How To Train Like A Mountain Biking Pro

If you’re a cross country mountain biker training for a specific race, or you’re getting in shape for the upcoming season, or you’re focusing on blowing up your current Strava times, you need to train effectively and efficiently.

Luckily for you, it’s easy--and science has your back.

Understanding Your Energy Systems

You’ve likely heard the terms anaerobic and aerobic exercise. These concepts are really simple to integrate into your training, once you have a basic definition of each.

  • Aerobic (with oxygen) exercise is performed at a level that you can maintain for a long time. During aerobic exercise, the body does receive enough oxygen to sustain the activity.
  • Anaerobic (without oxygen) exercise is performed at a difficult level that can only be maintained for a short period of time. During anaerobic activity, the body does not receive enough oxygen to sustain the activity.

Any activity can either be aerobic or anaerobic, depending on the intensity and duration (ex: sprinting vs jogging).


Aerobic (with oxygen)

  • Aerobic exercises can be performed for a long time
  • Think “cardio” and “sustainable”
  • Recovery rides; long rides

Anaerobic (without oxygen)

  • Anaerobic exercises can only be performed for a short time
  • Think “sprinting” or heavyweights
  • Short, intense climbs; sprint finishes

Photo by Laura Heisinger

Is your biking aerobic or anaerobic?

Cross country (XC) mountain bike racing is characterized by narrow sections of dirt or rock trail, significant climbing and descending, and a duration that can vary from 2 hours up to 24 hours or longer.

Cross country racing and riding primarily derive energy from the aerobic energy system due to the length and intensities required to complete a race successfully.

However, the anaerobic system also plays a significant role in energy production.

For example, at the start of a race, it is advantageous for riders to sprint ahead of the competition before entering the single track portion of the trail (where passing is difficult).

Furthermore, there are multiple times during the race where the anaerobic system comes in to play, such as technically demanding ascents, breakaway attempts, and last but not least, sprint finishes.

How strenuous is your ride?

Research by Zarzency, Podlesny, and Polak (2013) found that during cross country biking races:

  • Time spent at an exercise intensity above the anaerobic threshold was 31% of the total competition time.
  • Time spent below anaerobic threshold and between aerobic and anaerobic thresholds accounted for 18% and 51% of total competition time.

This research agrees with Wirnitzer and Kornexl (2008) who found participants in a strenuous eight-day mountain bike race spent 36% of competition time in a high and very high-intensity zone, which indicates utilization of the anaerobic energy system.

The remaining time was spent in the low to moderate intensity zone, which primarily involved the aerobic energy system.

What do these studies mean for you?

Success as a cross-country mountain biker relies on both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.

Cross country mountain biker in the Dakota 5-0 racePhoto by Laura Heisinger

Training Program: 4 Days a Week

Let’s say you want to train for ~8 hours per week.

Ideally, 5.5 hours should be at aerobic intensity (75% maximum heart rate), while the remaining 2.5 hours should involve anaerobic intensity.

Day 1: 1.5 hours interval training: warm up, 15 minutes at threshold, 10 minutes recovery, repeat, cool down.

Day 2: 3-hour long ride: relatively low intensity

Day 3: Rest Day

Day 4: 1 hour HIIT ride: warm up, high-intensity short intervals at VO2Max, cool down

Day 5: Rest Day

Day 6: 2.5-hour ride: Low Intensity

Day 7: Rest Day

The Takeaways

The take-home points from this article are really quite simple:

  1. Success as a XC mountain biker relies on both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
  2. To perform your best during a XC mountain bike race, the majority of your training miles (60-70%) should be performed at a relatively low intensity (75% maximum heart rate or lower) to develop your aerobic capacity.
  3. Two to three workouts a week should involve threshold, interval, and VO2 Max training to develop anaerobic capacity.

Stay fast, stay focused, and stay fueled!


  1. Zarzeczny, R., Podleśny, M., & Polak, A. (2013). Anaerobic capacity of amateur mountain bikers during the first half of the competition season. Biology of sport, 30(3), 189.
  2. Wirnitzer, K. C., & Kornexl, E. (2008). Exercise intensity during an 8-day mountain bike marathon race. European journal of applied physiology, 104(6), 999-1005.
  3. Powers, S. K., & Howley, E. T. (2015). Bioenergetics. Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance (pp.39-65). (9th ed.). New York, NY: Human Kinetics.