Our coach to the stars, tells you how to improve your strength and fitness for mountain bike riding and racing.

We all want to be better riders. Whether it’s railing corners faster, learning to jump, muscling up steep technical climbs, or simply reacting to terrain in the blink of an eye and making better line choices. The end game is to keep improving and have a blast doing it.

But just like any physical pursuit, practice alone won’t make perfect. You need to train, because being stronger and fitter will make every other aspect of riding a mountain bike easier. And while we’re all happy to spend hours on the bike working on specific skills, or simply riding around hoping to improve, a more focused approach can bring surprisingly rapid results. To give you an idea of your baseline strength, why not have a go out our seven performance metrics that every mountain biker should strive for? You never know, you might surprise yourself! And if not, then it’s a great wake up call.

zwift mountain biking

Using an indoor smart trainer is time-efficient, lets you control your effort, and avoids the worst of the weather.

On-bike training for mountain biking

Improving fitness and performance is often a key motivation to train for mountain biking — maybe you’re racing and you want better results, perhaps you’re trying to complete a specific challenge, or simply working your way up the group pecking order. Interval training is one effective method that can significantly improve fitness, and really works well for mountain bikers — not only do we need good levels of fitness to simply complete hilly rides, we also need a burst of sustained acceleration on every ride to tackle changes in terrain and gradient.

Indoor training on a bike with a power meter is very effective.

High-intensity intervals for mountain biking

Interval training is an exercise structure that mixes periods of exercise at a set (generally quite high) intensity, with periods of recovery between them, thus allowing you to repeat these efforts multiple times. The intensity of these work efforts can vary, so too the duration of the efforts and the work to rest ratio – i.e you can reduce the recovery time between efforts to make the session harder.

An interval training session is easy to weave into a regular mountain bike ride, or even a commute, with just a little planning. Or you could invest in one of the best home smart trainers or use a stationary bike at the gym.

Be sure to start with a gradual, progressive warm up for at least 10-15 minutes. Aim to have an elevated heart rate, close to that at which you’d experience on a climb, at the end of the warm-up.


Example interval session

  • Warm-up
  • 4-6 x 3 mins at hard effort with 3 mins recovery between
  • Cool down – very easy spin for 10 mins

Those 3 minutes efforts should be doable at a consistent pace, but by the end of the interval you should feel like you can continue at the same level for another minute.

Alternative interval session

  • Warm-up
  • 4 x 30 second sprint followed by 90 seconds recovery
  • 5 mins recovery
  • 4 x 30 second sprint followed by 90 seconds recovery
  • Cool down – very easy spin for 10 mins

Zone 2 riding involves going very steady.

Zone 2 training for mountain biking

High intensity workouts are great for getting fit in a short space of time, but if you really want to make long-term improvements as a mountain biker, you’re also going to need to incorporate steady state cardio, or zone 2 training. You might think riding harder would be better to improve fitness, which may be true in some instances. However, with harder efforts comes longer recovery time, which in turn limits the amount of time you can train or ride effectively. By focusing on lower intensity training, you can spend more time improving fitness without beating yourself up.

In terms of sessions, start by introducing one session per week of 40 – 60 minutes at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. If you can commute to work by bike, that would be a great way to start. Once you’re confident you can hold your effort in the sweet spot, add more sessions and/or increase the duration of the rides. Over as little as a few weeks your body will adapt and you will be able to handle more volume.

There are various ways to monitor your effort to ensure you are hitting the sweet spot; not too hard but not too easy. Three of the best ones are heart rate monitors, power meters and perceived effort.

Use a heart rate monitor to control your zones.

Heart rate monitor

Use a heart rate monitor, or one of the best fitness trackers on the market, to view your heart rate in beats per minute in real time, which can then be used to gauge your effort. Most heart rate monitors will display the ‘zone’ you are working in. Steady state cardio is commonly known as ‘Zone 2 training’, which is roughly 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. This is where you should spend the majority of your time for best results with this type of training.

Power meter attached to a mountain bike crank

A power meter is a great tool for letting you control your effort.

Power meter

These measure the power you put through your pedals in watts, and can be viewed while you ride with the help of a power crank or power pedals. They’re not cheap, but if you’re serious about training they might be worth considering. The other alternative is a Wattbike or other indoor trainer with a power sensor. These are very accurate and programmable but the downside is you’re stuck inside.

Perceived effort

This one is free, but can be hit or miss depending on your understanding of your own body, mood or simply how many coffees you’ve had that morning. Perceived effort has more variables than heart rate or Watts, so you should pay attention to breathing, muscular pain and other signs of fatigue to maintain a constant, low intensity effort throughout your ride. Another option is to close your mouth and restrict your breathing to your nostrils only. This acts like an air intake restrictor on a race car, and helps cap your exertion.

Man walking in gym holding two kettlebells

Who knew carrying something heavy across a room could be so helpful for mountain biking

Off-bike training for mountain biking

It’s a common misconception that top level mountain bikers spend all day in the gym. But this simply isn’t true. In as little as two hours per week, you can do as much off-bike training as some pro riders, and reap huge rewards in terms of your mountain biking.

By training sensibly you can fill in strength and intensity deficits in a short space of time each week, eliminate areas that are holding you back and reap massive benefits when mountain biking. Start off by seeing how you measure up against these seven performance metrics to show where your weaknesses lie. In terms of equipment, here’s what you need to get started:

Gym Level 1 – The weekend warrior

1 Kettlebell
Pull-Up Bar
Resistance Bands
Total cost: £100-150

Level 2 – The Quietly Competitive

Gymnastic Rings (TRX)
Medicine ball
Plyo Box (bench)
Cardio equipment
+ All Level 1 kit
Total cost £250-300

Level 3 – The Ultimate Rider

Barbell & Weight Plates
Squat Rack
Watt Bike or Rowing machine
+ All Level 1 and Level 2 Kit
Total cost £2,000-2,500

Fundamental exercises for mountain biking

Woman doing press up in the gym

Doing a full press-up where your chest touches the floor is a great achievement.

How to: the press-ups

Doing press-ups regularly will increase your upper body strength quicker than riding alone, as the stress and subsequent adaption is much greater. If you want to take your bike handling in technical terrain to the next level, add press-ups to your training routine.

Woman doing squats in the gym

The back squat is where the magic happens because of the large loads (and speeds) you can use while performing them.

How to: squats

Using the big muscle groups around the hips and legs, as well as involving the core, means the crossover potential of squats to mountain biking is phenomenal. Improving strength and endurance in these areas will really improve your riding. From pedalling up steep climbs to holding positions during descents, your legs and core are fundamental to your riding ability.

Pull-ups or ring rows will help your grip strength, so you can hold on better.

How to: pull-ups

Not only will pull-ups help increase your ability to hold on, they will dramatically improve your riding in other ways too, such as improving control and reducing fatigue and arm pump.

Man lifting barbel in a gym

Deadlifts work your arms, shoulders and core as well as your hands and wrists.

How to: deadlifts

Want to be a stronger, faster rider? Then start deadlifting. Doing so will allow you to pedal harder for longer, hold a more solid riding position, and take bigger impacts buckling.

Your coach

Jonny Thompson is head coach for Fit4Racing, an online fitness programme for mountain bikers. Once a forensic scientist, Jonny has devoted the last 10 years to coaching athletes from Paralympians to world number one enduro racers. His main focus with the Fit4Racing team is developing and delivering fitness programmes to pro and amateur riders.

Training the likes of the YT Mob team, Jonny also sends digital programmes to riders all over the world, many of whom ride professionally.