Getting MTB fitness

I am a triathlete/roadie, convert to mountain biking. I’ve been using TR for a year now, and making great FTP gains. I’ve also been riding my MTB like a road bike: high seat, lots if sitting. I’ve now learned how to use a dropper post, and taken a weekend clinic, and HOLY MOLY! I stood basically all weekend, for every ride except the climbs, and I am beat.
What is the best way people have found to building this standing fitness and leg muscle? Just go do it more? Or is there some specific structure or gym routine you’ve found to aid the process? I’m planning to replace one TR without per week now with just a ride at the park, all standing, to start, but would love others thoughts.

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My personal favorite is deadlifting as I think the position you describe gets covered pretty well with that lift. However, just riding a lot in that position will do the same for you, it might just take more time than if you incorporated something like deadlifts into your routine.

Good luck!

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Strength training…skill development
Lots of good threads https://www.trainerroad.com/forumsearch?q=Strength%20training%20

Also learn to be efficient when riding and how to rest when standing when the trail allows. MTB is a full body workout for sure. As your skills increase you will find that you get less beat up by mtb rides.

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I guess this is geographically dependent, but I ride/race XC (Cat 1/Expert) and I sit 95+ % of the time. My trails are punchy though, so YMMV. Sitting is more efficient and I only stand on steep or narly decents, drops and/or technical climbing. I basically only stand when I have to as I’m looking to conserve energy.

I’ve never directly trained for “standing” or MTB, but then again that’s all I ride so I wouldn’t know the difference from the road. I also come from a long CrossFit background before cycling, so maybe I have some base core strength. I’d recommend ride MTB more often and include some weekly strength training.

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So,
You’re best bet for building would be to develop your core and hip flexors.

Bike James covers a lot of this type of work:
https://www.bikejames.com/strength/how-to-instantly-improve-your-hip-strength-with-the-core-activated-glute-bridge/

I think you will find both of these muscle groups benefit from gym work quite quickly, and the more you ride around in neutral and ready as your principle positions for stability and balance, the stronger you will become. I think it took me one full summer and 12 weeks of MTB specific winter circuit training to become developed to the point where I don’t notice any hip weakness.

During the summer, I work my core by putting my hands on top of my bars or riding one-armed on sustained climbs. You will need to move forward on your seat and engage your core to maintain good climbing position. if you are not forward enough on your seat and in a good position you will know very quickly as the hills get steeper.

As you hinge at the hips from neutral to ready position more and more, you’ll find you become very strong in the hips. There are lots of well documented gym exercises to build hip flexors and Glute strength.

Also, you most likely want to shift your shoe cleats to the rear to promote better power through your hips using your glutes. As an instructor I see many clipless pedal riders with cleats too far forward. Or rather, there is little benefit and a lot of extra leg fatigue if your cleats are forward and you ride on your toes. This is especially true of people who road bike a lot.

Now, (down the rabbit hole we go) if you REALLY want to develop your hips and glutes quickly, (stay with me) I suggest you switch to flat pedals for a few months. I did so this season after 20 years of riding Shimano SPD. I did it primarily to improve my skills (different discussion) but what I discovered was that in many MTB situations, I can apply MORE power using my glutes and hips on flats. This is not an either/or discussion. In the big picture it’s a Pro/Con discussion. But I can tell you that over summer 2019 I destroyed all my PR’s on flats, and I am crushing climbs on flats.

I have a working theory that by removing clipless pedals, you are forced to use better body positions, including better foot positions and you use the strongest muscles (glutes, hips, quads) without auxiliary “loss” from theoretically pulling up or “riding in circles”. Maybe switching could be useful as a training exercise for some.

And don’t everyone get all bent out of shape here, my starting references are below, and I am the test dummy for this theory. Keep riding whatever you like. But what I am discovering is that Shimano’s [sic] “More efficient pedalling platform” may not actually be more efficient for the majority of riders who do not have adequate conditioning for their muscles.

Hey, if you learn to ride flats for a. few months, you WILL become a more skilled rider. If you get stronger too, well bonus.

References: (by no means comprehensive)

My experience earlier this summer:

Where I started from:
http://www.flammerouge.je/factsheets/cadence.htm

Debating the benefit:
https://nourishbalancethrive.com/blog/2015/10/02/its-not-about-pulling-why-flat-pedals-work/

Some “analysis”:
https://www.bikejames.com/strength/does-this-video-really-prove-that-flats-are-more-efficient-than-clipless-pedals/

The Bike James Flat Pedal Manifesto:
https://www.bikejames.com/strength/newly-updated-flat-pedal-revolution-manifesto-the-science-and-logic-of-using-flats-to-improve-your-riding/

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If you’re riding XC trails, you shouldn’t need to stand that much.

As you ride more, you’ll instinctively know where you need to stand vs can sit

  • 1 to riding flats! I clip in for road and CX, but always run flat pedals for mountain biking.

Another benefit of flat pedals not mentioned by @Juarez is for long descents where you are primarily standing, you can move your foot position further forward on the pedal. This significantly reduces the amount of work your calf muscles do when standing, making it easier to stay standing longer.

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Yeah I didn’t want to go too deep on pedal pros and cons.
Flat pedals allow for a lot more foot adjustment in many situations. I find that I corner much better because I can rotate my body, then legs (and feet more) leading to a huge increase in rotational pressure and driving the bike through turns. As you mentioned, on sustained downhill trails, you can really find strong positions that don’t rely on smaller muscle exertion.

On the other side of the discussion, I am finding that where my rides require more sustained pedaling and cadence, (like XC races) I am able to use clipless to ‘rest’ my primary muscles by engaging my smaller muscles in “smooth” pedaling. My feeling is that when my required power output is lower (not climbing) then the difference in power output is insignificant, and ability to temporarily rest larger muscles increases my endurance over longer riders. Nothing new here really; this is pretty well know in road riding.

I have also found that because my flat pedal and shoes grip together so well, (Shimano GR7 + RaceFace Atlas pedals) I can use this tactic on flats too. I slide forward on my seat slightly and concentrate on the 6 o’clock pull across the bottom while floating the opposite leg.

Let me know if you have any flat pedal techniques tricks too!

I too am interested in hearing more about how others have developed standing MTB fitness. I’ll climb both in and out of the saddle for 2 hours and feel like it was only moderately difficult and then in 1200ft of technical descending my legs are burning so hard that I can’t fully enjoy it.

I’m sure most of the fix is training, but I’ve also noticed that others vary their standing position on descents to conserve energy - going between more of a straight legged stand on smooth sections and then full attack position when needed.

This being my first winter using a trainer, I feel like I will get really really good at sitting and spinning, but without the standing it may not translate well to the outdoors. Definitely going to need to start lifting heavier or doing circuits as mentioned.

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As above - lots of core work, google Coach Chads “5 workouts for cyclists” any of Nino Schurter or Kate Courtney’s youtube clips for some examples. For lean muscle and balance you could incorporate Kettlebells as weights as they’ll workout the surrounding and supporting muscles.

Re the descents - you will get beaten up on lengthy bumpy descents, but the trick is to relax. Arm pump, tense wrists and legs all contribute to stress on your core and back.

The main key I guess is core strength/flexibility and letting the bike move around you, don’t fight it as your not aiming to be “locked in”. The bike is much more capable than you think, let it flow…

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This. Also sit when you can. I’m guessing you are spending too much time in a crouched position on the bike doing almost a permanent half squat. That would be tiring. By riding more and getting better reading the trail, you’ll know when it’s OK to take short rests.

Regarding training, lots of core work, and leg work focused on single leg exercises. Pull ups and pushups also help (and other pull/push exercises)

Also, stating the obvious, it also depends on how technical the trail is. 1200 feet on a technical rocky trail and you will be tired.

So, now I’m going to suggest that you take lesson and get some basic coaching to refine and learn good body position and how to adapt it to different riding. It’s nice to get advice from the huge community, but instruction and coaching are golden. ( I suggest a PMBIA certified instructor, but I’m biased as that is my certification.)

Quick MTB Lesson on body position.

  1. Stability and balance all start with body position.

  2. Your default, strong and stable position is the NEUTRAL position (Image 001). Chin over stem, feet and pedals level, tall but relaxed in the arms and legs. This position provides stability by being centred in your bike, some range of movement, and your weight is supported through your skeleton, so it is efficient. This is your starting point for cruising around on moderate trails, descending moderate hills and maybe when you are trying to save energy or are tired. The stronger you become (as above) the more you will ride around in this position to conserve energy for the good parts of trail.


(001 - Tyler in Neutral)

  1. When you need more stability and movement, you want to transition to a READY position (image 002). You achieve this by hinging at the waist. (Similar to the motions of deadlifting.) Again, chin stays overs stem, pedals and feet level, elbows out and up for strong “alligator arms” so you can resist forces. This gets you LOWER into the centre of your bike, aligns your centre of mass closer to the theoretical base-of-support, and allows for much more movement on the bike fore-aft, left-right, and up-down. It increases your range of movement, so you can achieve balance. (stability is the theoretical equal balance of all forces which we never really have on an MTB trail, so we use movement (bike and body) to achieve balance, and greater stability, ddynamically) BUT, ready is a greater neuromuscular drain, so you don’t want to ride around like this all the time.


(002 - Tyler in Ready, hinged at waist, straight knees)

You need to practice TRANSITIONING (video 000: https://adobe.ly/33nlRai ) from neutral to ready so you can do it quickly based on the trail and obstacles.

You can practice by standing hip width apart, put your hands together palms out facing away from you, and push your butt back, and lower your upper body. Don’t bend your knees (yet). It may feel awkward, because you need to practice it and work the hip muscles and gain flexibility.


(003 - Parking lot practice. Initially you will feel your hamstrings pull)

  1. You can be MORE READY (image 004) when you are hinged at the hips, AND you open your knees wider and become even lower, and you also get great range of movement. This is why you have a dropper post; so you can be even lower for greater stability, and you can move more, and adjust position such as in descents, where getting down behind your front wheel increases braking power, or in corners to allow more angulating of your bike in tighter corners or to generate rotational pressure through berms and flat turns. Again, much higher neuromuscular drain so you don’t want to use the position when it’s not really required.


(004 - Claire VERY ready. Seat dropped, hinged at waist, knees bent and wide )


(005 - Sandra seat down, butt low, knees wide, chin over stem with strong arms. Note that she is NOT back behind her seat, but centered in the bike and stays that was through the big roller for stability.)

Now, how you apply this is entirely dependant on the trails you ride, and how you like to ride them. I like to rail corners, fast, so I tend to sprint into anything with a slight berm, then get ready and angulate my bike and rotate to generate pressure. Is this generally necessary on my XC trails? No. But its way more fun for me than keeping my bike upright and pedalling through the section. (And it looks badass.)


(If the berms are big and perfect you don’t need to really low, but rotation helps with traction and speed)

We won’t get into body position for climbing, but I will say that standing while climbing is a huge energy suck, just like road riding, so understanding if, why and when to stand are important. Moving to the nose of your saddle and maintaining a good cadence is generally preferable and gives you maximum traction. (get very friendly with your seat) Hovering, where you lift your butt 2-3" off your seat while maintaining a centred position is a useful technique to assist with technical terrain or for a quick boost of power. Standing without changing to easier gears can help you maintain cadence and power through rolling trails so you are cresting rollers with more momentum. But sustained standing will drain your battery quickly. You can check your body position on climbs by climbing one-handed; If you can’t climb well or maintain a line, it’s likely because you need usually pull on the bars, instead of moving forward on your seat and you are too far back to start with.

Why stand if you don’t have to? If you find you can’t peals with hip power and maintain good cadence then you need to look at your bike size, saddle position and foot and cleat position. Learning good techniques and how to apply them will make you a much more efficient rider, help you build control, and ultimately speed. (If that is your goal)

As with all bike skills and techniques, there are pros and cons to everything, although the points above are pretty fundamental. Watch the UCI riders in the replay races and compare how the mod pick riders look compared to Nino and Neff. (And Kate, and Emily…)

We see a lot of roadies crossing over to MTB in our lessons. People with great fitness overall who really develop quickly with some instruction, feedback and practice. (It’s worth it to take some lessons.)

Hope this is helpful.

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1200 ft? Your legs are supposed to burn.

I’ve raced downhill on and off since 1999. Even the fast guys are gassed after a 4-5 minute bike part descent.

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I’ve never been to a bike park. Watching videos on the internet makes it looks like you should be able to descend 3k feet like it’s no big deal. Thanks for giving me some reference for how it should feel.

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Yup and you’d be surprised at how often folks stop at a bike park.

Even on jump lines, which tend to be easier on the body than tech trails / race courses, a lot of guys are stopping every 2 minutes to catch their breath.

Or if you are on a hardtail, every 30s :grin:

The kind of fitness you need is very dependent on the trails you’ll be riding. My local trails have a lot of climbing, and long descents. Some ledgy and rocky stuff, but much is dirt with embedded rocks and roots. So I’m generally in good shape for that kind of riding.

But I rode Mag 7 today in Moab and it beat the crap out of me. 22 miles took over 4 hrs, and I was exhausted at the end.

Mmmm…Mag 7…so.much.fun.

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This Pinkbike article explains why Juarez’s comments about body positions.

Yes. But I wasn’t expecting it to be as physically challenging. Noticeable difference vs the whole enchilada. And more technical also.

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