How to Train for a Mountain Bike Stage Race

Like any endurance event, mountain bike stage races are fundamentally about managing your energy. Training for the event is simple in many respects but the added dimensions of off-road riding make it important to develop fitness for harder efforts that are dictated by the terrain as well as your competitors.

So, how do you train for a mountain bike stage race?

  1. Train for endurance first - if you can’t finish the course it doesn’t matter how fast you are

  2. Review the course and previous results to define what you need to do - the longest/hardest day, the steepest section, the longest climb and what gradient is it, technical sections, feed stations, etc

    • These define both your equipment and training needs

  3. If there are things you can’t do now, these need to be the focus of your training at least initially

  4. Train for the longest/hardest day and don’t worry about back to back days initially

  5. Focus on fundamentals initially such as VO2max intervals (4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recovery) and Threshold (4 x 8 minutes [2 mins recoveries])

  6. Include some short low cadence efforts for unexpected steep/technical section (3 to 6 sets of 4 x 10s [30s recoveries])

  7. As you get closer to your event, make things more specific with tempo work on loose surfaces.

There you have it - simple!!

Here are a few more details:

Train for endurance first

In any training plan, it is important to be sure that the fundamentals are covered before worrying about the finer details. The most fundamental requirement of any event is to get to the finish, it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you don’t finish. In a stage race, you need to be able to finish each stage so I like to make the longest/hardest day one of the main focuses of the plan. The longest day may or may not be the hardest, so it is worth reviewing as much of the course information as you have available and work out what things are going to be the hardest for you.

Remember, it is important to consider your own strengths and weaknesses so that you train specifically for your own needs and not worry about what you think others would find hard. If you regularly ride 120km and the longest stage is 60km you can be comfortable that the distance isn’t going to be your main problem. Conversely, if you normally ride 20km to 30km with friends at the weekend and blast down the descents you may need to up your endurance and not worry about technical downhills.

So, the first thing is to develop your longest ride so that you are getting towards the duration of the longest day in the event. It is best to work with duration and have an eye on distance rather than make distance the focus because environmental factors and terrain make a huge difference to your speed in cycling. You might also like to do some of your long rides on the road where you would easily go much faster and therefore longer than off-road. Mix it up and practice things you will need in the event so you are learning and improving both fitness, equipment and nutrition from the outset.

As your long ride develops you will be putting some significant stress on your body and therefore need time to recover afterwards. Don’t worry about riding long back-to-back days initially, just worry about getting one day right and then recover so that your fitness develops. It can be a good idea to do a short ride on the morning after your long ride to get used to the feeling of riding when tired but there is no need to do a long ride until you can comfortably do the duration of your longest stage.

Review the course for details

Look for steep sections, longest climbs, overall climb, gradients, technical sections, feed stations, etc.

These will provide you with the bases for specific sessions like interval sessions, skills sessions, bike setup and nutrition planning.

If we use the Swiss Epic 2021 as an example, Stage 3 is billed as the toughest stage and is also the longest. You can see the profile and description in the screenshot and with a bit of digging around and perhaps looking at Google maps and other tools you can glean even more detail.

Screenshot 2021-08-26 at 15.30.28.png

If you look at the rider manual, which is published a few weeks before the race, you can get more detail, although this is a bit late to make big changes to your training. In the profile, grey represents tarmac, blue is for fire roads and red for single track.

The top of the big climb is all single track and if you’re feeling good this could be a bottleneck but if feeling bad it could be a real struggle as it is also very steep. This long climb up the Scalette Pass is 15k with 1000m of ascent and at this stage in the race could well be the thing that pushes your endurance to the limit.

You can also see from the rider manual that you have 9 hours and 40 minutes to complete the stage.

All this information won’t be available when you start your training but you can assume that the course you plan to do will be similar to previous years and therefore base your training on that until you have further details.

If you plan to do the Swiss Epic and your goal is to finish before the cutoff, you can assume that you need to be able to ride for over 9 hours and also that you have to be able to manage a climb of 15km with 1000m of ascent during that time, an average of around 7% that gets steeper towards the top. You also need to be able to handle nearly 20km of descent, mostly on single track at the end of that day.

This provides an amazing insight into the big picture focus of your training.

If you expect to get involved in the race, you know you need to handle this section at a late stage in the race without cracking so you can train your fatigue resistance to be as good as possible after riding 50km with over 1000m of ascent, which is the part of the race before the climb starts. If you can ride this climb faster than your competitors you are in great shape for a good result, as you will also be covered for the other big climbs in the race.

Key points:

  1. You won’t finish the race if you can’t do Stage 3, so build your long ride to be as representative of this as possible. Focus on duration at first and worry about the details later.

  2. Make sure you have low enough gears to be able to ride the climb in your endurance training zone because if you push too hard you will blow up and may need to walk!

  3. Work out how long you expect the climb to take and practice continuous efforts of that duration. You can do this on an indoor trainer if you don’t have suitable hills nearby.

Once you have a plan to make sure you can do the distance, think about the speed

Of course, speed and distance have a trade-off in a stage race, the faster you can ride any given stage the more recovery you get. However, if you go above your aerobic threshold, see my article: Why Aerobic Threshold is important and how to use it to get fitter, you deplete your reserves more quickly and may not recover in time for the next stage.

This means that if you can raise your thresholds such that you can ride faster for any given effort, you will get more recovery and therefore be able to ride even faster. Spending some time working on getting faster is therefore going to be invaluable but only once you know you can do the distance.

You may actually have to get faster to finish before the cutoff times as well but unless you are way off the mark, it is very difficult to estimate this. Suffice it to say that it makes sense to do things that help you get faster.

This doesn’t mean you only work on endurance until you can ride for 10 hours and then you focus on speed. You can do both at once but you need to make sure you prioritise finishing the race if that is likely to be questionable.

How to get faster

Like most things in life, practice makes perfect, or at least it usually leads to improvement. To get faster you need to practice riding faster.

There are two ways to get faster at mountain biking,

  • train hard and become physically fitter

  • improve your skills so that you can ride faster without using more energy.

It is worth including both these elements in your training but how much of each should depend on your needs. If you aren’t very fit but you are very skilled you need to do more fitness training, and conversely if you are very fit but not so skilled, perhaps if you have come from a road cycling background, it is worth spending significant time on your riding skills because you can waste or save a lot of time and energy on long downhills.

Keep it simple

Training doesn’t have to be complicated. You want to be able to ride faster, so you need to do some faster riding and this can only be achieved by doing it for shorter durations. The most effective way to improve your speed is to do interval sessions where you ride hard for a period of time and then take time to recover before doing it again. By training in this way you can spend more time working hard than if you just did one hard effort and to some extent, the longer you spend working at a given intensity the more your fitness will develop to cope with it.

You can use the workouts I suggested a the start of the article:

  • Focus on fundamentals initially such as VO2max intervals (4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recovery) and Threshold (4 x 8 minutes [2 mins recoveries])

  • Include some short low cadence efforts for unexpected steep/technical section (3 to 6 sets of 4 x 10s [30s recoveries])

  • As you get closer to your event, make things more specific with tempo work on loose surfaces.

If you aren’t sure of how to do these, get in touch and one of our coaches will help you with a few ideas.

Create a schedule with all the training elements you need

I like to work with a weekly schedule because it fits most people’s routines and by doing similar things on similar days each week, it is relatively easy to see what is working and what isn’t. For instance, if you plan your hardest workout on a Tuesday but you are always tired on Tuesday because you haven’t recovered from a big weekend of riding, shifting the hard workout to Wednesday could be a good idea, giving you extra rest and improving the quality of your training.

Think about how much time you can commit and when, then you can fill in the time slots with workouts.

A good week might be:

Monday: rest day or something very easy like light stretching and yoga

Tuesday: endurance paced ride of 60 to 90 minutes where you work in your endurance training zone

Wednesday: hard interval session such as 4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recovery or the short sprints (sets of 10s hard, 30s easy)

Thursday: endurance paced ride of 1 to 2 hours, or more if you have time

Friday: rest or easy day

Saturday: Longer interval session such as Threshold or Tempo work with some endurance riding afterwards

Sunday: Long ride to build your endurance

As your fitness and endurance develops you may want to add in some blocks of two or three longer days with lots of climbing. Maybe Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday, not every week but maybe once every 3 weeks to get your ready for the event requirements. These blocks should include as much practice of pacing, nutrition, kit and bike setup as you can so that you learn as well as build your fitness.

What to do if you don’t have big climbs to train on

It is common for events to include long climbs, such as the Swiss Epic I mentioned earlier. If you don’t have access to long climbs for your training you need to make compensations. There are a few options:

  • Use an indoor trainer to ride for the durations of the climbs, building the intensity to what you expect during the event and a bit more. You can do this as part of your endurance rides and also do some tempo workouts to build your fitness and endurance a bit more.

  • Do rides with lots of climbing using short climbs. This can be surprisingly effective and although it doesn’t give you the same stimulus as the long climbs it can be almost as effective and provide all you need for success in your event. Even a short hill at the end of a long endurance ride can be a struggle and still simulates the mental and physical demands of longer continuous climbs.

A mix of these two types of training, doing some of the outdoor rides on representative loose surfaces will get you ready for your event.

If you are lucky enough to be able to get on a training camp or trip to a suitable area to do a week or two of specific training, then this can be a huge benefit, both in fitness and in learning what more you need to do to be successful in your event.

Other factors - weather, altitude, etc….

Other factors can come into play in your event, particularly if you are travelling away from home to take part. The event may take place at higher altitude than you are used to, conditions might be hotter than is normal for you or it may be that it is difficult to get the food you are used to as you make the final preparations for your event. Thinking about how you will deal with these things can make a huge difference to your performance.

Logistical things like food and nutrition are a case of planning, whereas the weather and altitude are more physical challenges to deal with.

If you can spend some time at altitude for a few weeks, some time prior to your event you will find it easier and quicker to acclimatise when you are at your event venue. Similarly, spending some time training or living in hot conditions a few weeks or months prior to your event will make it easier to deal with hot conditions and mean you are better acclimatised for your event.

If your event is at altitude (higher than 1600m/5000 feet), don’t be caught out by thinking that arriving a few days before the event will help you perform better because, although your body will start to acclimatise to the altitude, you will also be accumulating fatigue as your body works harder to adapt to the new situation. For this reason, it is better to either arrive close to the event or if possible, 10 days to two weeks before.

Most events that climb to high altitudes, start and finish at lower levels and descend to lower altitudes during the event so you would get time to recover. You may have to ride slower when you are at higher levels but this may not be a big compromise and most people can cope with this, so maximising your fitness in general is probably better than worrying about altitude training unless you have covered everything else that is possible.

About the author:

A professional endurance coach since 2009, John has worked with cyclists and runners from all over the world to help them achieve their goals.

Whether you are training for your first road race or want to win an off-road trail marathon Coach John Hampshire can help you reach your potential and be your best. John enjoys working with a wide range of athletes from beginners to advanced as well as professionals.

Email John directly by clicking this link

Related questions:

Can I use and ebike for a mountain bike race? Lots of the bigger mountain bike events now have an ebike category and if you don’t have the fitness to get round completely under your own steam, this is a great way to get involved. There are often different routes as well in the bigger events so you can choose a category that suits your fitness and skills.

Can I use any mountain bike to do a mountain bike marathon? Yes, you can use any mountain bike for a mountain bike race but some are more suitable than others. The best bike is a light full suspension or hard tail cross country bike but as long as it isn’t too heavy like a downhill bike it will be fine. The main thing is to get yourself fit and have a go.

Some other articles you might like:

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John relaxing on a cycling trip

John relaxing on a cycling trip

Endurance Bike and Run has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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About the author

A professional endurance coach since 2009, John has worked with cyclists and runners from all over the world to help them achieve their goals.

Whether you are training for your first road race or want to win an off-road trail marathon Coach John Hampshire can help you reach your potential and be your best. John enjoys working with a wide range of athletes from beginners to advanced as well as professionals.

Email John directly by clicking this link