Roadies vs Singletrackers: how your exercise requirements differ

You may loyally stick to defined tribe of riding, but increasingly mountain bikers and road cyclists are switching over to the other to reap the benefits. For example, you may be able to handle some hectic downhill action, but put you on a road with other seasoned cyclists and you’re likely to eat their dust. Joining a pack and clocking up some miles can help boost your endurance and riding fitness, which makes for a better off road experience too. Similarly, trying your hand at some trail rides can up your reflexes giving you new superpowers to try out on the road.

But what about the exercise required to train for these different cycle styles? We take you through the paces:

The difference:

"There is a 51% increase in the effort needed to ride a mountain bike on a grassy, leafy trail with obstacles, compared to a road bike on a paved surface,” says Jeff Barber at Singletracks, which means that “mountain biking requires 50-150% more effort than a road ride of equivalent distance”. In other words, it is safe to say that a 15-kilometer mountain bike ride is roughly the same (physically) as a 25-40 kilometer road ride.

Your power output fluctuates much more during a mountain bike climb than on a road bike, and these bursts of power are because of the terrain. It is therefore essential to mountain bike racing to be able to produce these efforts in order to clear the technical terrain and maintain your speed. To do so you need to work on raising your anaerobic capacity in training.

The training:

Road racing is more consistent in power output and thus requires a less dynamic range in training, whereas mountain racing requires many bursts of energy alternated by periods of low power output when navigating obstacles throughout the race. Your heart, your mind, and your butt have to be ready for this. A rider's ability to perform high-level efforts over and over during a mountain bike race is critical. For this reason having a huge aerobic engine is important.

Jason Hilimire of Colorado-based FasCat Coaching recommends varying levels of “tempo bursts” for mountain bike athletes. These consist of the rider pedaling at their standard tempo for two to four minutes and then jumping out of the saddle for 10 to 30 seconds at 125 percent or greater of their threshold power. After the burst, the athlete returns to their standard pace until the next burst. These burst intervals force the physiological adaptations required for the constant start/stop pedaling and short bursts of anaerobic power needed to ride fast over technical off-road terrain. Here is an example of a tempo burst:

  • Cycle for nine minutes at standard tempo (224-266 watts if you have a power meter), jumping out of the saddle for 10-second high-power (357w) bursts at the three, six and nine-minute marks. Repeat twice, then continue riding for another nine minutes without any bursts.
  • If you’re becoming a super athlete you can turn this tempo burst into “sweet spot” and even “full gas” which are more advanced and much harder:
  • Cycle for 10 minutes at a slightly harder pace (245-286w), jumping out of the saddle for 15-second high-power (357w) bursts at the two, four, six, eight and 10-minute marks. Repeat three times, and then continue riding for another 10 minutes without any bursts.

Want to be king of the road? Here are some quick tips to be the fastest cyclist, no matter what:

  • - Have a training plan, try to stick to it, but don’t beat yourself up when you’re already sore.
  • Every now and then push your limits; go so super fast your face feels like it’s falling off, then so slow the grannies overtake you.
  • Do more than log miles. Intervals, cadence rides and other specific workouts are designed to progressively challenge your body in different ways from week to week. Give every ride a goal.
  • Train your brain; you can accomplish anything if you think you can.
  • Work hard at cycling, but don’t make it a job you end up loathing.
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