Does mountain biking help your road cycling?

Tri and mountain biking coach Andy Wadsworth shows you why mountain biking offers invaluable training benefits for triathletes wanting to improve their bike leg. Just think about how it's helped Flora Duffy!

Mountain biking can improve your key cycling skills considerably

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.


How mountain biking helps you improve you choose the right gear for the terrain

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.)

How mountain biking helps you improve your core

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.

How mountain biking helps your key descending and cornering skills

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.

Tim Don’s off-road masterclass: Cornering

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.

Tim Don’s off-road masterclass: Descending

Tim Don’s off-road masterclass: Climbing

How mountain biking helps you improve your ability to cope with jelly legs

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. It’s like an endless brick session!

Is mountain biking more dangerous than road cycling?

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.

Want to race off-road?

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.

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.

Cyclocross explained for triathletes

And there are lots of off-road triathlons and duathlons – Go on and fall in love with a new style of racing and see your results improve (look at Flora Duffy!) – what’s stopping you?

What type of mountain bike is best for an off-road triathlon or duathlon?

How to fuel your mountain biking days

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’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.

Mountain biking 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 session

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 your handling skills are improving –? and that you’re getting the physiological advantages you need to improve your triathlon bike leg.



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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