Mountain Bike Fitness For Beginners

When I first started mountain biking, I found out I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was. Pedalling up steep hills proved to be challenging, as my legs and lungs were complaining. But I loved the whole experience and wanted to do more. I realised my enjoyment would be enhanced by being fitter. So I looked into mountain bike fitness for beginners to see how I could improve my time in the saddle.

What Should I Work On?

When you are mountain biking, you use your whole body. Therefore, having all-round fitness will make your rides easier, more fun and safer.

It goes without saying that strong legs will help you tackle those steep climbs. But they will also help you with long technical descents. This is what I found out when I started riding in the French Alps. Holding that squat position on bumpy terrain for several minutes can be gruelling.

Having a strong upper body will give you an advantage too. When riding rough downhill terrain, your arms, shoulders and chest are working hard to absorb the bumps. With good strength in these muscles, you will be able to stay in control for the whole day.

Another way of staying in control is having a solid core, as it keeps your lower spine working well with your pelvis. But a strong core also makes your pedalling more efficient. It gives you a good platform for your quads, glutes and hip flexors to push the pedals from.

Cardio is essential for mountain biking. By making improvements in this area, you will be able to ride faster, longer and with more power. All this adds up to more fun on your bike, and that is never a bad thing.

How Can I Improve On These Things?

I will now go into a few things that I have done, and still do to improve my mountain bike fitness. These are suitable ways to improve mountain bike fitness for beginners, but they should not be overlooked by more experienced riders either.

The most obvious thing to do is to get out and ride. I try to ride at least two to three times a week in the summer, spring and autumn. Winter mountain biking isn’t really an option for me, as I live in a ski resort which is full of snow. I have the advantage of staying fit in winter from lots of snowboarding and splitboarding.

If you only get to ride on weekends, there are some things you can do at home to prepare you for mountain biking.

Lower Body Exercises

There are some great leg exercises you can do to build strength. One of the most effective exercises is the squat. I started off with just squatting with my own body weight, but I built up to incorporating dumbbells while working out at home and a barbell in the gym. You can gradually add weight as long as you can maintain the perfect form throughout the exercise. Alternatively, you can add a dynamic element to the squat by adding a jump. Jump squats get your heart rate up, too; just remember to land softly to protect your knees.

Squats work your glutes and quads, which mountain bikers use all the time. I also like to throw some lunges into my leg workout too. Again, I started off with bodyweight exercises and progressed to adding weights. I like to do jump lunges, where I quickly swap legs in the air; unfortunately, my downstairs neighbour doesn’t appreciate it.

To even things out, I add in some calf raises to my leg workout (not that you would think so by looking at my skinny calves). I do this by standing on a step on one foot on my toes and slowly raise myself up 12 times before swapping legs. I do 3 sets, 3 times per week of each exercise.

When you get to a point where you want to start adding weights to your workout, there are many options. I find dumbbells and kettlebells to be ideal for this. However, I currently live in a small apartment, so the space is a little tight for workout equipment.

I have some BowFlex SelectTech weights. These are great, as you can change their weight with the twist of a dial. I find them a little long, which can restrict your range of movement while doing specific exercises, but overall, they suit my needs pretty well.

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Upper Body and Core Exercises

One of the most effective upper body exercises for mountain biking is the push-up. It works your chest, shoulders and triceps, which are used to absorb the bumps in the trail.

You can vary your push-ups to make them easier or more challenging. If you are new to push-ups, start on your knees until you build some strength.

To make your push-ups more challenging, try to add some instability to them. I like to place my hands on an upturned Bosu ball to provide an unstable platform. If you are feeling strong, push up on an old set of handlebars or some kind of stick resting on the inflatable side of the Bosu.

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A plank is an excellent way of improving your core strength. Start with holding a plank for 20 seconds. After doing 3 sets, 3 times per week, you will soon start to see improvements.

However, there are many plank variations that will get your core strong for mountain biking. Add in side planks, planks with dumbbell rows or change from high plank to low plank.

You may want to use a TRX set up to use for your mountain bike training. TRX is a suspension training system consisting of straps you suspend from the ceiling or a door. There are loads of exercises for your upper body, lower body and core that will enhance your fitness for mountain biking.

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Cardio Workouts

I used to struggle with cardio workouts, as I found them pretty boring. But when I started to see results, I kind of grew to enjoy them.

Cardio workouts include running, swimming and cycling. But to monitor your progress, you might want to get a fitness watch. I was very surprised how well mine motivates me, especially as I have it linked to Strava.

There are different types of fitness watch, depending on your budget. But I really like my Polar Vantage M. It makes it super easy to set a program, and it tells me how hard I should be working at any time. It also monitors my rides more accurately than the GPS on my phone.

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I definitely notice the difference on the bike now I do some cardio training before the season starts. I find hills that were a struggle in the earlier days much easier now. But the recovery time is much shorter too, so I can still have fun on the descent without feeling wiped out.

Some of my friends use a turbo trainer during the winter to keep their cardio level up and their cycling legs in shape. Turbo trainers are excellent preparation for mountain biking, and they are good for when time is short, or the weather conditions are not particularly favourable for riding.

A great example of a turbo trainer is the Tacx Flux 2. It isn’t exactly cheap, but it simulates your ride by automatically changing its resistance as you climb hills. It is worth noting that to get the most out of your turbo trainer, you need to have a good space to ride it in.

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I definitely notice the difference on the bike now I do some cardio training before the season starts. I find hills that were a struggle in the earlier days much easier now. But the recovery time is much shorter too, so I can still have fun on the descent without feeling wiped out.

You will need something to entertain you while you ride, such as music or a film to watch. Also, make sure you have a fan to keep cool, and something to catch your sweat, or a puddle will form around your bike.

Your First Few Rides

As a beginner mountain biker, you need to be realistic about your fitness and ability. Therefore, you may want to plan your first few rides to suit you.

Start off with an easy ride to get used to the bike, not too long or too technical. Your first ride will give you a good indication of how much you can do in terms of your fitness and ability. It will also give you an idea if you have the proper clothing and accessories for mountain biking on your local trails.

I remember going mountain biking on my own once when I was a beginner. I was highly unprepared, as I had no water or food with me. My breakfast of a bowl of cereal did not cut it, and I got tired very quickly. This became more of an issue when I got lost in the forest. Not my finest moment, but I learned to never go out without fuelling my body correctly and taking emergency snacks.

It is good to find all these things out on less challenging rides rather than getting yourself into a mess on something you are not comfortable with.

Remember, it is your ride, so be careful about what other people are telling you. You may have a super confident friend who is an excellent rider but lacks common sense. Don’t let them take you somewhere you are not ready for. Progress at your own pace to start off with, then start to push yourself after gaining some experience and skills.

If you have a local trail centre, they may provide mountain bike coaching, so it is worth inquiring. A qualified mountain bike instructor will teach you some essential skills to keep you safe while you are on the trails.

Final Thoughts

Mountain biking is a very rewarding sport. It is ridiculously good fun while providing you with many health benefits. With a good base level of fitness, you will be able to ride more and ultimately have more fun. 

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