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Training > Bike

Mountain biking benefits for triathletes

Winter is the perfect time of year to take your bike off-road. Andy Wadsworth shows you why mountain biking offers invaluable training benefits for triathletes.

There are three things every triathlete needs to work on over the winter months: endurance, power and speed. Mountain biking can help you with all of these. Regular training sessions can improve your cadence, develop core stability and, with all that hopping on and off, it’ll help to make the transition from run to bike easier.

Crank it up

Most of us think that we ride on the road using the right gear technique. But, more often than not, triathletes select a gear that’s too big. As a result your legs get tired before they should and cramp begins to set in before you start the run. With mountain biking, however, you learn to select the right gear, often pedalling in an easier gear to overcome obstacles, and use more of a stop-start pedal pattern on sharp turns, up hills and descents.

If you keep your cadence high during all of this, you’re far more likely to overcome a small ditch, rock or tree en-route. Think of a hill that you often tackle in your training rides; think of the gear that you use to ride up that hill. Now imagine how much faster you’d go if you turned the pedals another 20 times per minute. You’d sail past the opposition, simply because you could maintain a higher pedal speed. 

By increasing your cadence you’ll also get the physiological effect of working a greater number of fast-twitch fibres. Your muscle fibres are made up of a combination of slow-twitch fibres and fast-twitch fibres. Most people have a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which enable you to cope with endurance. Having some fast-twitch fibres, however, helps your muscles work at a higher speed.

It’s also been proven that cycling at higher cadences leads to fresher legs for the run. You’re more susceptible to leg cramps, lactate build-up and injury if you pedal big gears. With this in mind, you should aim to keep your cadence over 95rpm.

Another advantage of training on a mountain bike is the easier gearing. On the road there are some hills that you simply can’t get up because the gears on your road bike don’t allow you to keep your pedal revs up. This means you end up out of the saddle, standing on the pedals to crank yourself up the hill, pushing and pulling the bike from side-to-side. The ratios on a mountain bike will allow you to sit down and spin.

To go faster you need more power to provide the speed. It’s natural to have a slightly longer crank length on a mountain bike, which forces you to be more powerful. Due to the stop-start nature of mountain biking and the increase in the number of gradients, you also have to provide more power just to keep going.
Tests show that mountain bikers are able to achieve very high power-to-weight ratios and keep their heart rate and oxygen uptake higher for longer. It’s all too easy to cruise along the flat on your triathlon bike without making much effort, but this does nothing for you apart from stretch the legs. Training off-road will increase your heart rate by 5-10bpm throughout the ride, especially because you use your upper body more. (This extra upper body endurance will help your swimming, too.)

Core values

Core stability is a term everyone’s becoming more familiar with, and it refers to the muscles that hold your spine and pelvis in place. All top sportsmen, from sprinters to golfers, benefit from core stability training. As a triathlete, you can’t hope to improve your technique unless you focus on this component of training, too.

You may prefer to get out for a swim, bike or run but core stability exercises are essential [see Strength and Conditioning: Core Stability, issue 176, for specific exercises – Ed]. Go mountain biking on top of this and you’ll enjoy even greater benefits. The bike leg of a triathlon recruits many muscles in the body – mountain biking will recruit even more. When you ride on the road you stay in one position. Biking off-road requires constant body movements, as you have to keep your balance over obstacles and across varying gradients. Just by doing this you’ll strengthen your core stability.

With a strong core, you increase your chances of avoiding injuries caused by muscle imbalances. You’ll also able to train harder for longer, and rather than energy going sideways due to poor technique, your pedal power will go straight through the bike.

Get a grip

It’s a fact that many triathletes sit on a turbo trainer all winter and don’t get out much. Flogging yourself into a sweaty mess on a turbo has its benefits but when it comes to races, where you’ll need to hold your position on descents and take tight turns, where will you be?

Triathlon is attracting more spectators and media coverage all the time. To make it more entertaining, courses are made shorter, with more laps and more turns. You can avoid losing time on the bike section by using the winter to improve your handling skills. This way you’ll not only be able to keep your position on tight bike courses, but you’ll also make up time –?and save a great deal of energy, too.

Approaching a tight turn, for example, you should change gear before the bend. By dropping speed, you can pedal out of the bend in the right gear without losing any of your momentum. There’ll also be less strain on your leg muscles, taking you back up to a good pedal cadence more quickly.

This is just one of the things that mountain biking will teach you, because it forces you to anticipate what will happen next and to use ?the right gears. If you don’t, you’ll slow down and find yourself either having to get off and walk or falling off.

When you ride off-road, you’ll find the bike often slips and slides beneath you. You have to get used to this. For example, if you’re riding on a gravel trail and you turn sharply, you’ll inevitably slide and lose control of the bike as you lose traction. By distributing your body weight correctly, however, you’ll be able to make the turn next time. You do this by placing more weight on the front wheel and gravitate toward the outside of the bend. When heading down steep sections, you should place your weight over the back of the bike, again to help traction

Braking off-road is a whole different ballgame, too. The lack of grip means the bike is far more sensitive. The back wheel skids far more easily than if you were on the road, and so you have learn to feather the brakes more effectively. Get this right and you’ll be able to brake much later into bends on a triathlon course. This will save you time as well as boosting your confidence.

From bike to run

Transition in triathlon is very important. The first 2km of running after the bike are quite hard, before you begin to settle into a more natural running stride. This is because of the short stride length on the bike. Each crank is only around 173mm long and your feet never extend far ahead of one another. Consequently your hamstrings shorten and your calf muscles tighten when you start running. However, because mountain biking forces you to get on and off the bike in hilly terrain, you’ll become more used to riding and then running.

Any dangers?

You may think that going off-road is a danger to your triathlon training because of an increased risk of falling off and getting injured. But there’s no need to worry. While you may lose control of the bike more frequently, you’ll be travelling at less than half the speed you do on the road.

Come off your road bike on a downhill in the wet at more than 25mph and you’ll land hard, on tarmac. When you’re off-road, however, you’ll more likely be going at 12.5mph along much softer surfaces. In short, falling off at slower speeds off-road, while trying to improve your bike handling, is far more desirable than practising the same skill on the road.

The fear factor can even be a good thing. Trying out something new off-road will make you concentrate more and add enjoyment. Staying on the road, following the same routes and sticking to quiet roads can become a bore. Off-road there’ll be no cars to worry about and, even if you do ride the same trails every week, they’ll change owing to the weather and erosion.
Getting off-road

So now you know the benefits of mountain biking, where can you go and do it? You’ll find off-road riding everywhere, but do be careful around private land and along some bridal ways, especially where there are horses. Not only will you have to constantly slow down, but there’s also the added, and unpleasant, risk of getting horse muck in your eyes.

Start by riding on wider tracks, known to mountain bikers as fire roads, and then progress onto narrower tracks or singletracks to test your handling. There’s nothing better than accelerating as fast as you can down a good, long section of singletrack. This will improve your bike handling skills and step up your heart rate. You won’t need to make a specific interval in order to increase your heart rate because it’ll happen naturally while you’re having fun.

There are training camps and weekend breaks all over the country. Some of the best off-road riding is in Wales, where the tourist board has invested lots of money in building all-weather off-road tracks in the hope of increasing visitor numbers to remote towns such as Cwmcarn, Afan Argoed and Coed-d-Brenin. There’s some great riding north of the border too, in places like Fort WIlliam and Glentress.

Another option is to take a mountain biking holiday in Europe. If you’re just starting out, it’s great to be somewhere warmer, where the ground is dry and the sun is out. You’ll really get the hang of it quickly without getting plastered in mud every day.

Safety first

If you’re planning on going off-road, always try and go out with someone else. It’s better not to be out there on your own if you have an accident. If there’s no-one to ride with, make sure that you tell someone your planned route. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with an injury. Taking a mobile phone with you is also wise.

Starting blocks

There are MTB races throughout the year, which you can use to complement your triathlon racing. You’ll probably surprise yourself, plus being around people with good handling skills is the best way to quickly improve your own.

There are a number of different races that range from 10km courses to 100km Enduro events. Perhaps the biggest growing mountain bike race in the UK is the Red Bull 24hr race. This involves teams of four or solo riders doing as many laps of a 4-6-mile circuit as possible, all day and throughout the night. To find out more about races, contact British Cycling on 0870 871 2000 or www.bcf.uk.com.

In the winter, there are cyclo-cross races, which involve racing around a course of about 1km on an adapted road bike with greater clearances and knobbly tyres. The racing’s fast and, in general, only lasts approximately 1hr. You have to be good at handling a road bike in muddy conditions, which is even tougher than on a mountain bike. Go and watch one; you’ll get the idea and see the challenge.

Fuelling up

As far as what fuel you should use, it’s not a great deal different to road biking. When you’re off road, however, it’s more difficult to take on fluids, as you need to have your hands on the handlebars at all times. You can get round this by using a drinking system [see Hydration Systems grouptest, issue 186 – Ed]. You’ll also burn more calories than you would on the road because you use your upper body more to absorb the shock of the harsher terrain. So remember to take along extra energy bars.
Winter can be a test of attrition. But with a spot of MTBing, your training will reach new levels… and that can only be a good thing come the next triathlon season.

MTB training sessions

Start with a 20min warm-up and finish with a 20min cool-down. For the middle 20mins of each hour-long training session, try and maintain a cadence of over 110rpm. (To calculate your cadence, go to Improving Technique, p42.) Make sure you stay seated throughout the ride and keep your cadence up whether you’re tackling an incline or flying down a descent.
Don’t assume that you need to stick to a hard gear. You should be using a combination of hard and easy to keep your pedal revs high. Set yourself the challenge of doing this once a week during the winter months and you’ll see big improvements next season.

Power on

Certain exercises on a mountain bike are easier than on a road bike. Try this one that’s designed to build power. Find a stretch of off-road fire road or a back lane and start from a standing position. Then accelerate as fast as you can for 60-90secs. Return to the start and do it again another 8-10 times.

Optimise your time off-road by incorporating a few specific sessions to improve your fitness.


Riding off-road requires a different skillset to road riding. There are similarities but it takes time to adjust.

Braking in the wet

Knowing how to regain control of your bike on a slippery course is an important skill that can be learnt from mountain biking. The best way to brake off-road is to pull on the back brake, but not hard. Do just enough to build up some resistance and then dab the front brake repeatedly, mimicking a car’s ABS. The front brake will scrub off most of your speed.

Balancing act

When taking a turn and you lose traction on the front wheel, the best way to regain control is to shift your bodyweight forward to add more weight onto the front wheel. This makes it dig in and grip on the loose ground so you can make the turn. To maintain traction on the back wheel, you push your outside foot down on the pedal so that the bike doesn’t slip from underneath you.

Handling skills test

To test whether or not you’re improving your handling skills, pick a looped stretch of off-road trails that you’re familiar with and then time yourself riding it. A decrease in your time will show you’re handling skills are improving –?and that you’re getting the physiological advantages you need to improve your triathlon bike leg.

Getting Started

So what do you need to do to take up off-road riding? Not that much. You’ve already got the Lycra and crash hat, all you need now is a mountain bike. There are thousands to choose from and the more you spend the better, the bike you’ll get.

However, if you’re just starting out, then £350-£600 will get you a bike that you can enjoy. Spend more and your beginner’s mountain biking skills may not match the technology. So keep it simple. Another reason not to buy an expensive bike is that the more it costs, the more money you’ll have to spend on repairing it. The parts on your mountain bike won’t last as long as your road bike, as the added grit and water erodes the transmission quickly.

One thing worth paying for, though, is a bike with a reasonably light frame. This will give you a good base upon which to upgrade your gears, brakes and so on, if you start getting more into it.

What bike to buy?

There are hundreds of bikes to choose from, but it’s normally worth going for one of the bigger names; Scott, Specialized, Trek, Kona, Giant and Cannondale are bikes you can’t go far wrong with. The best place to start looking and comparing bikes is in the classified sections of mountain bike magazines. You’ll get a complete breakdown of the components on the bike and some comments on the riding style.
Mountain bikes are all different in their geometry, so try out a variety at several bike shops. Sometimes some of the bigger bike shops have ride days when you can go out on the bikes. This is a brilliant idea because riding a bike in the street is never the same as handling it off-road.
Each bike will have different parts to it, and there are a number of different brake and gear systems to choose from; SRAM and Shimano are the best groupsets to go for. Whatever you plump for, you must be comfortable when changing gear and braking. You can choose between handlebar twist gear change or rapid-fire shifters.

What lies beneath?

You need to decide what sort of terrain you’ll be riding on and how often you’ll be riding the bike. If you’re going to be going flat-out in cross-country races, you’ll need a light bike but still with front suspension to absorb some of the shock. If you’re riding just for fun or just for extra fitness to help with triathlon and you have no intention of racing, go for a full suspension bike. Full suspension extracts all the bumps and gives you a more forgiving ride. If you haven’t been off-road before, a full suspension bike is easier to ride and lets you get away with mistakes. Full suspension bikes are getting ever lighter, and the suspension systems often have lockouts to prevent bobbing when you go uphill out of the saddle. This makes the bike the ultimate toy.

Sizing up your mountain bike is very different to a road bike. You need to go for a far smaller frame to give you plenty of ‘standover’ clearance on the top tube. For example, if you ride a 58cm (22in) road bike, you probably need a 49cm (19in) mountain bike frame. The reach is also very important because you need to feel comfortable taking on things like obstacles and tight turns.
Whatever mountain bike you choose to ride, it’ll feel completely different to your road bike. Don’t try and get the same riding position on your road and mountain bike – they’re meant to be different.

Key Components

Tyre choice is important. If you’re going to be riding in the dry, get a wide tyre with as much grip as possible [pic 1]. The grip will dig into the dust and help the tyres bite their way around tight bends. It’ll also give you added traction on the climbs.

In wet conditions, everything changes. If you have a chunky tyre with lots of grip, you’ll slide everywhere, as the tyre clogs up with mud. Instead, you need a much thinner tyre with more space between knobbles. A thin tyre will cut through the mud, as opposed to collecting the mud as you ride.

If you can afford them, get tubeless wheels. They are amazing because there’s no chance of getting a snakebite puncture (caused by pinching the tube against the tyre) and allow you to run lower tyre pressures. This gives you more grip and takes out more of the shock from the trail. If you do get a puncture with these tyres, you can always put in a normal inner tube to get you home. More and more mountain bikes are now available with brake discs [pic 2], utilising the technology found on motocross bikes. Since these sit in the centre of the wheel, they’re not affected by trail debris and so stay ?cleaner and erode less.

For some, using clipless pedals is scary enough on the road, let alone trying it off-road. However, using clipless pedals will actually help you to balance on your bike simply because you’re attached to it. Remember to get double-sided clipless pedals, ?though [pic 3]. They’ll allow you to unclip your foot ?out of the pedal, dab it down on the ground quickly and then easily clip it back in.

Being bumped around will soon start to sap your energy. Therefore suspension forks are a must ?[pic 4]. And the better they are, the better the ride you’ll get. The front forks take most of the shock from the trail and allow you to make the odd mistake without being thrown off the bike. The suspension also keeps the front wheel on the ground for maximum time, giving you constant grip.

  • Improving your cornering skills with MTBing will have benefits for your triathlon bike legs


  • Full suspension allows you to attempt tougher trails with greater comfort but there is a weight penalty


  • A hydration pack will make drinking on the bike easier as you won’t have to let go of the bar


  • You’ll need a smaller MTB frame size than your road bike to allow you more freedom of movement

Andy Wadsworth coaches elite mountain bike riders and triathletes. He was 2002 Amateur Off-Road Triathlon World Champion and a former mountain bike World Cup competitor.


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