the technical skills, so would need to walk a lot of the course;

  • Maybe even that you need to save some money and holiday time to be able to do the event;

  • etc.

This list gives you an idea of the things you need to work on and allows you to set some goals, in turn, helping you focus your training on the most important areas.

Ride longer and faster

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Don’t just focus on doing long rides, work on riding faster as well; this will make you able to ride at any given pace for less effort, or faster for the same effort. You will use less energy and the longer rides get easier as well.

It is tempting to think that the best way to train for long events is to just do long rides. This isn’t the case for a number of reasons, some of which are practical and some are physiological.

In practical terms, most people have restrictions on their time such as work commitments, family, shopping, etc., which makes it more efficient to do some shorter training sessions as well as longer ones. Shorter sessions can be more intense and therefore have a bigger impact on certain types of fitness, in turn, helping your fitness and ability to ride longer at a given pace.

Physiologically, it is best to do some harder, faster rides, which will make your longer rides faster for a given level of effort or you will be able to use less energy at your usual endurance pace.

A practical schedule:

A good way to schedule training is to do faster rides during weekdays and longer rides at the weekends. This works really well if you normally work or have other commitments on Monday to Friday and more free time at weekends, or if you want to ride with people at the weekends.

You can plan blocks of training on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with shorter sessions and then longer rides on Saturday and Sunday. This gives you Mondays and Fridays for recovery. As you progress and ride longer at the weekends, you may need to take it easy on Tuesday as well, and you may want to make Thursday an easy day so you can do a 3 day block of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Make sure you have sufficient recovery because it is during the recovery that your body adapts and builds, so that when you are recovered you are stronger and fitter than before your previous training sessions.

You can learn more about scheduling workouts from this article, which includes how to incorporate strength training sessions.

If you work shifts or have a different schedule, you can use the same principles to adapt your training sessions accordingly.

Build you aerobic fitness

Building your aerobic fitness by doing low intensity rides is fundamental to getting faster at longer endurance events You can read my blog article on building your pace at your aerobic threshold to get more details and watch the video linked here.

Your body is significantly more efficient and has a lot more endurance if you ride a pace slower than what is known as your aerobic threshold. Training at a pace that is a little below this threshold will increase the speed at which it occurs and therefore enable you to ride faster and further for a similar effort. This is fundamental to improving your performance at any endurance event longer than around 2 hours.

As a good guide, training at an intensity that you can hold a coversation, or recite the alphabet will mean you are about the right pace to train your aerobic threshold. If you have a look at the descriptions of training zones in the next section, you need to be in zones 1 or 2 to build your aerobic fitness and get faster at your aerobic threshold.

Be careful not to do too much but in general, the more of this type of training you do without compromising the quality of your harder training sessions, the better you will be.

Ride longer and build endurance

Riding longer is best done in discrete sessions that are progressive. If you can ride for 2 hours in one go then build on that until you can ride for the amount of time you will need to ride during the event. Like with most things in getting fitter it is best to focus on things separately and then bring them together as the event becomes closer. However, your long rides will be making big impacts on your aerobic fitness, as described in the previous section.

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If you use a heart rate monitor or power meter you can use it to help you develop a good pacing plan. In general, it is best to ride harder uphills and a bit easier on flat sections, using downhills for recovery. This is due to aerodynamic drag, so not as critical for mountain biking but still relevant. I wrote an article about heart rate monitors that you can refer to if you want to learn about training zones and training with heart rate, you can access it by clicking here.

I have included the table of heart rate training zones here as well but remember to calculate your own zones based on the percentages of threshold heart rate and don’t use the ones in the table.

During your event and practice rides, using a 5 zones model, as described in the article, a good pace for climbing is the upper end of zone 2, just getting into zone 3; on the flat sections aim for lower zone 2 and definitely stick to zone 1 on downhills. You can use similar zones if you are riding with a power meter. In terms of feel, you should be a little uncomfortable but not working hard on climbs, able to talk on the flat and relaxed on downhills.

If you can afford one, a power meter is a really useful investment and to a large extent, a cheaper bike with a power meter can be worth it if you need to compromise. See the note of caution below about using heart rate for pacing.

This is because, if you use a heart rate monitor, your heart rate will be impacted by how tired you are, how hydrated you are, how hot you are, etc. So learn what the zones feel like during your longer rides and use your feelings during the event where your heart rate may be less reliable. For example, after a few days it will be difficult to get your heart rate to go high due to fatigue.

Ride harder and get faster

Doing harder, faster sessions will have big impacts on your fitness as well as being much more time efficient.

There are three main types of hard riding that are relevant to you. These are known as tempo, threshold and VO2max.

Tempo

Tempo training is something that you can sustain for quite a long time, maybe 30 minutes to 2 hours and is represented by your zone 3 heart rate or power. Once you have done a couple of weeks riding at an easy/endurance pace you are ready to start some harder training. As a guide, this should feel a bit uncomfortable at your tempo pace but you can keep going at that pace, you can converse but only in short phrases and generally it feels better not to talk and just focus on riding.

These sessions help your basic riding speed and build your ability to ride at a relatively fast, steady pace. Examples would be on long road or fire road climbs where you are concentrating on pedalling and not technical terrain.

Good tempo sessions to start with are 2 or 3 x 15 minutes with 5 minutes rest between each effort, 3 x 20 minutes with 5 minutes or 1 x 30 minutes. As you get fitter you will be able to build up to longer efforts so that you are doing a total of around 2 hours at tempo.

It is best to do these efforts on a good surface where you just focus on riding. You can use a road bike or a mountain bike, or an indoor trainer. If you have a gym membership, using a Wattbike or similar is a great way to start incorporating power into your workouts. Many athletes I work with have found that a Wattbike in the gym is a great way to do harder, more focused sessions and actually enjoy working with power in that way. This works even better for the threshold and VO2 max efforts, see the next section.

Threshold

Threshold is a bit like hard tempo, a level of effort you can sustain for between 30 and 70 minutes before you have to slow down. This is the effort known as Funtional Threshold Power or Critical Power, which are slightly different but in practical terms can be treated the same.

Threshold workouts are often best done with hard efforts of 2 to 10 minutes with shorter recoveries. Things like 3, 4 or 5 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes recoveries, or 12 x 3 minutes with 1 minute recoveries are great Threshold workouts. You should aim to do them at the best pace you can but making all the efforts the same speed, so pacing is important, don’t go off too hard. The best thing to do is start a little easy and pick things up if you have something left later on.

VO2max

After a few weeks of doing tempo sessions you can start to include some VO2max sessions into your plan.

VO2max sessions are a bit different, although they also known as maximum aerobic efforts and your VO2max represents your maximum aerobic capacity, you are going to be working at least to some extent, on your anaerobic energy systems. Great for mountain biking, where it is sometimes so steep you are forced to ride hard.

These sessions will increase your VO2max, which is the basic limiter of your aerobic fitness. Putting this more simply, if you increase the speed or power you can ride at your VO2max, you are likely to increase the speed or power you can ride at any other aerobic effort, even your zone 1 speed will get faster.

Good VO2max sessions are 2 sets of 10 x 1 minute with 1 minute recoveries and 5 minutes between sets, or 4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recoveries. Experiment and keep the recoveries around the same duration as the efforts.

The most effective workouts are Threshold workouts, so if you do 2 harder training sessions each week, aim to do 1 threshold session a week and alternate a tempo and a VO2max so you do one of them every other week.

Plan a good weekly schedule

It may be tempting to think that continuously building your training volume, hours, distance and intensity up until your event is the best way to go. However, fitness doesn’t seem to develop as smoothly as that. Some days and weeks you feel tired and sometimes you feel strong as if you can’t get tired.

Taking as much control of how your fitness develops is the best way, and the best way to do that is to include planned easier and harder days as well as planned easier and harder weeks. This is particularly the case if you have a fixed weekly schedule with commitments you have to keep. You don’t want to be feeling super strong on a day you can’t go out and ride, so making that day an planned easier day is a good idea.

I like to have a regular weekly structure that gives the best chance of being strongest and most fresh for the higher intensity sessions and doing easier rides when tired. If you work with the longer weekend sessions like I mentioned earliers, a good week might be:

Monday: something easy or a rest day with no riding;

Tuesday: some easy riding of an hour or two at your endurance pace (below aerobic threshold);

Wednesday: a hard Threshold session like 4 x 8 minutes as hard as you can with 2 minutes recoveries between efforts;

Thursday: a longer easy ride, as long as you have time for;

Friday: something easy or a rest day;

Saturday: either a Tempo session or a VO2max session;

Sunday: your longest ride of the week where you build your endurance and practice everything like pacing, nutrition and skills.

You should also include some skill practice by assigning time to focus specifically on developing the skills you need. You can do that before, after or during one of your endurance rides by riding to a good place to practice, or adding it on after your Saturday session if you don’t have enough daylight during the week.

If you want some inspiration for your interval sessions, or to learn a bit more about how to organise them, you can read my article Why do I need Interval Training?, or Get fit for cycling using the 5 pace system.

A great way to build specific fitness is to find some shorter events to do that challenge your endurance in a relevant way. It keeps things interesting and provides a great learning experience.

If you have time, spend some time in the gym to build strength

Off road riding and particularly mountain biking puts far greater demands on the upper body and core than road cycling. This is even more the case if you need to carry your bike over difficult technical sections. Spending time in the gym working on building strength will definitely pay dividends and even one session a week can be worth it.

There are many great books on strength and conditioning but I particularly like the book by Phil Burt and Martin Evans: Strength and Conditioning for Cyclists because it takes care to ensure that correct range of motion is available before moving on to more loaded efforts.

Develop your technical skills

The better you are technically, the less energy you will use on technical terrain so the better you can get the better you are likely to do.

If you have reasonable technical skills, it is a good idea to focus on getting stronger and fitter, developing your skills as you do your off road riding. However, if you are finding your skills are limiting your riding, you may need to put some effort into getting better.

Rather than just trying to get better technically during your normal rides, it is better to do focused sessions where you concentrate on improving a particular skill. Riding a particular section of trail that you find difficult several times can be a great way to learn and once you have it conquered you can incorporate it into your more general training rides so that you retain and develop your skills further.

It may also be worth considering booking a specific skills course. These can be great fun as well as being really effective and building your confidence.

Get enough rest and learn how to spot when you are getting too tired

This is perhaps more important than getting the nuances of training right. Doing too much is definitely much worse than doing to little, so stay cautious and learn to spot when things might be drifting towards excessive fatigue.

Making sure you have planned rest days and easier weeks is a good way to ensure you don’t get too tired but sometimes things like illness, work, etc., get in the way and cause unexpected stress and fatigue so beware.

You can use objective metrics like heart rate variability (HRV) and resting heart rate as well as more subjective measures like how tired you feel, your mood, how well you are sleeping, etc. For these to work effectively you need to build up a baseline so that you know what is normal and can spot things changing for the better, ideally, or for the worse, not ideal but better to spot things early before you get ill or injured.

If you take your pulse and HRV each morning and record some other things like your mood, sleep, sleep quality, fatigue, etc. you will quickly build up an understanding of how things should be. You can use tools like TrainingPeaks to look at trends in these values, which can be very helpful. For example, comparing HRV and sleep for one of my athletes showed a clear correlation with fatigue when she got less than 8 hours sleep for a sustained period. She is now able to focus on getting at least 8 hours sleep and that is really helping her manage her fatigue levels.

A good, less objective, but effective method is to get your friends or family to mention if they notice your mood changing for a day or two. If you explain the reasoning and what to look out for this is a great approach. Of course, if you work closely with a coach they can also help with these observations.

Having said all that, there are no guarantees so be careful and stay on the safe side.

Thoroughly research the route and plan as much as possible

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Your route will inform the training that you do and your riding strategy so spend some time considering what is important.

Have a look at the accounts of previous competitors if it is an event that has been run before so you can understand as much as possible about what to expect.

Ride sections of the course if it is at all possible so that you know what to expect and can prepare for any tricky sections.

Read the rules and guidance of the event for snippets of information and if you aren’t sure, contact the organisers, they are usually very helpful and keen to help you get the most out of their events.

Use all the resources you can, you can never learn too much.

Get the right equipment and develop the skills to make basic repairs

Think about how much time and money you are committing to training and how you would feel if you had a mechanical failure because you had skimped on a certain piece of kit because you decided to ‘risk it’. It isn’t necessary to have the highest end equipment.

It is important to make sure you have robust equipment that isn’t worn out, make sure your tyres are suitable for the terrain and are in good enough condition to comfortably complete the course. Don’t use an old chain that might snap, just use some common sense and make sure everything is in working order and won’t let you down, leaving you stuck in the middle of nowhere with a long walk ahead.

Practice pacing and develop a good nutrition strategy

As well as building your endurance, your longer rides are an opportunity to practice your pacing and your nutrition strategy. Getting the right nutrition can make a huge difference. A lot of people set off and ride too fast early in the ride, don’t drink or eat enough and therefore end up getting overly tired too quickly. Either find a nutrition product that you like, or you can make your own if you prefer. You should be aiming to drink enough fluid to replace the amount you are sweating, which you can measute by weighing yourself before and after a typical ride of 1 or 2 hours. You should also aim to consume between 30g and 60g of carbohydrates per hour, part of which can be made up of what is in your drinks.

A 500ml bottle of water and hydration mix will usually contain about 30g of carbohydrate, so if you can drink 500ml/hour, which is a good starting point, you can aim to eat up to another 30g of carbohydrate per hour. As a rule, the more carbohydrates you can consume, up to 60g/hour (or 80g/hour if you use a mix of sources such as glucose and fructose), the better you are likely to perform. Like everything, practice all this before race day.

Make a nutrition plan, practice it and make it a routine. If in doubt, play it safe and spend a bit of time making sure you have sufficient supplies.

As with everything, make sure you test everything before the event to avoid nasty surprises.

Think about ‘what ifs’

‘What ifs’ are something I do with all my athletes, whether they are going to do a short event lasting less than an hour or a multiday, self-supported endurance event. Obviously the ifs are significantly different but the process is the same.

Start now and every time you think of something that might happen to cause a problem in your event, make a note of it. Keep going through your list and adding what you will do if that thing happens or what you need to do to account for that eventuality. It may be that you decide the risk of something happening is low or the consequences are so low that you can ignore it but at least you have thought it through.

This approach will do two things, firstly it will reduce the number of unexpected things that happen because you will have prepared accordingly. It will also mean that you are better equipped to deal with things that happen along the way because you have strategies. You are less likely to panic unduly and also have a plan to move forward. Hopefully all will go smoothly but remember: fail to prepare, prepare to fail!!

It is also good to have a strategy for if something goes wrong that you don't expect. I like the acronym from Steve Peters’ book: The Chimp Paradox - AMP, which stands for Accept and Move forward with a Plan. Basically, accept that things go wrong and not everything is in your control, Accept that it is normal to panic in these situations and Allow yourself some time to panic, be emotional and get that out of your system. Then, Make a Plan and Move forward with that Plan.

Make a plan and stick to it

The best way to be successful is to make a plan that takes you from now until your chosen event and stick to it. This can be more effective if you talk it through with a friend who understands, making it more of a real commitment, or even enlist the help of a coach who can help with the process and offer objective advice.

You can use a spreadsheet, a bit of paper or a tool like TrainingPeaks and write down what things you need to do and what your goals are for each month so that you address all the things you need to. As a guide, it is best to spend a couple of months on each goal if you are trying to make a physiological or psychological change, so don’t worry if you don’t see a change after a couple of weeks of hard interval sessions. Also, remember to give yourself enough rest and recovery.

Break that plan down into weeks, and remember it can be best to work with a one week or two week cycle with the same sort of session for each day of the week. I gave some ideas of how to arrange a week of training earlier in the article, so have a look at that.

Good luck and have fun!

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