How to improve MTB fitness. Training plans for cross country racing

Michael GuilfordCoaching 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?

I coach riders from all round the world. Get in touch for a tailored training plan!

Cross country MTB racing includes, MTB XCO and various marathon events. MTB XCO, is the Olympic XC format and typically lasts for 1 hour 30 mins, to 2 hours for Elite Senior Men & Women. Other categories may be shorter in duration. MTB XC Marathon events are longer than 2 hours and can be as long 24 hours.

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 and 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 it’s 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, tactics and fitness. If you are very technically competent, e.g. from a Downhill, Enduro or MTB Trials background, you will be able to transfer techniques to XC fairly easy.

Cross country has some specific technical demands which you will need to incorporate into your training. Specifically designed guidance and skills sessions will help.


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 – 90 second 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. It’s 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.

There is no value in losing muscle mass, this is a key part in your ‘engine’ as a cyclist. Which means the way to get lighter is to lose 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.

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 well planned training.

How to train for XC?

Before you start forming any training plan 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: If this was a week with a race then 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, 1 hour

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

Wednesday – Easy aerobic session, 1 hour

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

Thursday – Moderate to hard aerobic session, 1 – 1.5 hours

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 3 mins. Typical effort duration of 3 – 20mins.

Friday – Easy aerobic session, 1 hour (as for Wednesday)

Saturday – Strength session 1 – 1.5 hours

This is an off the bike strength session, which could include, weights, resistance machines and body weight exercises.

Sunday – Long steady MTB ride, 3 – 4 hours

This is a good chance to have a social ride, and throw in some XC specific trail riding. A steady pace will help to build aerobic efficiency without making you tired.

This schedule is fairly achievable for most riders, even if they don’t have time for 10 hours per week. The two priority sessions are Tuesday and Thursday, which is just 2 hours for midweek training. Wednesday and 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 you can start to hone in on specific objectives that you want to focus on and increase the overall training duration.

Bear in mind 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.