More than Roadies on Dirt – Top 3 Differences Between Road and MTB Riding

Last week I was interviewed for a German mountain bike magazine and during the interview I was asked what thought about the common notion that road riding is a great training tool for mountain biking since the two were so similar in the need for leg power and pedaling endurance. Since most riders assume that there is a lot of direct transfer from fitness improvements on the road to the trail my approach of de-prioritizing road riding in favor of other methods (like strength and skills training) seems rather odd. However, I don’t do these things just to be different – there truly are some huge differences between the two sports.

In fact, when you look at them from a metabolic and movement demands standpoint road riding and mountain biking have very little in common. I was reminded of an article I wrote for www.strengthcoach.com in which I outlined the 3 main physical differences between road riding and mountain biking and why these difference mean we need a very different approach to training for trail riding. After finishing the interview I decided that I should post them on my blog so that riders could better understand the differences that separate road riding from trail riding and why mountain biking isn’t just road riding on dirt.

1) Slower RPMs require more muscular strength:

One of the foundations of the famous Carmichael Training System is that higher RPMs require less muscular strength and more aerobic capacity to keep going. That is why 90-110 RPMs is goal for a lot of road riders – spinning that fast produces the most power in the most energy efficient manner possible. What this means for the mountain biker, however, is completely different.

While you can keep a good, consistent spin on the road it is impossible to do on the trail. Rocks, roots and loose dirt all conspire to steal your momentum and traction and you can not just “spin” your way through them. You have to stop pedaling in certain areas, slow down in other and accelerate in yet others.

This means that, on average, a mountain biker uses a lower RPM than a road cyclist would over the same distance. The lower RPMs require more muscular strength to produce and more anaerobic strength endurance to maintain. For this reason strength training and intervals will have a more direct impact on a mountain biker’s performance than a road cyclist.

2) Standing pedaling requires more core strength:

One of the reasons that mountain bikers use a slower RPM is because they are forced to stand a lot more than a road cyclist. Standing up to navigate a technical trail section or to sprint up a short, loose climb are common occurrences for the mountain biker. Because mountain bikers spend more time standing, they need to gain more core strength and hip drive to be efficient in that position.

When you are sitting down the seat and seatpost help support your weight and provide a point of stability for you to drive against. When you stand up you lose those things and your core is asked to make up for it. Most riders lack the core strength to hold themselves up and provide a platform for the legs which is why they always feel “slow” on the trail when they have to stand up and lay down the horsepower.

The other thing to consider is that standing pedaling is more hip dominant than seated pedaling is. In the standing position your hips are driving straight down, making this movement more of a sprint than a jog. Because it is powered differently than seated pedaling you have to emphasize that in the mountain bikers training program.

3) Technical Skills are the key to going faster with less effort:

The thing that really separates mountain biking from road riding is the technical skill required on the trail. Many a super fit roadie has been smoked on the trail by a less fit but more skilled mountain biker. More than just helping you go faster, good technical skills also help you conserve energy by carrying speed better through corners and rough, technical trail sections.

If you’re skill levels suck you will lose more momentum in corners and rock gardens and you will end up having to dab and walk through more sections. All of this wastes energy that you can’t use later in a ride. Even if you don’t race downhill (which is a common excuse used by XC and Trail riders when presented with the need to train their skills) you can stand to save a lot of energy by having some basic technical skills.

Like I said before, when you look at things from a movement (the types of body positions you need to execute different skills) and metabolic (the types of strength and cardio needed to support them) these two sports look nothing alike. Sure, you will find yourself sitting down  and spinning it out like a roadie but it is the ability to handle the more challenging aspects of riding that really separate Mountain Bikers from Roadies on Dirt. If your goal is the see your ability to rip trail improve you need to make sure that you are focusing on these things and not just your ability to sit and spin.

-James Wilson-

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  1. chance says:

    Great read! makes tons of sense! I train for mtb on a bmx bike, I do ride road from time to time! I really feel that sport specific training is the best but diversification is also huge! I ride skate parks, street, bmx tracks, dirt jumps, pump track, dh, trail and road just to help hone my skills!

    again great read!

    Reply • February 20 at 8:33 am
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    Reply • February 20 at 11:10 am
  3. Andy says:

    Great read. I’ve been trying to explain this to riding buddies (without success). Your article outlines it beautifully.

    Reply • February 20 at 1:32 pm
  4. Tony says:

    Well said James! I’m no roadie personally, that’s for sure, but tackling long, steep, out-of-the-saddle climbs on the road bike has always felt very valuable to me. Something about the road bike being very light, rigid and high-geared. Thoughts?

    Reply • February 20 at 3:41 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The real question is are we talking about “better than nothing” or “the optimal way to train for the specific demands of the trail.” This is where riders get confused – sure, doing climbs like you describe can be helpful BUT I say that there are more effective ways to spend that time. Movements and skills are two things that most riders completely overlook but make a huge difference on the trail.

      Plus, look at what you are describing vs. what we do on the trail…

      – Infinite and perfect traction on the road vs. loose, technical terrain
      – Light, stiff bike vs. Heavier bike with suspension
      – Long, uninterrupted climbing pedaling efforts vs. climbs where you need to change your cadence and pedal strokes to accommodate rocks or other features

      Again, when you line up what you do on the road vs. what you do on the trail they are nothing alike. Road riding is definitely beneficial in that it is better than nothing but it is far from the optimal way to improve your actual performance on the trail.

      Reply • February 21 at 9:50 am
  5. Mick Warren says:

    Nicely put James it highlights a lot of what I have not been doing and why I have been under achieving by doing to much of my training on the road on my mountain bike and not much off the bike core strength or other strength work. Keep up the good work cheers Mick

    Reply • February 20 at 4:37 pm
  6. Tony says:

    I hear what you’re saying James, and hey I’m a seriously skills-focused, flat-pedals-on-Nomad C weekend warrior (albeit an old one!). I suspect you hit on a crucial point when you say “the specific demands of the trail”…clearly there are trails and trails. I really like your approach to strength, movement and skills training but to a certain extent am left wondering about how to most effectively combine this with (say) mid-week training rides.

    Reply • February 22 at 5:16 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It all has to do with making sure you don’t do too much overall. Balancing riding and training is possible but only if you really understand how to create the most efficient workouts and not waste time and energy you need for riding. A simple program like the new Time Crunched Trail Rider Solution or the DB Combos Program are perfect for that purpose if you need some specific direction with a program with this need in mind.

      Reply • February 24 at 9:07 am

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