Mountain Bike AND Road Bike Training – Does it make sense?

Mountain Bike Downhill Riding

Here’s a classic conundrum: you love mountain bike racing and you love road racing, but you’re not quite sure how to tailor a training schedule that will give you the best of all worlds when it comes to racing each discipline. Have no fear, training to race on the road and on the mountain bike don’t have to be mutually exclusive — AND (and maybe best of all) riding each discipline will help the other.

One of the mistakes I made in my racing career was not spending enough time on the mountain bike. Even though mountain bike racing was “my sport,” and road racing was something that I just did, I spent 85 percent of my training time on the road bike.

Why? Lots of reasons, including:

  • The road was more accessible.
  • Finding trails to fit my training need wasn’t always possible.
  • Daylight – after school or work, I had a finite amount of daylight hours for training.

If any of the above are reasons you’ve chosen to train on the road rather than the mountain bike, I do have some suggestions as to how you can get more time on the mountain bike and still accomplish your weekly training schedule goals.

Suggestion #1 – Use your mountain bike for time trial training

Let’s face it, a mountain bike race is really a mass-start time trial on rough terrain. So why not train for it? One of the reasons I came to like road racing so much (not so much criterium racing) was because road races hardly ever started like mountain bike races. At a mountain bike race, the gun goes off and everyone goes anaerobic within the first 500 meters, and the pace stays fervent for the entire length of the race. I realized my training on the mountain bike had to emulate this.

Find a week night training series and go race your mountain bike. It turned out that there was a Wednesday night training race series hosted within an hour’s drive from where I lived. The training race provided all the benefits of a time trial and I was able to log some miles in the dirt, which also helped hone my off-road skills. Another benefit was being able to see where my pace put me among my competitors.

Suggestion #2 – Pick a section of trail that works for Vo2 Max intervals

One of the many things that I found difficult about mountain bike racing was making good line selections and course choices while being anaerobic. It seemed like the lack of oxygen in my brain (all of it was fueling my legs) was causing me to make silly, time-wasting mistakes in the technical trail sections. I needed practice riding at my max while making my way through tough terrain.

  • Find a climb that connects to a technical section of trail.
  • Ride your first Vo2 Max interval and mark your finish spot.
  • Recover by riding back down to the start of the climb.
  • Repeat. Each time marking your progress.

When I did this, I found at the half-way point of the interval training workout, I covered my farthest distance on the trail. By the time I was onto my last interval, I would finish somewhere near the place I finished on my first interval. It was good to see the positive forward progress, and it also was beneficial to see how my ability to negotiate technical sections deteriorated as I grew tired.

Suggestion # 3 – Convert a long road ride into a long mountain bike ride

You’re training schedule says you need four to six hours in the saddle on the road. You know the pace needs to be Zone 2 and a little bit of Zone 3. Why not take the mountain bike out instead?

No, I’m not suggesting you take a four to six hour mountain bike training ride (though the more I ride the more I enjoy these “epics”). I’ve always equated two to three hours on the mountain bike at steady Zone 2 and some bits of Zone 3 with four to six hours on the road bike with the same Zone effort. Training on the road is always solid, but if you are able to spend a little extra time on your mountain bike, it’s only going to help improve your technical skills. And, it can help prepare you for taking terrain when you’re tired and no longer fresh.

Combining road and mountain bike training – an unexpected benefit.

Remember how I mentioned I didn’t much like criterium racing in the section under Suggestion #1? Well, I still don’t like crits, but I got better at them over time and it was because of the time I spent training on my mountain bike.

Mountain biking is intense. Crits are intense. When you’re ripping through a section of trail, you might find your self braking, immediately accelerating, and leaning to miss a tree or rock all within seconds of each other. I’ve had similar experiences in crits (sans the trees and rocks).

As the pelotan approaches a corner in a fast crit, the first 10 riders or so make it through and never touch their brakes and then accelerate out of the apex. The rest of the field starts to touch their brakes, and as the peloton takes the corner the braking and acceleration becomes more intense the farther back in the field you are. The sketchiness of the riders around you also becomes more of an issue. One guy is grabbing a handful or brake in the middle of the corner and another just skipped his back wheel because he dragged a pedal.

Having spent time training on your mountain bike, you’ve learned to better react and respond to all of the above:

  • Sudden braking and hard accelerations are unavoidable on mountain bike.
  • A sketchy rider who makes a mistake is just like responding to rock or root in the trail.

Because of the intensity of mountain biking, a sudden breakaway in the field doesn’t surprise you, you’re ready to pour on the power and sustain it.

Mountain biking and road cycling complement each other in many ways. I wish I would have learned earlier in my career how to better use each discipline to help bolster my skills and strengths in the other. Hopefully, you’ll be able to use these suggestions to augment your training program and become more successful on race day – no matter what bike you’re on when you roll up to the starting line.

2 comments… add one
  • Craig

    I alternate between road and mountain on a weekly basis; however, weather has been the biggest factor as to what bike I select when walking out the door as of late. If it’s cold and dry I’ll go for the mountain bike, if it’s wet or warmer (50+) I’ll go for the road bike. Now that it’s getting warm and dry, I want to get more intentional about the balance between road/mountain riding. I find the two disciplines do complement each other well, but I have to be sure not to “go for the gold” every time I switch bikes. There has to balance with the intensity of each ride, especially since I’m in a perpetual state of training and do not compete or participate in races or club rides. Of course, I do try to beat my PRs on some rides . . . then I am my biggest competitor!

  • John

    I started out as a devout MTB’er doing various events/races, never touched a road bike until I started hanging out with the road guys at my local gym. I soon realised that road work would pay dividends on the ‘long’ hauls between technical sections, which was where I always lost a lot of time. I became hooked on the road bike scene, made some great friends, and my MTB endurance has made MTB’ing more fun too!

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