- - How to Prepare for the Demands of Off-Road Racing

How to Prepare for the Demands of Off-Road Racing

photo credits @ Eliza Southwood

article by Joe Hamilton

In many parts of the country, trails and roads can be snow-covered and muddy until May. Many athletes ask me the question, “How should I be getting ready for the demands of the off-road season, especially after spending all winter on a trainer”.  Performing the right amount of work in the spring can help you build the fitness needed to translate directly to the dirt. Here a few key points I have taken away from my personal experience living in the North and coaching off-road athletes. 

Continue to Build Muscular Strength

Muscular strength is defined as the maximum power output that muscles can exert against some form of resistance in a single effort. Off-road racing takes a tremendous amount of muscular strength incorporating the core, back, shoulder and arms. Take this time to refine the muscle groups you’ve already been working on during the winter. This is typically done with power strength efforts in the form of applying force with weight. Strong and developed upper body muscles will not only improve the ability to sustain your posture for hours at a time in the saddle but will also help reduce the likelihood of overuse injury and fatigue.  Muscle groups to focus on include the deltoids, pectoralis (chest), the latissimus dorsi (back), and obliques (known as the six-pack). Without a doubt, building lean mass in your upper body not only controls weight when you are riding less but also helps you handle the muscular demands that are required of off-road training. Take the time and enjoy the strength-building process in the gym. Once the trails and dirt roads are dry most athletes will not have a chance, or more frequently not have a desire, to develop muscular endurance in the gym. The best feeling in the world is feeling the gains you have made in the gym translate to a more powerful pedal stroke and improved technical handling on the bike. There are tons of great strength-building exercises on the TEC website

Develop Sub-Threshold

Most athletes only have 10 or so hours per week to train. Building an endurance “base” is difficult, especially on a trainer. Unless you are lucky enough to enjoy 60-degree winter and spring temperatures and can get outside to ride a lot, it is important to mix up your routine and be effective in your indoor workouts. This means using the time spent on the trainer to focus on muscular endurance (i.e. subthreshold/sweet spot). In the old days, it was all about putting in long hours to Netflix reruns while ensuring we stay in our aerobic heart rate zone. The technology at our disposal today allows us to train smarter and not harder using progressive and structured workouts in the 86% – 94% of Functional Threshold Power range. These sub-threshold workouts will help to effectively build fatigue resistance and higher lactate threshold for those higher intensity anaerobic workouts later in the season. The focus of muscular endurance workouts should be starting in the mid-winter with an increase in duration and intensity by late spring. Maintaining sub-threshold intervals can be very difficult to train when on the trail or on dirt roads because of the stochastic nature of the terrain. This fact makes the trainer a perfect tool to get these done. Additionally, sub-threshold training does not fatigue athletes like VO2 Max and anaerobic workouts do, Focusing on these efforts, along with gym-based strength workouts, can be very effective and creates the least likelihood of building fatigue and training load too quickly. Off-road competition is all about staying comfortable in your sub-threshold zones while having the ability to operate in and out of your supra-threshold zones. 

Mix Things Up and Cross Train

Over my own race career, there were many seasons where I spent my training time in the gym, on the trainer, or on the road with studded road tires. What I often experienced was boredom, burnout, and the feeling of an extra-long cycling season. The same applies to athletes I have coached. So, the bottom line is, take some time to enjoy other sports. It helps bring about peace of mind and adds variety to your training season. You will be spending countless hours in the saddle soon and will find the more time you spend on the bike earlier in a training season the more important it becomes not to burnout. Some of the most successful professional riders I have known spent a large amount of time in the off-season backcountry skiing or cross-country skiing during the winter months to maintain fitness. Skate skiing, for example, is a wonderful sport where you spend the majority of your time at or above VO2 Max.  When comparing my athlete’s skate skiing files to the files of their off-road rides, I find it takes the same if not more anaerobic endurance and full-body fitness than their bike rides. Keeping track of your cross country skiing sessions using HR, you can estimate how many VO2 intervals you completed and figure that into the overall training stress score. Also, consider fat biking for those scheduled long endurance rides. It is quite easy to build aerobic fitness (60-65% of FTP) and high TSS scores when fat biking for two or more hours. There’s no comparison to the downhill technical skills you gain going down a snow-packed single track covered in snow or mud. If you don’t own a fat bike or skis then consider renting. Compared to a day pass at your local ski hill it can be much more affordable, not to mention, make those long weekend rides much more exciting. Remember, you most likely ride for fitness, fun, and to make training progress. It’s all about moderation and fun, but at the same time managing your overall training to avoid burnout, overuse, or injury.

Install a Power Meter on Your Bike

I used to tell all of my athletes that a power meter is not a necessity on a mountain or gravel bike for training. I rode my mountain bike for years without it and managed. Within the last couple of years, I finally splurged and installed power meters on all of my bikes. Heart rate is a poor representation of intensity off-road due to the variability of the terrain. After investing in a power meter for my mountain and gravel bike, it became clear that off-road riding is a lot more intense and produced much higher TSS scores than heart rate often accounted for. The use of a power meter on a mountain and/or gravel bike allows for an athlete and coach to effectively balance easier workouts with harder workouts while observing the effect of overall fatigue on all workouts. A power meter on a mountain bike can be a game-changer and prevent overtraining, especially if you are incorporating other workouts such as strength training and road rides into your program.  As a coach, the more well-rounded view I have into your data the better the training prescription. A challenge many of my athletes have is balancing the volume of road riding, with the intensity of mountain biking, weight training, skiing, etc. Having another lens, such as use of a power meter on your mountain or gravel bike, helps the coach balance the demands of training and rest needed to be successful so that you peak for your priority event.

Consider a Spring Training Camp

Taking a week or two to just focus on riding can do wonders for many athletes. Spring training doesn’t have to mean riding in some exotic location. For many athletes, it’s just about going somewhere, warmer and drier and placing a priority on riding without any other distractions. With a spring training camp, you can determine how effective winter training has been and what needs to be improved upon as you get into the race season. March through May are great times to schedule a week or two to either attend an event, or get a group of friends together to go somewhere warmer and drier to ride. Planning a spring break (especially as a northerner) gives an athlete a goal, something to look forward to. Most of all it is a great time to test your fitness, to see where you can improve upon, and what has been successful in your winter training program. A spring camp provides you an overall assessment of your bike handling skills and what you need to tighten up for the upcoming season. More often than not, athletes will be surprised by how good they feel and how quickly their skills come back after a season of not riding the off-road. I always refer to these spring camps as “breaking off the ice” for the up and coming off-road season.  

No doubt, the demands of off-road cycling, are unique, and can be very tough to mimic especially during the times you cannot be outside on the trails and gravel. Remember, off-road cycling comes down to skills, muscular endurance, strength development, and managing fatigue. Use these tips and apply them every year to prepare for the demands of off-road riding, and ensure your body is ready to tackle all of the miles ahead.  



Coach Joe is a dedicated coach and athlete who specializes in MTB racing, road cycling, and strength training for Thomas Endurance Coaching. For more information on Joe’s coaching services, or to schedule a coaching consultation with him, click HERE



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