“In mountain biking, the bikes are heavier, the hills are steeper, you’re pinning it the entire way—it’s the perfect strength and power training for triathletes.”
More speed and power lie beyond the pavement
At the end of the race season, Peter Park’s clients—who include Tour de France winners and professional Ironman triathletes—don’t go to Disneyland. “We go on a week-long mountain biking trip,” says Park, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, the owner of Platinum Fitness in LA and a top-10 Ironman finisher.
“In mountain biking, the bikes are heavier, the hills are steeper, you’re pinning it the entire way—it’s the perfect strength and power training for triathletes,” Park says. Indeed, the secret to a better triathlon season may be spending the off-season off-road.
“In mountain biking, you’re using the same effort and energy system you use when time-trialing—my heart rate is never higher than when I’m pinning it on my mountain bike.” And that, Park says, fills a common fitness gap for triathletes who are used to sustaining a high but manageable heart rate for hours at a time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, lower intensity, long-course training helps the heart pump more efficiently. Mountain bike rides, on the other hand, tend to max out your heart rate in short bursts, and your heart adapts by increasing how forcefully it pumps blood. The training combo means that your heart can not only pump more blood, but also pump it faster.
Out on the trails, you’re also more likely to suck fresh air rather than harmful smog and steer clear of the four-wheeled land yachts piloted by texting drivers.
Now the rough part: It isn’t going to be easy. Recall when you first learned to swim—technique is key. “You can’t out-fitness your way through bad technique,” says Park. But becoming a solid mountain biker will do more to take minutes off your next tri than anything else, says Park. Let’s take this off-road.
Ride Like a Pro
Dial your ride
When you buy a bike, follow our general guidelines (see Choose Your Ride below) but defer to an expert for terrain-specific options. Work with a local bike shop and be clear about the type of terrain you plan to ride most, so your outfitter can set your shocks and tires appropriately. “The right tires can be the difference between enjoying the ride and falling down several times and wanting to sell your bike,” says three-time XTERRA world champion Rubén Ruzafa.
Start with flats
Confidence is the key to quick progress, but clipless pedals may cause you to clam up, holding back your skill development. “On a subconscious level, your brain realizes your feet are attached—there’s mental baggage there that prevents you from trying things and learning,” says James Wilson, a Grand Junction, Colo.-based mountain biking coach and founder of MTB Strength Systems. Flat pedals not only give you courage, but also act as a teaching tool. “If you try something like a bunny hop and your feet come off pedals,” Wilson says, “that’s your bike’s way of letting you know you’re doing it wrong.” We like the pedals from Pedaling Innovations ($99, Pedalinginnovations.com).
Ease into it
As a triathlete, you’re probably used to three-, four-, five-hour road rides. “You’re not doing that on a mountain bike right away,” Wilson says. “Per mile you’re putting in way more metabolic activity off-road.” Play it smart by capping your initial rides at an hour. Remember, if you overreach and bonk out on the trail, you won’t be able to call someone to come pick you up or stop at a gas station for a Clif Bar.
Pick up speed
When you arrive at the trailhead, do a quick experiment. Find a bread loaf-sized log or rock and try to ride over it as slowly as you possibly can. No easy feat. Now repeat the experiment, this time pushing it a bit faster than your comfort zone. Much easier. “Maintaining good speed is the most important thing for getting over obstacles in mountain biking,” Ruzafa says. As you approach a nerve-racking impediment, hit it going about 10 percent faster than what you’re comfortable with.
“When your butt is in the seat, everything the bike hits is transferred to your ass,” Wilson says. “You want to stand often, so you’re floating over the bike and letting it absorb the impacts.” That, he says, is far more comfortable and efficient—especially when the terrain gets gnarly. Stand and pedal, but don’t just mimic the seated pedaling position with your hips lifted. “Pedal with your hips forward and chest tall, which helps you generate more power,” Wilson says.
As you go over bumps and obstacles, your body should absorb as much of the impact as your shocks do. But if your muscles are tight, each bump is that much more jarring. So loosen up, using your joints like shock absorbers. Tightness can subconsciously sneak in as you ride—especially on nerve-wracking trail sections—so regularly perform quick “body scans.” Scan your body from head to toe, actively loosening tight areas.
You’ve probably heard that you need to get your “butt back” when descending off-road. But many new riders overdo it, sapping necessary braking and steering traction from their front tire. Stand and keep about 70 percent of your weight on your rear tire. A good indicator that your weight is well distributed: “You should have a little pressure from the handlebars on your palms,” Wilson says. To slow, apply pressure to both brakes, favoring the rear brake over the front. Lowering your seat before a big descent will also allow your bike to move freely between your legs.
A surefire way to hit an obstacle is by looking directly at it, says three-time XTERRA world champion and 2016 ITU World Triathlon Series champion Flora Duffy. That’s because your weight and body positioning shift toward where you look, guiding your bike there. The opposite is also true. “Look where you want to go, and your bike will follow,” she adds. Duffy also says to avoid gazing directly ahead of your front tire. Instead, eye about 20 feet down trail, which allows you to anticipate obstacles and pick a cleaner line of travel.
Stick the corners
As you approach a corner, lean into it with your head so your weight shifts properly, Park says. Your inside foot should be higher than your outside foot. “Push into your outside foot, really setting your tires’ edges, almost like you’re skiing,” Wilson says. And try not to hit the brakes as you’re going through the turn—that pulls you out of angle and can cause you to crash.
Competing in an event like an XTERRA, where you’ll have to run after riding? “Even more than a road triathlon, mountain biking requires more strength and thrashes your legs,” Park says. “So you need to get used to running with smoked legs.” To do that, Park says to do trail brick workouts. “With pro clients, we’ll do a tough mountain ride then immediately run all or part of the same trail,” Park says. He adds that if you’re new, you can also do 20 minutes of hard riding, followed by two miles of running, up to three times through.
How to Conquer any Obstacle
Nothing can suck you in like a patch of sand. The loose particles absorb your momentum—and steering only makes your situation worse. “Come in as fast as possible,” Duffy says. If you can see other tire marks in the sand, ride those for an easier path. No marks? Approach the obstacle in a straight line, says Duffy. “Keep your weight slightly back, and don’t be tense. Just let your bike float over the sand,” she says. If you begin to slow, drop into an easy gear and crank like mad.
Tackling a tree stump or downed log is an exercise in shifting your weight, Wilson says. As you come upon the tree, stand tall and distribute your weight between your two tires evenly. “But then when you’re about to hit it, slightly shift your weight back and lift your front tire,” he says. “Once your front tire clears, now shift your weight forward, taking weight off your back tire.” This move prevents the tree from impeding your forward momentum and keeps you moving.
Navigating a rock garden can feel like a space invader game, where you’re dodging obstacles left and right. Just remember that hesitation equals devastation, so pick your line beforehand. That foresight keeps you from making quick, risky decisions as you barrel through the rocks. Enter the garden with a good bit of speed, and “don’t be too heavy handed on your brakes,” Duffy says. “Feather them.”
As you climb uphill, you may tend to lean forward, which takes weight off your back tire, causing it to spin out. First, distribute your weight back, which is usually enough to allow your tires to bite into the ground, Park says. Still spinning? You may be applying too much force to the pedal—picture how your car wheels slip when you floor it—so briefly pause and then begin pedaling again. If you know the trail you’re on is particularly gravely, running slightly lower tire pressure—about 26 to 27 PSI—can increase your tire traction.
Choose Your Ride…
No matter where you ride, use this checklist to find the right bike.
Four figures: Expect to spend a bare minimum of $1,000 for a well-equipped bike that lasts.
Full suspension: You’ll have more fun on a full suspension bike, says three-time XTERRA world champ Flora Duffy. “They’re smoother and more accepting of bumps, so you don’t have to be as technical or skilled.”
Modern upgrades: If you haven’t ridden since college, you’ll be surprised to find that mountain tires are much bigger now. Spring for 29-inch wheels. Their geometry allows you to roll over obstacles easier. Also, a bike with a single chainring—called a 1x (pronounced “one by”)—gives you a full range of gears, and you’ll enjoy the simplicity and see more fitness benefits.