We all know that feeling; you’re out on the trail, someone paces you, and you can’t help but increase the pace a little bit. Better yet, you are in a race and at the start everyone sprints out of the gate. Mountain biking can be extremely challenging to pace due to the undulating terrain and minimal pack riding. Learning how to tailor your efforts to the demands of the trail will greatly increase your ability to enjoy a ride and probably decrease the time it takes you to complete it.
What is a Good Pace for Mountain Biking?
A good pace for mountain biking is a pace that is sustainable for you! There is no magic number that can define whether or not you are setting a good pace. Every course will require different physiological demands and therefore alter your numbers and miles per hour. Even courses with similar elevation gain and loss, can produce completely different numerical values depending on whether the climbs are steep or gradual, rolling or sustained, or technical or flowy.
The best way to set a good pace on the mountain bike is to listen to the physiological signals your body is giving you (heart rate, respiration, muscle fatigue) and to utilize the terrain to your advantage. Make sure you are focusing on carrying momentum and using free speed where you can.
Pro Tip: Always look ahead when you are mountain biking. Try to anticipate what is coming next. If you are able to shift before you reach the next hill you will be able to carry more speed and have a faster time overall.
Setting a Pace for Mountain Biking Uphill
Going uphill might actually be one of the easiest times to ‘pace’ on a mountain bike because your body gives you very distinct signals of whether or not your effort is sustainable. If the hill is longer than a minute, a critical aspect of your pacing strategy should be focused around cadence. Now-a-days most mountain bikes have huge cassettes on the rear wheel that allow for very easy gears.
If you are climbing a long hill and you find that your heart rate is increasing, and you are having difficulty breathing and turning the pedals over, the first thing that you should do is shift into an easier gear. While many people dread climbing uphill, it is actually possible for uphill sections to feel similar to flats if you are able to find the correct gear to spin up the hill.
If you are struggling to find a gear that makes most mountain bike routes feel tolerable then consider looking into gearing options. What you need for your home trails might be different than for a bike packing adventure in the mountains. Don’t be afraid to experiment and invest in a few different front chain ring sizes. The correct gear can make all of the difference.
Pro Tip: Before tackling a new route, look up the elevation chart. It will be easier to pace both mentally and physically if you know how long the hills are.
How to Pace a Mountain Bike Ride on Undulating Terrain
Keep in mind that on the mountain bike, descents don’t always offer rest or recovery. In fact, the descents can sometimes be just as taxing as the climb. Your legs can become fatigued from standing on the pedals. Your arms and hands will become fatigued from gripping the bars and absorbing the shock and your brain will be working hard to process the trail.
When you are pacing a ride on undulating terrain, pace the ride as if it is still a sustained effort. This strategy will allow you to still have energy for the descents. Aim to crest over each climb feeling as though you still have more energy to give.
How to Set a Pace for a Long Ride (20 miles or more)
During a long mountain bike ride, it will be important to keep most of your effort aerobic. Aerobic means ‘with oxygen.’ An aerobic pace is a pace in which you are easily able to breath and give your body the oxygen that it is demanding. When you begin to breath too rapidly your effort will become anaerobic or ‘without oxygen.’ When you are anaerobic your body is not able to function as efficiently and you will quickly become fatigued.
One way to determine how hard you are able to push yourself, without becoming too exhausted or slowing down drastically at the end of the ride is by completing a threshold test. Ride for 30-60 minutes at the highest sustained intensity that you think is possible. At the end of the effort look at your average power or heart rate during that effort. During your sustained aerobic rides, you should do your best to keep your paces below the numbers you established during your test.
Pro Tip: Start calculating your rides based on time rather than distance. Look at the terrain and the distance in order to estimate how long the ride will take you to finish. Thinking of the ride by time instead of distance will allow you to fuel and pace more efficiently since some miles will go by more quickly than others.
Tools and Equipment to Help Set Your Ride Pace
Heart Rate Monitor
A heart rate monitor will allow you to know exactly how hard you are pushing your body throughout the ride. You can also use a heart rate monitor during a threshold hold test in order to establish zones or different intensities that you will be able to hold for different durations.
Heart rate monitors are relatively inexpensive. You can purchase a quality chest strap style heart rate monitor for about $50. https://www.wahoofitness.com/devices/heart-rate-monitors/tickr/buy
Power meters have become the gold standard of training tools for cyclists because they produce objective data. A power meter will allow you to establish power zones in order to measure how long you can sustain certain intensities. Power meters will also allow you to track progress and improvements over times.
A solid recommendation for a crankset power meter is the GEN 3 Stages Power L. (link to Amazon for current price and reviews)
Power meters can cost a pretty penny. They generally range from $500-$1500. https://www.sram.com/en/quarq/models/pm-dz-spdm-d1
A bike computer will be a necessary tool to help you pace on the mountain bike. While I know many people who like to log their rides on their phone stuffed in their jersey pocket, a bike computer can sit easily on your handlebars and provide real time feedback of how fast or hard you are pushing yourself.
Bike computers can cost anywhere from $25-$500 depending on what types of features you are looking for. https://www.wahoofitness.com/devices/bike-computers/view-all
Once you have your bike computer, you’ll need to purchase a mount so that it stays on your handlebars. You can also purchase a mount for your phone if you wish to forgo the cycling computer.
Mounts are usually quite inexpensive and can be found for about $30. https://k-edge.com/product-category/mtb/
If you don’t want to spend any money, then talking may be your most valuable pacing tool. If you are able to easily hold a conversation during a ride then your pace is very sustainable. If you can squeak out a word or two then you’re on the edge and you should plan to slow down soon. If you are completely unable to verbalize during your ride then you have crossed over into the red zone and you need to back off as soon as possible.
Why Does Pacing Matter on the MTB?
If you are able to pace a ride appropriately you will see a much faster time overall. Additionally, if you are pushing yourself to your maximal capabilities, the difference between finishing or calling it quits could be based on the pace you set for the first hour.
Pro Tip: During the first hour of a ride, try to focus entirely on your own pace. This can be especially challenging when riding with a group or in a race. If you work too hard to stay with the group in the beginning then you will likely not finish with them at all. Listen to your own body at the start and you’ll have a much more enjoyable ride.
5 Tips to Build Endurance on Your Mountain Bike
1. Log Hours on Your Mountain Bike
There is really no substitute for simply putting in the time on the saddle. When training, we are always trying to mimic the demands of the desired goal, outcome, or race. If you wish to be able to ride longer without getting fatigued then it is often as simple as gradually increasing your ride duration.
Be careful not to increase your duration too quickly. Increasing your volume too quickly can result in injury and burn out. Make sure to listen to your body and only increase volume about 10% per week with the appropriate recovery in between.
2. Back to Back Days
A great way to increase endurance under time constraints is to load two or three higher volume days back to back. While normally completing a big endurance ride in one day will garner the best results, if you don’t have 6 hours in one day to dedicate to the bike, try completing 4 hours on Saturday and another 3 on Sunday. Your body will still be learning to endure the fatigue and ultimately build endurance.
3. Consistency is King
Stay the course and try to get on your bike as often as possible. Even if your ride isn’t extremely long, putting in the time and being consistent will pay off. I know a lot of people who put in a couple of really big days and then take 3 or 4 days off. That type of inconsistency isn’t benefiting you. You’ll suffer through your training days and fail to see large improvements because of the de-training periods in between.
4. Complete Intervals
A great way to build endurance is by completing intervals during your rides. The increase in intensity can help to take up the slack in the duration that you might be lacking. Try completing longer intervals such as 10-30 minute efforts or stack shorter intervals on top of each other with shorter rest.
5. Fuel and Hydrate
Don’t forget to eat and drink during your long rides. No matter how fit and fast you are, your body only has enough carbohydrate stores to last for about 2 hours (less if you are working harder). If you deplete yourself during your ride, no fitness will be enough to overcome the fatigue of a lack of nutrition.
Pro Tip: Aim to eat approximately 30-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during your rides lasting over 2.5 hours.
Embrace the Pace
One of the great things about mountain biking is that there are so many places to make improvements. You might feel discouraged at first when you try to pace your first ride, but over time that pacing will be the exact thing that allows you to see improvements. Timing rides or examining heart rate and power data gives you exact metrics for improvements. Even something as simple as summitting a climb completely out of breath one week and then with ease a few weeks later can be extremely rewarding. Celebrate every improvement!
Hannah Finchamp is a professional mountain biker for the Orange Seal Pro Team. When she isn’t riding her own bike she is coaching others to reach their goals as a Certified USA Cycling Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. To learn more about the author please visit www.hannahfinchamp.com and follow Hannah on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/hannah_finchamp/?hl=en