We all want to be able to ride stronger, faster, and longer on our mountain bikes. Does strengthening your heart and oxygen carrying capacity actually make you a better cyclist? This article is all about how to ride a mountain bike for a cardio workout.

  • 9 Benefits of Mountain Biking for Cardio
  • How to Build Mountain Bike Endurance
  • What Muscles Does Mountain Biking Build
  • How Mountain Biking Stimulates Your Brain
  • Correct Breathing for Improving Mountain Biking
  • Other Types of Cardio Exercises That Can Increase Your Endurance

9 Benefits of Biking for Cardio

1.  Lower Blood Pressure:

Hypertension or high blood pressure is a measure of the pressure that the blood applies on the arteries. The systolic number (or top number) refers to the pressure when the heart is contracting and the bottom number refers to the pressure on the arteries when the heart is relaxed.

While there are many causes of hypertension, some may be helped with cardiorespiratory exercise. While the exact mechanism by which blood pressure decreases is unknown, it is thought to be linked with an overall decrease in body weight. It is also hypothesized that the increase in efficiency of the heart with exercise can decrease the actual effort needed for the heart to beat.

Regardless of the mechanism, regular cardiorespiratory exercise has shown to decrease blood pressure by 6-7 mmHg in patients with hypertension.1 That is as much as some blood pressure medications.  Mountain biking seems like a lot more fun than taking pills every morning. Talk to your doctor about how exercise can be used to lower your blood pressure.

2.  Decrease Anxiety and Depression:

We all know that mental health is one of the most important keys to leading a fulfilling life. Exercise has been prescribed again and again for patients struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress.

After exercise the body produces chemicals called endorphins.2 These endorphins trigger a similar reaction in the body to that of morphine. They reduce pain perception, act as sedatives, and prompt positive feelings. Yes, that means that a good cycling workout can actually give you a type of ‘high.’

Mountain biking adds another element to this because not only is it exercise, but it is outside.  Some studies have shown that being in nature naturally helps anxiety and depression. Whether it is Vitamin D, fresh air, or a decrease in societal pressure, I’m all about stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain.

3.  Help Manage Blood Sugar:

It has been widely accepted that exercise is critical for patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Muscle contraction has insulin-like effects because during muscle contraction membrane permeability to glucose increases. Exercise has been seen to decrease insulin resistance and increase insulin sensitivity. 1

Some studies have shown that these benefits disappear within 72 hours of exercise.1 That means that an individual with diabetes using exercise to help with blood sugar regulation will need to exercise semi-regularly. Who really needs an excuse to ride their mountain bike though? Mountain biking is optimal for diabetics because the pockets in the jerseys or the pouches in camelbaks allow for diabetic athletes to carry the necessary nutrition and monitors.

4.  Helps Manage Cholesterol:

Continual exercise can help increase the “good” or “healthy” cholesterol in your body known as high density lipoproteins (HDLs). HDL-cholesterol transports other cholesterols from the artery walls back to the liver where the body can convert it and use it for something more beneficial to your health. 3

An increase in HDL is a positive thing and will actually help in the prevention of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends exercising an average of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity of aerobic activity 3-4 times per week for patients wishing to affect their blood pressure and cholesterol. 4

5.  Increase Oxygen Supply:

The body needs oxygen in order to function and this oxygen is carried throughout the blood in the body. An individual who exercises frequently will encounter cardiovascular adaptations including increased stroke volume, increased cardiac output, and increased blood flow.1

All of these training adaptations can become highly complicated and specific. What is important to understand is that when you exercise frequently, not only will your body become more efficient; the exercise will actually become easier. Who doesn’t want to climb up hills with less effort?

6.  Regulates Body Weight:

It is estimated by the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Journal that a 155 pound individual burns about 598 calories per hour while mountain biking. There are a lot of factors that go into your caloric expenditure on the bike including intensity and weight.5

It is estimated that 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat. There is a direct correlation between burning calories and losing weight. In addition, while you exercise you gain and tone muscle. This added musculature allows you to burn even more calories at rest! That’s a win-win!

7.  Helps Manage Arthritis:

If you have arthritis in your knees, then cycling may be the optimal way for you to gain a cardio workout. Cycling creates a continual motion that stimulates the production of lubricating fluids in the joint thus easing arthritis. Cycling is also relatively non-weight bearing and should not cause additional pain.

8.  Improve Sleep:

Exercise is a great way to help you fall asleep easier and stay asleep. It’s pretty simple. Exercise tires you out, expends energy, and makes your body want to recover. While you can get fancy and map out how body temperature rises and falls and how that affects sleep patterns, all you need to know is that a good workout might give you an even better night of sleep.

9.  Improve Overall Quality of Life:

I see people all the time who struggle to make it up the stairs at the airport, or who are out of breath walking from their car to the store. Others who appear fit still struggle to keep up with their children or can’t walk their dogs. Exercising can make your day-to-day tasks easier. Being fit makes you feel powerful, independent, and can even make you better at your job. Maybe those 30 minutes you spend turning the pedals will actually double your productivity after.

Some great data can be found in the study performed by Sperlich B at the Intl Sports Physiol Perform article: Salivary cortisol, heart rate, and blood lactate responses during elite downhill mountain bike racing  (Link to article)

How to Build Mountain Bike Endurance

The American Heart Association recommends that the average individual gets 30 minutes of exercise five times per week for a total of 150 minutes of exercise weekly.2  What if you can’t do that or it just seems too intimidating? Start with a small amount and build up to your goal.

Hannah Finchamp Trainer

Hannah Finchamp Trainer – Photo credit to Hannah Finchamp

The same concept applies to mountain biking. Start with small achievable goals and build your way up. Endurance doesn’t come overnight. Doing too much too soon can actually hinder your progress by causing injuries and burnout before your goal is reached. Only increase your time on the bike by 12% each week. These small building blocks will help you increase without overdoing it too soon.

If you’d like to train with me (Hannah) contact  Hannah Finchamp Coaching – link

When cyclists work to improve their endurance they are usually in the “base training” period of their training cycle. This phase of training is used to increase aerobic capacity and build a base in which other workouts can be effective.

How do you know what intensity to ride at in order to work on your endurance and how can you use that intensity to create cardio workouts for the mountain bike?

Calculating Your Training Zones:

While most elite athletes use power numbers in order to objectively measure their data, power meters are advanced tools and can cost a pretty penny. Nowadays most people have access to a heart rate monitor whether it is through their watch, heart rate strap, or even their phone.

An aerobic building intensity is usually estimated to be between 70-80 percent of your maximum heart rate. While this is different for everyone, this is a pretty good place to start and then you can make adjustments as needed.

The Karvonen Formula is a good way to estimate your target heart rates. The formula is as follows:

Target Training HR = resting Heart Rate + (% intensity (maximum heart rate- resting heart rate)

Resting heart rate can be seen when you first wake up in the morning. Percent intensity is the effort that you wish to expend. For endurance exercise this will be 70-80%. Maximum heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220.

Now that you have a fancy way to calculate your training intensity, you can use that tool in order to better understand how hard you are working during your cardio workouts.

Mountain Bike Workouts For Cardio:

One of the most amazing things about mountain biking is that it can force a cardio workout without attempting to create one. Furthermore, the trail can dictate the level of your intensity.

When climbing a long sustained climb on the mountain bike, your heart rate may be forced into a higher rate just to simply crest the top of the climb.  While in other cardio workouts such as running on a treadmill, you are constrained to one pace.  Mountain biking, on the other hand, has natural intervals built into the terrain.

During long flat sections of the trail you may be riding in aerobic intensity, long sustained climbs may force you into tempo. Short steep climbs will require you to reach your threshold, and finally pushing up over a steep rock or lifting your front wheel over a log will require power. Mountain biking requires your body to be able to switch back and forth from aerobic to anaerobic intensities.

Building A Workout For Yourself:

If the trails where you live fail to dictate intensity for you, you may feel inclined to create workouts for a more advanced cardio workout. A general rule of thumb to remember is as intensity increases, duration decreases, and rest increases.

You can create a wide variety of interval workouts for yourself. The interval workouts can be as simple as 3 x 10 minutes at moderate intensity with 10 minutes of easy pedaling in between. Intervals can also focus around power where you can complete a 10 second sprint every 8-10 minutes throughout the duration of your ride. As you complete simpler interval sets you will become accustomed to the process and you’ll learn what type of efforts you find more and less difficult.

In order to benefit from a cardio workout, you do not need to complete intervals. Intervals are a good way to improve on certain areas of your riding or if you are interested in racing. If you wish to build an effective training plan centered around intervals, hiring a coach might be your best option.

What Muscles Does Mountain Biking Build:

What muscles doesn’t mountain biking build might be a better question! Mountain biking is a full body sport and requires your body to work primarily through concentric contraction in a sagittal plane. This means that the muscles contract by shortening and move in a straight line.

Leg Muscles: The primary muscle groups used in mountain biking are the quadriceps and glutes. The quadriceps muscles are on the front of your legs and help you to extend your legs and push the pedals toward the ground. The glutes, on the back of your legs also help to extend your legs as well as stabilize your hips.

The hamstring muscles and gastrocnemius (or calf muscles) are on the back of your leg and are used while you ride. These muscles are used more in cyclists who are clipped into their pedals. The hamstring bends the knee and hip while the gastrocnemius helps to point the toes and pull up on the pedals.

Accessory Muscles: The biceps are used to flex your elbows and steer the bars. The latissimus dorsi helps you pull yourself toward the handlebars. Your forearm muscles allow you to grip the handlebars. Your back muscles or erector spinae, help you maintain an upright posture, while your rectus abdominus allows you to stabilize and get low to the bars.

All of these muscles contract in order to achieve their desired motions and make you the cyclist you desire to be. All of these muscles need oxygen and that is why you can feel your heart rate increase as you push your muscles harder and harder to turn over the pedals.

Stabilization: Mountain biking even has an added bit of muscle use as your muscles contract isometrically (in a way where you don’t move) in order to stabilize your body as you descent through rock gardens. Standing up on the pedals as you go down a hill still forces your muscles to contract. It’s true, in mountain biking, there is no rest for the weary.

Some people complain that it is difficult to get a cardio workout before their legs fatigue. In this case, time on the bike will increase your muscular strength and allow you to push your heart and lungs harder in the future. Time in the gym working on these specific muscle groups can also be beneficial.

How Mountain Biking Stimulate Your Brain:

While the brain is not a muscle, it sends the signals to your heart and muscles. These signals can become stronger and reinforced the more that you use them. Mountain biking can strengthen these connections through work on reaction time and hand eye coordination.

Reaction time is critical in mountain biking because obstacles or corners may appear quickly and without giving you much time to react. Hand eye coordination comes into play when you need to react in an appropriate manner to the obstacle.

The better and stronger that these neuromuscular connections become, the better cardio workout you will be able to gain because you can push yourself harder without the fear of crashing or going off of the trail.

Many people feel that they cannot push themselves hard enough for a cardio workout on the mountain bike because they cannot go fast enough over the obstacles to get their heart rate up. The best solution to this is to practice, because your brain connections can get stronger as well.

Correct Breathing For Improving Mountain Biking

There is a correct way and incorrect way to breath while riding a bike. While the temptation of most mountain bikers is to breath through your chest, the best way to breath is through your diaphragm.  The chest has a smaller capacity than the diaphragm and therefore, can hold less air.

When you breathe through your belly your abdominal muscles pull down on your abdominal cavity allowing your lungs to fully inflate and fill that additional space. This form of breathing can greatly increase your ability to perform on the mountain bike.

 Other Types of Cardio Exercises That Can Increase Your Endurance

There are many different types of exercises you can use to gain endurance. Mountain biking is considered one of the “fun” ways to gain cardiovascular or cardiorespiratory fitness. It is classified in this way because you can mountain bike without a specific workout in mind and most people feel that the time passes more quickly. Other “fun” forms of cardio exercise include rowing, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, cross country skiing, and many more.

Other types of cardio workouts, that are considered fun by some, but require a bit more workout-focused mindset include running, stair climbing, or training on the elliptical.

While I’m obviously partial to mountain biking for your cardio workout, the important thing is that you find a way to exercise that you enjoy. Your body just wants you to get your heart rate up and get your muscles moving. Your brain on the other hand, might be begging for a little fun and entertainment. If that’s the case, you should try mountain biking for a cardio workout—it has never disappointed me.

Sources:

  1. Kenney, W. Larry, et al. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics, 2015.
  2. Sprouse-Blum, Adam S, et al. “Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management.” Hawaii Medical Journal, University Clinical, Education & Research Associate (UCERA), Mar. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104618/.
  3. Impact of Exercise On Cholesterol,  www.unm.edu/%7Elkravitz/Article%20folder/cholesterolNEW.html.
  4. “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults.” Www.heart.org, www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults.
  5. “Calories Burned Mountain Biking.” My Calories Burned, www.mycaloriesburned.com/calories-burned-mountain-biking/.