More than roadies on dirt.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming article on In it I cover the 3 main physical differences between road riding and mountain biking and why these difference mean we need a very different approach to training…

Here are three things that must be considered with a mountain bike training program:

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 they 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) Hip mobility and control is the key to technical skills:

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 fast, good technical skills also keep it rubber side down, a.k.a. keep you from crashing.

The fluidity, balance and control needed to flow through technical single track require a lot of hip mobility and control. This all starts with the “attack position” where the rider is standing up with their hips back and chest down. This is the base position and from here they are balanced and neutral on the bike, setting them up for everything else.

However, most riders are locked up in the hips and lack the foundational core strength and hip mobility to get into that position. This means that instead of sliding their hips back and getting their chest down, they drop their hips down and keep their chest upright. They are essentially off balance and spend most of their time riding defensively instead of being able to let it flow.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Courtland says:

    I’ve got a question for you regarding rehab? 7 weeks ago I hit a tree at 25 mph and gave myself a mild concussion, broken collar bone, mild/ moderate AC separation, 5 broken ribs and a collapsed lung. I was on my trainer @ about 2.5 weeks, on the road @ 5 weeks.
    I believe that I’m ahead of schedule compared to “normal” people, but wanted your thoughts on rehab for my shoulder, traps, chest and upper arm?
    Thanks for your time

    Reply • March 22 at 10:42 am
  2. Jan C says:

    James i’ve been following your work for some time. As a competing downhiller in the UK I find your work very switched-on and a useful tool for training… So firstly thanks for your website 😉

    I am interested in your opinions/suggestions on using indoor rowing as a resource for DH training ?

    Cheers Jan C

    Reply • March 22 at 5:14 pm
    • bikejames says:

      the rower is great becuase it works the hips and rowing muscles and lets you get a cardio workout while avoiding overuse injuries.

      Reply • March 24 at 1:41 pm
  3. […] More than roadies on dirt. | MTB Strength Training Systems […]

    Reply • March 23 at 12:58 am
  4. Brooce says:

    [quote]For this reason strength training and intervals will have a more direct impact on a mountain biker’s performance than a road cyclist.[/quote]

    Yop – understandable, although I’ve heard that before doing strength and interval bike training, we should firstly do some endurance base (which means riding a lot of kilometers on a road). Doing speed & strength training just after winter break will make results go away very quickly. Is this a true statement?

    Reply • March 23 at 1:46 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ brooce…why is that? we already know how to go slow, why would going slow for longer help you get faster? i know that is the prevailing logic but sometimes you have to ask why and if there is no logical answer then maybe the prevailing logic is wrong. this is one of those times.

      Reply • March 24 at 12:54 pm
  5. Mike says:

    Going slow builds a bigger engine, pushing up you ability to generate more power, but you need to put a lot of hours in. e.g. 15 – 20 hrs a week. It’s been well documented and scientifically researched. Going fast pulls up your power, but is less sustainable, you need to watch your stress levels and manage your workouts to stop burnout. If you have limited time then doing hard intervals is the way to go. If you had all the time in the world to train, then you would probably get best out of combining both.

    Reply • March 25 at 3:42 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Mike – Why is going fast and hard less sustainable? If you use the right amount of volume then it should be just as safe as going long and slow. In fact, the injury rate for riders who engage in the traditional “base training” approach is far from zero. This means that it has dangers as well. Too much volume at any intensity level will result in injuries and burnout.

      The problem is that riders apply the volume mindset to intensity based workouts. They are so used to going long and slow that they think they are supposed to go long and fast. This is why riders get hurt, not because intense workouts are inherently more dangerous.

      Lastly, you have to be careful when using blanket statements like steady state cardio training “builds a bigger engine” and that it has been “well researched”. Steady state cardio has been well researched and what has been shown is that base training will increase VO2Max, which is the main indicator of aerobic fitness. This is the “engine” that is being referred to and the main point of steady state cardio is to increase that.

      However, so will interval training. In fact, two studies have show that interval training will develop VO2Max more efficiently than aerobic training will. If increasing VO2Max is the goal then the research clearly shows that aerobic training is NOT the only or most efficient way to go about it.

      Research that pits interval vs. steady state cardio shows intervals to be superior, not the other way around. Steady state cardio is the better researched and traditional approach but that doesn’t necessarily make it the best. A growing amount of new research is suggesting that there may be way more to the story than we first thought.

      Now, with that said, if your average ride/ race is several hours long then you will need to do some training rides that mimic that time frame. However, you need to do it to train your body to be used to sustaining a relatively hard effort for that period of time, not necessarily to build your VO2Max. Use intervals to build VO2Max and anaerobic work capacity as they deliver more bang for your training buck.

      Mountain biking is full of “urban myths” like steady state cardio is the best way to increase cardio capacity. They are repeated over and over until riders take them as fact. My goal is to help well meaning riders like you see that these training myths may be holding us back and not the most efficient use your training time.

      Reply • March 25 at 12:51 pm
      • Joe says:

        Aerobic training elicits different adaptations than anaerobic training. Anaerobic training thickens the heart walls, enlarges local blood vessels and increases output at that intensity. Aldo stimulates type 2 muscle fibers. Aerobic Cardio enlarges the left ventricle of the heart and increases blood capillaries. This results in a higher stroke volume which makes you more efficient and able to go faster aerobically. What will feel like a near sprint to an untrained rider will simply be low intensity for an elite rider. While aerobic training won’t directly help your anaerobic output, it does help you recover faster between intense spurts of activity and increases overall work capacity.

        Reply • January 19 at 12:03 pm
  6. Mike says:

    Thanks for the response James. Couldn’t get function to work in IE or Firefox so had to separate the reply.

    Just to point I don’t do steady state in the traditional sense. I only have 5 – 6 hours to train on the bike, so doing low intensity base is a waste of time. 80% of what I do is interval based at FTP or above.

    What I was trying to say is that intervals are not the be all and end all of training. Someone who has the time to do 15 – 20 hours a week should be doing approx 80% endurance level riding and 20% interval. If you’ve not got the time, drop the endurance and leave in the interval time. So if you only have 4 hours a week, that would be all intervals. As you put it you will get more bang for your training buck.

    The jury is still out on what is the optimal long term interval only based training plan. I look forward to the research when it appears. In the mean time I will continue to study on myself.

    Lets face it though interval training is hard. It’s meant to be! Going flat out though week in week out 52 weeks a year, year after year would just burn you out mentally if not physically. Periodizing your training plan to include lower intensity weeks (not months!) focusing more on endurance level riding allows for that recovery both mentally and physically, so you can go hard leading up to key events and peaking at the right times.

    On the flip side It would be like saying the only way to build strength is to use a rep range of 1 – 3 and anything above that is a waste of time. Of course this is not the case, which is why most well constructed weight training plans include higher rep ranges, including yours.

    Often though people just sit in one camp or the other. It’s either got to be all steady state or it has to be all high intensity intervals. You frequently come across in the latter. Both will increase your ability to generate power individually, which is what we are inevitably trying to achieve. Intelligently using both is likely to get you further long term IF you have time to include both.

    Just trying to balance the view.

    Reply • March 25 at 4:53 pm
  7. Sean says:


    Great stuff about core strength. I would add a few additional insights of my own from spending a lot of time on a singlespeed bike. I have a SS MTB and a SS CX bike, as well as a geared FS MTB. I switch around fairly regularly and notice a few things about techniques as a result of all that switching.

    The thing I notice most of all is how body awareness and body position as a point of technique are critical to becoming a good MTB rider.

    On your point (2) —

    People who spend a significant amount of time on a singlespeed MTB will tell you, standing pedaling also requires more accurate technique. One of the most critical things to being a good standing climber on a SS bike is paying attention to where your hips are in relation to the rear wheel’s contact patch. Too far forward and you’ll spin that rear tire rather than hooking up and driving forward. Too far rearward and you’re prone to a wheelie which isn’t really the most efficient way to climb!

    In addition to core strength, pelvic tilt is important too. You can work different muscle groups simply by varying the tilt of your pelvis, so that you can rest the lower glutes and work the upper glutes/lower back. However, you can’t hold a sustained game of rolling the pelvis unless you have both good core strength, and good body awareness.

    One more thing I’d observe: standing climbing isn’t always about punching out big amounts of power. I know riders who can do a very efficient standing climb for a pretty long period. Most of these people are road riders as well as MTB riders. I’ve learned some smooth standing climbing techniques from watching them and how they do their climbing positions. One guy unintentionally gave me a cool new climbing style that is basically a way of resting lots of the body. He keeps a fairly upright torso and head, fairly soft arms, and does a sort of light dancing on the pedals. I watched him do this on a flat road climb leading to the trailhead, and on some technical trail climbing too. It took me a while to figure out how to do it myself, but I’ve incorporated it now. It’s a nice change of pace when riding on the singlespeed.

    I would suggest riding singlespeed on the dirt to anyone who needs to work on body position, climbing strength, climbing technique, and riding skill.

    Reply • March 28 at 8:43 am
  8. Brooce says:


    I know that it’s been some time since you published this article, but I have read something more about sprint training since than and would like to confront this theory with your practise.

    I have recently found a book about sprint training. Although it is destined to runners, I believe that general rules of training are the same as for mountainbiking sprints (thinking mainly about 4cross, aren’t they?). It was written plenty of years ago by a great polish trainer and athlete (Zygmunt Zabierzowski). I will write here some statements from it (I translated it to english by myself so sorry if there are any shortages in language correctnes).

    What gives us endurance training (and why it is important before more specialist – interval one):
    *greater capacity of lungs and stroke volume (obvious)
    *greater amount of open capilary loops
    *growing alkali reserve and lowering tendency to diminish its level (this alkali reserve neutralizates lactic acid) -> lenghtening ability of muscle to work
    *growing amount of red cells, hemoglobin and glycogen in blood, and ability to reject CO2 from organism

    I would like to know your opinion about it (is this still considered to be a truth? The book was written 40+ years ago).
    Can I develope all these advantages by doing interval training, without former endurance preparation?

    Refering to your post from above – “@ Mike – Why is going fast and hard less sustainable?”, there is also a note about why we shouldn’t do intervals without doing any base training before:

    Author claims, that speed training creates bad working conditions for circulatory and anapnea system. Growing pressure in breast caused by those exercises makes blood circulation, heart’s and lung’s work difficult and can cause signs of hypertension.

    I hope you’ll find a time to give some new view on it, would be very gratefull.

    Reply • November 23 at 2:12 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I’ve touched on this a bit before but here is why the “old school” advice like that doesn’t add up anymore. First, we now know that interval training will produce the exact same results you just listed. At the time that book was written it was believed that aerobic training produced effects that anaerobic training simply couldn’t which meant that you needed to develop the “aerobic base” to support your harder efforts but we now know that is not true. In fact, anaerobic training produces the same effects in less time while also providing anaerobic benefits that aerobic training simply can not.

      Second, the whole idea of “base before intensity” came about because people were applying the volume model to intervals. If you start out with a low volume of intervals you are fine but that is not what people do – they jump in doing too many, get hurt and then blame the intervals as being too much too soon and think that easing into them will solve the problem. I have not had one rider do “base training” and not one of them has gotten hurt or burned out as a result.

      Good questions, we just need to keep in mind that the science of energetics has advanced more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100 combined. Books written more than 5 years ago are outdated on some level and as the new science trickles down to everyone else the whole “aerobic base training” myth will die out.

      Reply • November 24 at 7:46 am
  9. joe says:

    what advice would you give to a 52 year old mtb rider in good health whose joy is to ride and keep riding.Of particular interst to me is recovery rate and hydration issues.what would you have for me the older rider please.
    thank you

    Reply • February 5 at 7:23 am
    • bikejames says:

      I’d advise adopting a program that will address mobility, strength, power and recovery on both a basic and mountain bike specific level. Nothing exists in isolation so recovery rate and hydration must be looked at in in the scope of the big picture.

      At 52 I’d venture to guess that mobility would be a good place to start, most 32 year old riders are too tight. If your tight then your movement is not efficient and you’ll always struggle with fatigue and feeling like you need to increase your recovery, when recovery may not be the real issue.

      Reply • February 5 at 8:11 am
  10. Phil Marsh says:

    All of this is very interesting since I have kind of been wondering about it for a while. If you remember the email I sent to you where I kind of gave you my life history…in it told you that I competed in a few races this past year and rode competitively in the tech sections but not so well in the flatter stuff. I have the power and control to do the slow pedaling…standing or whatever but when the rpm’s get higher I give out. So I actually bought some Carmichael video’s to help with this…and they seem to have helped some. These video’s incorperate interval’s. In the blog here you are speaking of interval’s vs steady state. Are these the type of interval’s you are talking about or something different?

    Reply • February 24 at 1:09 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I’ve only seen the Time Crunched Cyclist book by Chris but in general, intervals are intervals. His tend to be a bit longer and still work on a higher cadence pedaling style than what I like to address for trail riding but you’ll still do better with them than with long, slow distance. DB Combo drills and strength training are still the basis for the type of high tension cardio you need on the trail.

      Reply • February 26 at 10:04 am

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