Is Power Training really valuable for mountain biking?

Off season training means one thing for a lot of riders – the continued quest to improve their ability to create and maintain power while pedaling. Most riders are familiar with the need for more power and an entire training method has been designed around tracking a rider’s power with power meters, reinforcing the message that power is the Holy Grail of training. And while I won’t argue that it isn’t important, I will say that I think a lot of mountain bikers get mislead as to its ultimate value on the trail.

You see, Power is just one side of the tension spectrum. It is usually associated with very fast movements against minimal resistance. On the other side of the tension spectrum is Torque, which are movements which slower and against more resistance.

Training isn’t rocket science – look at what you need to improve on the trail and find ways to address those things.

While Power has its place, Torque is something that also has a lot of value on the trail and needs to be trained as well. The easiest way to explain this difference is with a car analogy…

Power is like a Formula 1 Race car. There isn’t a lot of resistance that it has to overcome and it is extremely light weight – in other words the motor doesn’t need to do much work on the lower end of the RPM scale but it does need to be able to rev high and stay there.

Torque is like an off-road 4X4 Jeep. It spends all of its time overcoming resistance from the trail and heavier chassis – it does almost all of its work on the lower RPM “grind” side of the scale and rarely spins its RPMs up very high at all.

In car terms this makes perfect sense – on pavement you need a light weight chassis that can achieve and sustain a high RPM “spin” while on the dirt you need a heavier duty chassis that can grind out lower RPM efforts with ease.

What isn’t so apparent is that this same principle holds true for bikes as well. Try to apply too much “power” off road and you end up having trouble making it through the slow speed sections of the trail that require more torque to ride through. Being able to slow your pedal stroke and grind your way through a technical climb is just as important – of not more important on some trails – than the ability to apply a lot of high RPM power to the pedals.

So why is Power Training so popular and “Torque Training” never discussed? As usual, it has to do with a misapplication of a successful road riding method to mountain biking.

Here is an interesting bit info that few riders know – when you pedal your bike you can change the muscular vs. cardiovascular demands based on how fast you pedal. At 90+ RPMs how long you can pedal boils down to your cardiovascular system’s ability to supply fuel to the working muscles. The tension levels in the muscles isn’t high enough to trigger excessive muscular fatigue which is why road cyclists are told to pedal at 90-100+ RPMs.

However, at 80 RPMs or less something very different happens. The tension at the pedals increases and this increased tension shifts the weak link from the cardiovascular system to the muscular system. In other words, it isn’t about your VO2Max at that point, it is about your ability to produce and sustain tension in the muscles. This is much more difficult and can not be sustained nearly as long as the higher RPM/ lower tension efforts can.

What this means is that the type of pedaling that lends itself to road riding efforts also works well with power training since higher RPM/ lower tension efforts produce more power. This is why power training has become so popular with the road riding crew – it provides a great way to see how well you are able to sustain the higher RPM/ higher power efforts you need to be successful in that sport.

However, as I’ve said many times – mountain biking isn’t road riding on dirt. On the trail we can rarely sustain a high RPM spin and many times we find ourselves having to grind out efforts well below the 80 RPM threshold. These efforts triggers more muscular than cardiovascular fatigue and if you don’t recognize and train for this reality you will be caught off guard, incurring excessive fatigue when faced with it on the trail.

This is why I recommend that riders spend time training with what I call Torque Training Intervals. These are intervals that purposefully work on the ability to sustain lower RPM/ higher tension efforts on the trail. Including them will train your body to get used to those types of efforts, which you will inevitably run into on the trail.

Technically this type of interval isn’t as good from a pure Power Training perspective since the power levels are lower than if you sat down and spun a higher gear. However, it is more specific to the types of tension you need to be a good mountain biker which, in my opinion, is more important.

What gets forgotten is that power is a symptom of how well you can produce a specific type of tension, not a direct cause of improved performance. You should be focusing on training the types of muscular tension you need on the trail regardless of how they measure up on a power meter.

Now, time to put this into perspective before everyone gets the idea that I don’t think that power training has value because that is not the case. For some riders, specifically road riders and Fire Road Racers, it has tremendous value. I just don’t think that it has the same value for a mountain biker that actually rides on real trails.

Since you need more torque on the trail then it only makes sense that you train for it with your program. In fact, one could argue that you should make it a priority with your program since it will allow you to turn a weak link for many riders into a strong point – being able to stand up and grind up a hill without blowing up at the top will help ride faster and longer, which is the goal of training in the first place.

So use power training as a part of your program, just don’t make it the centerpiece of it if you ride trails that don’t lend themselves to high RPM spins for sustained periods and have technical sections that require you to slow down and grind it out. Training isn’t rocket science – look at what you need to improve on the trail and find ways to address those things. For some riders spending some time working on Torque may deliver better results than another off season focused exclusively on Power.

-James Wilson-

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  1. ELG says:

    James, power training in watts IS measuring torque. 1 watt = 1 newton meter per second. newton meters are the SI unit of torque.

    power meters, which use strain gauges, most definitely measure torque. Jam on the pedals at a low RPM and you will get a very high watt reading, as you would expect.
    Power meters arent about a specific training regimen, they are about having a consistent data point to measure progress and performance

    most serious roadies do ‘force intervals’ during base and build which are low rpm (~70), high force and similar to your torque training intervals.
    Using a power meter while doing those will let you chart your progress and how much stronger you have gotten by showing you average watts during the interval as well as being able to compare output (watts) to input (heart rate).

    Reply • December 26 at 9:07 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      First, thanks for the input, you obviously have a firmer than average grasp on this subject. Power meters, like anything else, can be extremely valuable in the right hands but based on the questions I get and the way I see most mountain bikers who employ “power training” get stopped in their tracks by low RPM/ high torque pedaling situations tells me that there is a problem with the way they are using it.

      And while power and torque are technically measured the same way I am trying to get people to understand the two sides of the spectrum and in strength training power is usually associated with faster, lower resistance movements and “grinds” (or torque) are usually associated with slower, higher resistance movements. I never said that power meters didn’t measure torque or can’t be used for them, just that it isn’t something most riders consider in the quest for more power.

      That also brings up the point that not all “power” is equal and that you need to look at the types of tension producing the power, not just the final power number. This is not a slam on power meters or power training, simply an article trying to explain to the average rider that there is much more to the picture and that power training for a roadie might not the bast way to use a power meter for a mountain biker.

      Reply • December 26 at 10:37 am
      • PM says:

        Again I think you are either misunderstanding or mis-explaining things. Of course all power is equal. It is a unit of measurement it cannot be anything but equal. You might as well say that not all litres of water are equal – it depends on how fast you fill the container up.

        I think you are at your best when you are explaining things in simple and difficult to confuse ways such as ‘low rpm grind’ and ‘high rpm spin’ – it is immediately obvious that mountain bikers need to be able to excel at low rpm grind as well as being able to do a high rpm spin when needed.

        Might be best to steer clear of the easily confused terms like ‘power’.

        Reply • December 26 at 4:35 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          No, not all power is created equal. I can move quickly against a light resistance or slower against a heavier resistance and the power measurement may be the same but the way you achieved it is different. I understand these concepts very well and while you are technically correct, you are not correct in practice where the types of tension used to create the power are very important to the end result on the trail.

          Again, I appreciate being a geek about this stuff (I’m one myself) but getting overly technical clouds the heart of the issue which is that there is a need for both high RPM spins and lower RPM grinds and most riders confuse “power” to equate the former and tend to forget the latter.

          Reply • December 26 at 5:39 pm
      • ELG says:

        Thanks for clarifying James, I think ultimately we are on the same page with a little bit of sematics muddying the waters.

        If I follow you correctly, you’re saying that roadie programs typically focus on the end result of high rpm sustained power where us MTBers should be training for more instantaneous power and constantly changing power outputs.

        One training tool that I think really hones in on your concept is Quadrant Analysis, which you may already be aware of.
        In a nutshell you take your rides/races, and plot points of power on one axis and rpm on the other and split them into 4 quadrants (high rpm/low power, high rpm/high power, low rpm/low power, low rpm/high power). So then you tailor your training according to the quadrant that you spend the most time in during your important rides/races.,-by-hunter-allen.aspx

        Reply • December 28 at 12:56 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          It is funny you bring the Quadrants up because I have an article running on Wednesday detailing how I prioritize training components and how it goes against the “train what you do the most” line of thinking. I’ll be very interested to hear your opinion on it…

          Reply • December 31 at 12:02 pm
        • Jim says:

          a friend, Utes, and i were at THE training with Power road camp. HA would tell Utes, within the first day or so, Utes, you have great power numbers, but you need to work on Force (Torque?). I think James is dead on, I rarely on the road can climb with Utes, he spins 105, and weighs 180, up road climbs with high power numbers…we get on dirt, even just fire road dirt climbs, with mtb gearing, larger gaps at the low end, and Utes struggles. Torque ?

          Reply • February 19 at 6:52 pm
    • Wayne says:

      I have to disagree with ELG on the definition of power. Power is joules per second, with joules being a measure of energy.

      In the case of a bike, torque and power are related by the speed of pedal rotation. Power = torque x cadence.

      Ignoring things like wind resistance and mechanical friction, each foot of vertical you climb requires a certain amount of energy. This is known as gravitational potential energy. The speed at which you are climbing determines the power required. At higher speed, you need more power as you are accumulating more potential energy for each second of climbing.

      At a constant speed, you can generate the required amount of power either through low torque/high cadence or high torque/low cadence.

      Reply • December 26 at 11:26 am
      • ELG says:

        you’re saying the same thing….1 watt IS 1 joule per second!
        (and 1 joule is a newton meter)

        Reply • December 28 at 1:09 pm
        • Wayne says:

          Yep, you’re right, my apologies. I’d never made the connection between Nm and J before. The only difference is that torque is a vector and energy is a scalar.

          For some reason, torque and energy are, to me, intuitively different, even though they have the same fundamental units.

          Reply • December 28 at 1:49 pm
  2. Timo R says:

    Hello James!

    Now I’m following your KB v2 program and I’d like to include one TTI training with it. It’s probably best to do with my bike on trainer.

    How long those torque intervals should be (work / recovery ratio) and which is the best time of week to do them? I’m doing KB workouts three times per week.

    I checked out my last summer’s trail rides HRM data and it seems that those high torgue sections on the trail are from 30 sec to three mins, mostly about two mins, long. Maybe 8-10 sets of 2 min interval with 1 min rest is ok for the purpose?

    Reply • December 26 at 11:41 am
  3. Chris says:

    To be brutally honest James while some of this article makes sense and has some scientific merit you are confused it seems on how coaches/riders/racers use power metres to monitor and program training. This article makes it seem that you think power metres only work at high RPM’s or are only useful if you train 100% of the time at high RPM’s.

    Simply, power metres like the unit’s offered by SRM et al offer a very precise way of prescribing and monitoring an athletes training no matter what the type of training session prescribed. Wheter it be a low RPM high watt set of Hill intervals or simply just to monitor speed/time/power and HR on your local trail too track your training progress. Power metres are essential the finest objective analysis tool for training where the primary means of locomotion is pedal input.

    To say power metres can only be used to measure “high cadence- power” or people who train using a power metre only care about “spinning high RPM’s” is just well, weird. Maybe I didn’t understand that part of your post, but you didn’t explain yourself very well either and maybe show’s your own inexperience with using power metres in a well designed program.

    Likewise to say that lower cadence efforts are the holy grail of MTB training is wrong in my books, as you know many riders have their individual differences. Grinding a higher gear has it’s time and place in many situations as does the ability to change cadence quickly or explode of the start in an XC or DH race or even at the base of a short sharp climb! Training should be designed to not just maximise the ability to grind a hard gear but to have the versatility and “global fitness” to have a variety of fitness abilitites at your disposal to minimise fatigue, deal with the unexpected and in the end get from A to B as fast as possible!

    Thanks for the discussion

    Reply • December 26 at 12:59 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I have to be honest with you, I could go through and reply to everything you just said or i could simply say “I agree” and point out that no where did I say any of things you suggest. I said that you need to focus on the tension demands of the trail and then train to mimic them, which includes all of the pedaling skills you suggested and not just low RPM grinds. What I am saying is that you need that most riders who use “Power Training” for mountain biking spend too much time on the higher RPM side of things and not enough time on the lower RPM side. You can obviously use a power meter to track and help train all of those things.

      Honestly, this is not a slam on power meters or power training. The truth is that far too many mountain bikers spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on high RPM spins which do tend to register higher on the power meter than lower RPM grinds which tend to register lower. Most riders relate “power” with high RPM spinning and not low RPM grinds and so there is a need to educate those riders about the differences and need to focus on both ends of the spectrum.

      I also have to point out that I write this blog for the average rider, not the training geek. I am a training geek myself and love to get all technical about things but the truth is that most riders don’t understand the term “power” on the same level and I have to use terms and descriptions they use and understand. Hopefully you an understand the need for “dumbing down” the info to make it easier to understand in the trenches.

      Reply • December 26 at 5:35 pm
      • Chris says:

        Like I said, thanks for the discussion! I work with a few riders who use SRM’s at a variety of riding/racing levels and not one of them relate the data they get from their power metres with “high cadence spinning”. Maybe something is getting lost in translation/typing here.

        Anyway, like many training discussions we probably agree on more then we disagree on. I totally disagree with your assumptions of how most riders use power metres (from my exp.) however the need for MTBers to be able to drop the hammer and push a decent gear while having the metabolic and bio-mechanical capabilities to do so while resisting the resultant fatigue is certainly lacking in many many rider! I see it ever time I ride.

        Reply • December 26 at 11:41 pm
  4. Matt says:

    Great article and discussion! For my personal goals (to be a stronger, faster MTB rider) I have found that combining “power training” with the Ultimate MTB workout have both contributed to my vast improvements over the past year on the trail and in competition. The power training gives me a quantifiable metric to show my improvement in simply going faster on the bike and producing power througout the entire pedal stroke (not just the downward or upward portions) – which is part of what I want to improve on. Similarly, the workouts provided by James helps immensely in allowing me to maintain better flexibility and balance on the bike, especially on those technical sections. This greatly improves my confidence to handle situations that I most likely would not encounter on a paved road. So now I am able to go fast on the flat sections and the brutal climbs – as well as through the tougher sections that require the strength that I have built up with the workouts that James provides.

    I think the main point of this article is not to put all of your eggs in one basket by focusing only on power training. As with most other disciplines, usually a combination of approaches works best – according to what your own goals are. Cheers!

    Reply • December 27 at 10:27 am
  5. Ashwin says:

    Another name for this type of workout is a muscle endurance (ME) interval. In the off-season periodized strength training program (hypetrophy, strength,power phases) that I follow (Morris plan from Performance cycling) he uses them to help the transition from weight room strength to more useable cycling power. These are low RPM, high gear efforts performed on a hill or flats. I use them during the transition from the strength phase to power phase as well as often through the year.

    Another workout that I’ve seen amazing translation to technical riding is what he calls a Lead out interval. It’s similar to a sprint interval but lasts 20-30seconds, where you start from a slow cadence 40rpm and keep the same gear or harder gear and spin up to 110-120rpm while staying seated. While doing them, I flail and wonder about the benefit. However, after a few weeks the benefit on the trail is apparent especially on something like a short technical rock garden. The ability to maintain the same gear and spin up the cadence for a short time and then be able to recover back to steady state is powerful tool.

    Reply • January 1 at 8:24 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback, I’m sure there are all sorts of workouts that target the types of pedaling I am referring to, although I’d still take it a step further and look at seated vs. standing efforts and prioritize standing efforts with my lower RPM/ “grind” efforts.

      I’d also like to point out that I think that the way you are describing attacking technical rock gardens isn’t the most efficient way and and actually a problem on the trail. If you look at any rocky, technical section you will see the rocks being gouged and chipped away because riders try to apply a high RPM/ “power” approach to a low RPM/ “grind” problem. You actually want to stand up and go into a higher gear for sections like that so you can better control your cadence and be able to better half- and quarter pedal to avoid slamming your pedals into rocks.

      Using this approach you’ll find that you are more consistent with navigating those technical trail sections and will rely much less on momentum and luck of how your pedal strokes fall among the rocks.

      Again, this isn’t to say that what you are doing isn’t good, I just think that there is a better way by being able to separate approaches that work well on the road and those that work better on the trail.

      Reply • January 2 at 9:26 am
  6. Gillian says:

    Hey there,

    I thought this was an interesting article–though I have to say my eyes started to glaze over reading all the very scientific arguments over semantics. Anyway, I’ve always associated the word “Power” with having wicked strong quads that you can grind up technical climbs with–so let me get this straight, you call this “torque?”
    Right now, I’m trying to increase the strength in my quads with quad extensions, squats, lunges etc.

    Here is a burning question I have in regard to this (patience, it’s at the end of the paragraph :): I am a small woman, and I by no means have large thighs. I have to really work to bulk up my quads. Even back in my best days of mountain biking, my legs were super fit, but not big. So, I have to spin more it seems, depending on the terrain, than say a woman who is just built with big legs! I was behind a woman on a training ride up a fire road, on a long, brutal climb, and she had big legs, and her gear was higher and her cadence was slower, I kept pace with her, but my gear was lower and my cadence was higher–if I was mashing gears like she was–I NEVER would have made it up that hill!
    Here is the question, finally (!)Does someone who is just naturally built like her have an advantage over me? And if so, what do I do about it besides letting the air out of her tires behind her back….


    Reply • February 20 at 4:50 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      First, leg size and leg strength are two completely different things. There are specific ways to train to improve your leg strength and they are much different than what you typically do to improve size. Plus, your quads are no the key to a strong, efficient pedal stroke – the hips are. You need deadlifts and swings and cut out the machine stuff, leg extensions are terrible for your knees and do not mimic the movement pattern you need the quads to perform, giving them much less transfer to your pedal stroke than deadlifts and swings.

      With that said, the larger rider could turn around and ask if a smaller, lighter rider would have an advantage on long climbs. The answer to both questions would be “yes”. Both body types carry inherent pluses and minuses and it is your job to focus on your strengths. Read the book Talent is Overrated or The Talent Code – the best are not more “gifted”, they are just better at practicing and improving.

      Reply • February 21 at 9:55 am
  7. SH says:

    Hi James,

    I don’t usually find the need to comment on articles, but this time I do. I have been at this mountain biking lark for well over 20 years and have done it all from roady training programmes to strength training programmes, polymeric’s and boarderline ‘quack’ philosophies. I have raced xc (as a promising young lad), DH (as a slightly over the hill but still quick lad) and now enduro (as a well past his prime but still wants to beat other ol lads, and perhaps some young lads too), Christ I’m even technically a ‘Coach’. I don’t don’t know the exact definition of ‘power’ or ‘torque’ and I don’t necessarily agree with all the articles I read on the site (flat pedals, are you serious?), but this one helped. I never really understood why many hours of roady training (and racing) did not translate to the trail and then why period of more relaxed training with my mates off road actually paid dividends? But now I understand. You have made me think about what I am doing, which my inbuilt arrogance vary rarely allows.

    Thank you.


    Reply • March 1 at 6:41 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad you have kept an open mind on things even though we don’t agree on everything, rare thing in today’s world. Thanks for sharing, good luck your continued journey with this thing we call Mountain Biking….

      Reply • March 3 at 9:19 am
  8. I may be starting to get you more, or you just made perfect sense. I build the engine with specific VO2 and FTP intervals. But always train the application of that engine on the trails. Trail riding for specificity and the those VO2 and FTP (Road or Trail) to minimize time in the red zone and faster recovery and sustainability over the long haul. I train, race and coach using a power meter.

    Reply • May 12 at 10:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Context is everything and too often we look at training without the context of how the fitness we are building is actually used. Glad this article made sense for you, it is a very important concept for us as mountain bikers to understand.

      Reply • May 13 at 9:08 am
  9. Often my VO2 intervals are below 80 RPMs and sometimes much below.

    FTP is usually 80 to 105 RPMs. Got to build the heart and lungs too!

    Alternately I have the opposite issue when Single Speeding. Usually can’t spin the gear fast enough to get high power numbers on flats and climbing the power numbers are high at low RPMs. Quadrant analysis scatter graphs on WKO+ pointed out that. Although it is fairly obvious.

    So I work all of that.

    Some of my best power numbers have been grinding up super steeps.

    My racing is better when my VO2 and FTP power is at it’s peak. Not a lot of fire roads in my local races either. Not the whole picture but an important piece. As is Mobility and KB drills.

    Not every one agrees with my training ideas either.

    Reply • May 14 at 11:06 pm
  10. daniel diaz says:

    WOW! I`ve bee reading all the article and discussion for several minutes and even I dont understand hundred p/c (my English is lausy)But I want to make a question .Must I as a MTBiker change gears frequently…….Pllease James.Thanks a million.

    Reply • May 31 at 12:36 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It depends a lot on the trail. Sometimes you need to change gears often but in general you shouldn’t have to change gears a lot on every trail.

      Reply • June 2 at 10:45 am

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