How to Train for an MTB XC Race? Training Plan for an XC Rider

Michael Guilford Coaching 1 Comment

If you’ve done a few mountain bike cross country races, you may be wondering about how you can improve your results through better training. Or maybe you are planning on entering an event for the first time and you don’t know if you can handle it? A tailored training plan is a good place to start.

Cross country MTB racing includes, MTB XCO and various marathon events. MTB XCO, is the Olympic XC format and typically lasts for 1hr30mins to 2hrs for Elite Senior Men & Women. Other categories may be shorter in duration. MTB XC Marathon events are longer than 2hrs and can be as long 24hrs.

If you are looking to enter a race for the first time, then don’t worry about how you will perform. You just need to be able to ride the course safely, and be fit enough to complete the distance of your race.

There are several national level XC courses around the country which are open to the public. E.g. Dalby Forest, Hadleigh Farm, and Fort William. If you can ride this level of course safely, then you will be fine in National and Regional level races. All XC races will have A & B lines on the most technical features. These are features which are not rollable (i.e there’s a gap you need to drop or jump) or are particularly difficult. If you are unable to ride the B lines, then its a good idea to get some coaching to improve your skills.

How can you improve your Performance in XC races?

There are two main areas you should focus on, Technique and Fitness. If you are very technically competent, i.e. from a Downhill, Motocross, MTB Trials background, you can to focus on Tactics and Fitness instead.

I have covered the key elements of technique and tactics


The key areas to develop physical ability for XC racing are aerobic efficiency, and short term muscular endurance.

Aerobic efficiency is important as you will recover quicker in between harder efforts. And means you can sustain a higher power output, on average, over the race duration.

Short term muscular endurance, is your ability to do very hard 20-90s efforts, repeatedly over a long duration. XC courses are not generally flat. And in order to sustain a faster pace for each lap, you have to push harder on climbs then recover on downhill

There are also other specific factors for XC fitness. In order to handle the bike through technical features, you need to have a good level of all-body strength and endurance. Its not only about your legs!

Body Weight

XC fitness comes down to power with respect to your body weight. Unlike Road or Track Cycling where air resistance is an important factor. The drag created on a MTB (both on the flat and uphill) is proportional to your body weight. A key way of measuring this for Elite athletes is Power to Weight Ratio. (Elite Male riders will be able to sustain over 4.5W/kg for 60mins).

There is little value in loosing muscle mass as an XC rider (unless you’ve been a body builder!). Which means the way to get lighter is to loose body fat. However, don’t make this the prime goal of your training. Too low body fat and calorie restriction can have some seriously negative effects on your health. Such as, hormonal imbalance and deteriorating bone health. Endurance athletes may already be calorie restricted, even without eating less, due to the calories spent in training. Don’t trust ‘silver bullet’ training or dieting advice, for fat loss. The best that will happen is that it wont work, but it could also make you slower.

If you eat a healthy varied diet, high in fruit and vegetables but low in processed food and added sugar. Then reducing body fat to a healthy level will be a by-product of training.

How to train for XC?

First of all you need to look at how much time you have available to train and then prioritise that time to certain training objectives. There are no quick fixes, and every XC rider needs to have a high level of endurance. Both muscular and aerobic, so you should be training both these elements regularly.

What should a training week look like?

I have drafted out what a typical week might look like for an XC Rider. The priority sessions to be completed each week are highlighted in orange.

Note: Obviously if this was a week with a race then it your training schedule won’t look like this.

Monday – Rest

As most people have most time available at the weekend it makes sense to have a rest day today.

Tuesday – Short Term Endurance Session 1hr

This is the session that you will need to be fresh to complete (after a rest day). It should train muscular ability and should have some element of short term endurance (i.e. 20s-2mins).

Wednesday – Easy Aerobic Session 1hr

This could just be steady paced ride, or it could also include some technical/skills training. This would also be a suitable day to do a strength session

Thursday – Moderate to Hard Aerobic Session -1-1.5hrs

This could encompass a variety of different training types. But it should stimulate your aerobic system, raising your Heart Rate and breathing to a hard level for at least 3mins.

Friday – Easy Aerobic Session 1hr

Saturday – Strength session 1.5hrs

This could be a gym based strength session or an on-the-bike strength session, such as sprint starts.

Sunday – Long Steady MTB Ride 3-4hrs

This schedule is fairly achieveable for most riders, even if they don’t have time for 10hrs per week. The two priority sessions are Tuesday and Thursday, which is just 2hrs for midweek training. Wednesday & Friday could be a mixture of other activities, such as walking, jogging or light circuit training which can be fitted around work or other commitments.

For a rider with more time available (and bigger goals), then we need to think about what the priorities are for particular times of the racing year. The easy aerobic sessions could be longer, or we could some add skills focused sessions and/or gym based strength sessions.

Another important thing to bear in mind is that every rider is different. For some riders this schedule could be very challenging. For others, it might not provide enough stimulus to improve. This is where tailored coaching and training plans come in!

Comments 1

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Fast XC Racer? How to Prepare for a XC MTB Race - Rideabout

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