Most of us race, or want to race. It’s a South African thing. It’s a human thing. A race is different from a ride. There’s pressure to perform at your best in a race. But are you performing at your best? What is your best? The only way you’ll know is by taking your training seriously. Here’s how to start your own peak performance plan. – Benoit Capostagno



The purpose of all the hours we spend training for a specific event is to improve our performance. Depending on your current level of fitness and experience, improvements could mean finishing in the middle of the pack rather than at the back; winning your age category or stepping on to the top step of the podium at the elite level. Whatever performance means for you, if you put the time in to your training, you want to see results.

One of the first steps when planning your training is to decide on your goals. Understanding the demands of the event will help with formulating realistic goals and designing a structured training programme. Once you know what the event requires, you can design a programme, which aims to improve the specific characteristics that have been identified to be crucial for success. This could mean targeting specific weaknesses, which need to be improved, while simultaneously maintaining or improving on stronger areas.

Olympic Cross-Country racing (XCO)

Olympic Cross-Country (XCO) events are physically demanding and tax both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. XCO events are generally more intense than their Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) counterparts and success in this discipline requires the ability to sustain high-intensities (>90% of maximum heart rate) for between 1–2 hours. XCO is characterised by large variations in power output caused by steep climbs, technical singletrack descents and open jeep-track sections.

Anaerobic power and high power-to-weight ratios have repeatedly been shown to be important determinants of XCO race performance. Anaerobic power is improved by exercising at intensities above your functional or ‘lactate’ threshold. High-intensity interval training (HIT) is the most effective way to improve your anaerobic capacity. Despite the variable power outputs, heart rate remains fairly stable during an XCO race. The proposed reasons for this paradox are the constant contractions in the upper and lower body musculature, which are required for stability and shock absorption during racing. Therefore, including strength work targeting both the upper and lower body could assist with XCO performance.

Cross-Country Marathon (XCM)

Cross-Country Marathons (XCM) are mass-start events covering a variety of off-road sections with a total distance of at least 60 kilometres and are at least 3 hours in duration. XCM races are generally longer than XCO races, with course profiles consisting of numerous technical climbs and descents. As a result, the total altitude gain during XCM races tends to be greater than that during XCO races. XCM races have fewer large fluctuations in power output, but are still completed at a relatively high intensity (80 % of maximum heart rate), which means that XCM racing also requires a well-developed aerobic and anaerobic energy system. However, the aerobic energy system has a bigger role to play in XCM racing when compared to XCO events. This often leads to the common misconception that performance in XCM will not benefit from the inclusion of high-intensity interval training (HIT). However, the ability to perform high-intensity efforts could mean the difference between breaking away on the final climb to take the win, or making it home to avoid the cut-off in a stage of the Cape Epic.

Marathon Stage Racing (STG)

In general, multi-stage racing will have the same physiological requirements as those of XCM. The only real difference is that you will be required to wake up the next day and do it all again so day-to-day recovery between stages is important for stage races, especially during the longer versions (Cape Epic and Joburg2C). The best way to stay on top of this is to ensure that you have your nutrition dialled and stay off your feet as much as possible to maximise your recovery.

Gravity Racing

The gravity assisted disciplines of downhill (DH) and Enduro racing require riders to have high levels of technical ability, explosive power to accelerate out of corners and on flat sections, and probably one or two loose screws. Similar to XCO racing, heart rate during timed DH runs remains high and stable, despite the variation in power output and the fact that the pedals are only turning for about 50 % of the run. DH includes periods of high cadence (>130 RPM), with the highest values usually recorded at the start as the riders leave the start gate. Similarly, peak power outputs during a DH run are observed in the first 5–10 seconds of the run as the riders attempt to reach maximum speed as quickly as possible.

DH and Enduro are unique in that the riders are required to generate power outputs suddenly and the events are characterised by a combination of acceleration and deceleration efforts. The timing of these efforts will be governed by the course design and profile with some courses having long pedalling sections (Pietermaritzburg) and others being very steep and technical (Champery, Switzerland). As a result, successful DH riders will require a high anaerobic capacity, which will allow them to accelerate from a standing start and slow speeds. However, those who are unable to generate the explosive power required to have a fast start could minimise their time losses by avoiding unnecessary braking and poor line selection.

Riding dynamics, such as line selection and ‘flow’, have in fact been suggested as important determinants of DH performance. DH also requires isometric and dynamic muscular efforts in order to cope with technical sections and absorb the vibrations experienced while riding over uneven terrain. These muscular contractions will lead to elevated heart rate even when the pedals aren’t turning.

Skill up

Success in all forms of mountain bike (MTB) racing is also highly dependent on a rider’s skill level, with highly skilled riders tending to lose less speed as they pass through technical sections such as rock gardens or tight turns. Differences in level of technical ability and tolerance for risk have been suggested to be the reason for the variation in lap times in both XCO and DH riders. Although this seems logical, mountain bikers may unintentionally neglect skill training as part of their programmes so keep an eye out for skills clinics (ie in your area to assist in improving your technical abilities.

Train specifically

The different disciplines within mountain biking all have very specific physiological demands. Failure to understand the demands of the event could result in gaps in your training and failure to achieve your goals so your training should be specific to the discipline or event you are planning to take part in. Sadly, there is no one-size fits all programme for these different disciplines or a single programme which will guarantee success for all individuals. However, there are certain steps you can take to ensure that your training is beneficial and will bring you closer to achieving your goals. No matter your current performance level, or the time you have available to train, intelligent training can result in noticeable gains. Beginners should look at focussing on the areas, which will result in the biggest gains while more advanced or experienced riders should focus on refining their training.

Structure your training programme

A well-structured training programme consists of different periods or phases which target specific areas of performance. A programme should begin with very general conditioning sessions aimed at improving general fitness. The volume of training (time spent on the bike) should reach a maximum early on in the programme and slowly decrease as the intensity of the sessions increases (see the diagram below).

Diagram courtesy of Dr Michael Posthumus
Diagram courtesy of Dr Michael Posthumus


Do not make the fatal error of trying to include high volume and high intensity in the same session. In addition, the closer you get to the event, the more specific the training sessions should become to that event. It is often a good idea to include other races as part of the training programme to help sharpen up your fitness and skills.

Monitor your training

Monitoring training is a great way to keep track of what you have been doing, and identify what has worked for you and what hasn’t. Previously, weekly distance (kilometres covered in training) and hours spent training have been used to quantify training. However, failing to monitor intensity could result in under performance through training too hard or too easy. There are numerous methods to quantify intensity, with the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) being the most simple and affordable. Intensity is rated on a scale of 0(Rest) to 10 (Maximal effort). RPE has been used with some success, but it is important to be aware of the factors that could influence your perceived exertion. Caffeine, environmental conditions (high-temperature and humidity) and intermittent vs. continuous exercise have been shown to influence RPE.

Alternatively, heart rate has been used to monitor training intensity since the 1980s and the affordable nature of heart rate monitors has made them common training tools. It is recommended that you perform a maximal incremental exercise test at a recognised sports testing institute to help determine your personal training zones. Training according to specific training zones, which are based on your metabolic and lactate thresholds (LT), will improve both the specificity and quality of your training. You can’t exercise at or above your LT, if you don’t know where it is. Similarly to RPE, heart rate can be influenced by external factors such as fatigue, environment, caffeine and illness. These factors do affect the reliability of heart rate data, but heart rate is still a very effective tool for monitoring training intensity.

The most direct measure of cycling intensity, however, is power output. It is not influenced by external factors and cycling is one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing. Power meters have become increasingly more affordable and, as a result, so their popularity has increased among cyclists of all levels. Using a power meter during training and racing is a great way to monitor not only intensity, but also progression. However, as with any other measure, it is the interpretation of the data, which is more important.

Cycling os one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing.
Cycling os one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing.


In summary, different disciplines within mountain biking all have unique requirements for success and training programmes should target improvements in these unique areas. Training programmes should progress from general conditioning to more specific, high-intensity sessions. Monitoring intensity during training is important for adaptation and heart rate and power are the best measures for monitoring training intensity.

Do you need a coach?

They say that knowledge is power. And in the case of training for optimal improvement in mountain biking, it’s so true. You can, by doing plenty of research on training in general and on having your own progression tests done, become your own coach. It can be very rewarding, but it does require loads of commitment and time and self-discipline. Not many successful athletes are self-coached. Having a coach is usually more effective as it delivers an expert perspective and removes a lot of PT from the process. It also ensures someone pushes you to reach new levels of performance. It’s very difficult to prescribe yourself training sessions that hurt like hell. If someone else does, you tend to do them properly because they are going to analyse the figures and know if you slacked or not.

There are different types of mountain biking coaches and there are some who call themselves coaches, but who are merely guides. If you are serious about achieving your potential, then you should be looking for a proper coach. If you are new to mountain biking, then a guide may be all you need initially. There are many willing guides, ranging from a friend that has experience to someone that has created a mountain biking group or club. They can help you make big improvements early on in your mountain biking. But when it comes to performing in races, a proper mountain biking coach is going to be your best bet.

In our opinion, a coach should at least have/offer the following:

  • A widely recognised cycling-specific coaching qualification.
  • An intimate understanding of sports performance on a scientific level (or ideally a professional qualification in this field)
  • Experience as a mountain bike racer (this, in our opinion, is essential)
  • A high level of professionalism/respect for his/her clients
  • A strong interest in his/her clients’ progress
  • A level of compassion/empathy for ‘real-life’ setbacks that can impact your training/progress
  • The ability to offer support and motivation
  • Access to scientific testing facilities
  • Treat your skills level/improvement with as much respect as your physiological level/improvement

You are unique. Your physiology, emotional state and mental strength; your goals and level of commitment – these are all unique to you. That’s why, if you really want to achieve your potential, you need to a personalised training plan. A plan that’s tailored to suit you specifically. Sure, you could follow a general training guide and you may improve by doing so. But the reality is that the better you become, the more specific your training plan needs to become so that you can make the small improvements required to succeed in your quest to become your best.

Here are some coaching businesses that we feel have mountain bike coaching credibility:

Science to Sport:



Daisyway Coaching Systems:

The cost of coaching varies, depending on the coach and the extent of the coaching. Expect costs to vary between R400-R1500 per month. If you are serious about improving though, it’s a cost you’ll absorb without flinching.

Some examples of training sessions for each phase and discipline:

Discipline Strength phase Base Phase Intermediate intensity High-intensity Taper
XCO 8 X 4 minutes in a high gear at a low cadence 4 hours of long slow distance (LSD) riding at a low-intensity 3 X 10 minutes at lactate threshold (LT) 8 X 2 minute maximal efforts 2 laps of the XCO course with 2 X 10 second max effort sprints
XCM 5 X 10 minutes of seated climbing in a high gear and at a low cadence 6 hours of LSD riding at a low-intensity 60 minutes at or near your LT 8 X 4 minute intervals above 80 % of Peak Power 5 X 2 minute accelerations to bring bring heart rate up to LT
DH 5 X 4 minutes of one legged riding 3 hours of LSD riding at a low-intensity Cycle on an indoor trainer for 30 seconds against a high resistance. Jump off and perform 20 explosive step-ups onto a bench or box 10 X 30 second maximal sprints 3 X runs to practice lines

Benoit Capostagno is a sports scientist based at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is currently completing his PhD, which focuses on monitoring training loads and fatigue. Ben has coached athletes from various disciplines, including top international downhiller, Andrew Neethling


TREAD Magazine is sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio

*Originally published in TREAD Issue 30, 2014 – All rights reserved



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