Cross-country skiers are notorious for training high volumes during the off season in order to be in peak racing form in the winter. There is a common mantra used by coaches to help motivate athletes to train hard even though the racing season is months away: “skiers are made in the summer”. From my experience working with different coaches, the large bulk of the summer’s volume is intended to be on roller skis or foot (either running or bounding with poles). While this may work for some, many athletes struggle with injuries when training 800-900 hours/year – myself included – making it hard to consistently rely heavily on these high impact training modalities.
A constant battle with an overuse injury one summer forced me to think outside the box; I began using the mountain bike to train. In the back of my mind, I doubted the effectiveness of this as it translates to skiing. I had heard coaches saying since I was in high school that cycling hours needed to be counted as 50% when logged due to the lack of specificity to our sport. However, I had no choice – it was either train on the bike or don’t train much at all.
Three years later, I now perform 60-70% of my summer training on a mountain bike. This is no longer because I have to, however; I now choose to use it as my primary mode of volume and a large amount of my intensity due to the immense gains in fitness and muscle activation, along with technical and terrain aspects that I have found translate well to cross-country skiing.
It’s a no-brainer that mountain biking heavily engages lower extremity musculature, placing a high demand on our quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. However, mountain biking also employs shoulder, chest, and arm muscles due to the control required in technical sections, downhills, and even steep uphills. Thus, the muscles used while mountain biking closely mimic those during cross-country skiing – particularly skating, which has a higher demand on our glutes than classic skiing. Additionally, the terrain in a network of mountain bike trails is often tough, causing fluctuations in heart rate similar to those experienced while skiing. There are long climbs followed by flowy descents with sharp corners and short, punchy uphills thrown into the mix. High workloads followed by challenging downhills on which to recover – doesn’t that sound like ski racing? I find that a 90 minute bike race feels very similar to a 30k skate race in effort.
The downhills also offer a technical challenge that heightens reaction times. I often ride into more difficult features multiple times to get the line right before committing – something that has changed the way I now approach tough downhill corners before a ski race. An added bonus is the smile that I can’t wipe off my face after a flowy descent or when I’m able to conquer a new feature!
Lastly, the fact that it is low impact makes it a great addition to a summer training plan that is full of running and rollerskiing. If you struggle with injuries or are looking to increase volume without added stress on your joints, jumping on the mountain bike for a few workouts a week is a great way to accomplish that.
So, with all of those factors in mind – what is the best way to approach your workout on a mountain bike?
The aerobic demand and muscular fatigue is often higher while mountain biking than during other activities where it is easier to keep my heart rate consistently lower. Because of this, I tend to pick a few workouts a week where I am ok doing a higher distance pace (L2 into L3) to hop on the bike. I choose terrain that mimics ski racing, and do not stress about keeping my heart rate low. I often pair my rides on a day with double pole intervals or strength sessions. If I am trying to keep it easy or have hard skate rollerski intervals planned the next day, I opt for easier trails or a light run so I can keep my heart rate low.
Want to test it out for yourself? Here are two of my favorite workouts on the bike.
Due to the aerobic challenge mountain biking presents, it’s an awesome place to do threshold workouts. If you live in a place where you can find a sustained climb or an up-track, you can use this to do L3 efforts (for example, 2 x 20 or 3 x 15 minutes up an up-track), then use the downhill for active recovery. This stimulates downhills in racing and forces you to focus on coordination while flooding with lactate.
Another great workout on the bike is 30-30’s, or where you go hard for 30 seconds, then recover for 30 seconds while continuing to ride easy. This workout focuses on power and strength, and I find that it translates really well to sprinting, and teaches the body to recover and get used to back-to-back punchy hill efforts, so you’re able to regain power descending off a roller before hammering up the next climb in a race. I recommend doing 3 x 10 minutes or 2 x 15 minutes of 30-30s. Just make sure you are able to keep your legs spinning during the recovery – you shouldn’t need to get off your bike to rest in between! The goal is to put in a hard effort, but maintain a reasonable pace in between.
I am a big believer in making training as fun as possible while still putting in the hard work. Mountain biking is something to look forward to that makes me excited to get out and train. Ultimately, this helps me train harder and stay motivated, so I am a huge advocate for learning how to integrate it appropriately – which for me means creating a smart training plan that will help me reach my goals in the winter. If you also crave time on the bike, I hope this advice can give you the confidence to structure it into your dry-land training as well.
A long-time APU athlete, Jessica represented Australia at the 2018 and 2022 Olympics. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of New Mexico. When she is not ski racing or studying, you can find her out on her mountain bike exploring the trails.