XTerra Series VI: Want a faster MTB time? Get on the road!

Winter is now in full-swing, and already hammered many of us out there. However, despite the bad weather, you should already be making progress toward your major training objectives, with an eye on achieving a couple process goals – an actionable goal you actually have to complete to achieve your major goal. With the XTerra season still many weeks away, you still be focusing on each individual sport to some extent, which includes the bike. Unfortunately, winter weather often precludes trail use either due to unsafe conditions for yourself, or damage to the trails. While this can leave your skills a bit rusty, it can also provide you some much needed road emphasis. In part VI of my Xterra Series, I’ll discuss not only why training on the road is essential to success, but also some tips on how to integrate it with your off-road training.

I enjoy talking with athletes of all levels on training rides and at races, and I am always happy to answer questions about racing and training. I’ll also wager that the most common training question I get is “How do I get faster?”, while the most common error I hear is too much slow training on trails. This is understandable for two main reasons:

  1. Training intuition says to training specifically for your event. XTerra is off-road racing, and hence you need to develop the bike and run skills needed to race challenging trails. The problem is that it is too difficult to perform the needed specific, controlled training needed for improved performance. Moreover, your MTB skills are best developed at speed, because its very difficult to clear obstacles a low speed.
  2. Trails are fun. There are many reasons why folks race XTerra, but let’s face it, we think trails are more fun than roads! Unfortunately, too much fun results in too little quality training.

Whether or not you fall into one or both of those buckets, we all need to put most of our training time in on our road bikes; if you cannot afford a road bike, then you should invest in either road tires or a second set of road wheel for your MTB. The fact is professional athletes spend 70-80% of their training time on the road. In contrast, I meet too many amateurs who spend almost the opposite on their own training, often in the hopes of finding some trail pot of gold. And while improved skills offer free speed on the trail, overemphasis on trail training leaves you lacking in much needed power and power-endurance, making it difficult to capitalize on that free speed. More road training not only improves your fitness, it also leaves you more capable of making use of all your skills on race day, as well as leaving more in the tank for the run!

Hit the road Jack!

At this point, I’ve either sold you on the need for [road] speed, or you’ve already stopped reading to hit the trails. If you’re still with me then you may be wondering how you should spend your road time. Moreover, if you’ve been following the podcast and blog a while, you’re already familiar with my go to intervals. Finally, being winter, you may find yourself stuck training indoors. In the case of the latter issue, you cannot go wrong signing up for Zwift, but you can also tough it out by watching old videos. Either way, here are five areas (not zones) of training that road riding is ideal for:

  1. Recovery and easy endurance rides are virtually impossible to do on the trails. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of merit to short and long EASY training rides. They allow you to maintain base endurance without taxing the more fatiguable, yet powerful fast twitch muscle fibers. Rides should last between 1 – 3 hrs for most athletes.
  2. Stamina endurance rides are also virtually impossible on the trails because its difficult to maintain the sustained, moderate intensity effort needed to tax the neuromuscular system of the muscles, or the cardiovascular system. Efforts here are below threshold and sustained for 20 min or more. One of the biggest benefits of this training is building the fatigue resistance of the legs during cycling.
  3. Power endurance intervals are very difficult to do on the trails unless you have a long, relatively steady climb; for those fortunate enough to have a climb like this, I recommend performing some sessions on the MTB. Intervals range from about 2 1/2 to 6 min, and are generally between 10 – 15% below max sustained power for that interval (i.e., if you can sustain 300 W for 5 min, aim for 270 W), which allows you to perform 4 – 8 repeats with about half the recovery time. Power endurance intervals aim to improve the both the cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems by using moderately high power outputs that are repeated several times.
  4. Max Power intervals emphasize the development of your upper levels of power and generally range from 2 1/2 to 5 min but are performed at maximum effort or power followed by a recovery time that is about twice as long for the the shorter intervals and no less than equal recovery for the longer intervals that are performed 3 – 6 times. The bottom line here is that you need more recovery to maintain the harder effort fewer times.
  5. Explosive power and sprints are absolutely essential to off-road racing and can only be effectively done on the road. These include 10 – 30 sec sprints at maximum effort with 4 – 5 min recovery or rest.

Trail dominance

With your road training established, its important to integrate that improved performance into trail dominance. This means making your MTB training rides count! While you do not need to hammer out every ride from start to finish, I find that if time is a premium, most of your trail rides need to be relatively fast to hone the skills needed to race at speed. Additionally, you can incorporate hard race duration rides into your training, particularly in season. I often do most of my hardest MTB rides in the last 2-3 weeks before a race, which hones my skills and helps to transfer that road power to the MTB. Find the balance that works best for you and hit the trail!


Written by