How to Build Stamina for Longer XC Rides?

By Martin Atanasov

Cross-country is undoubtedly one of the most challenging formats of mountain biking, where skills and technique meet endurance and the ability to manage your power. It’s the best cross between road cycling and MTB rides, as it offers enough of both, and you can (and should) use tactics from both. Still, the huge downside of XC is its requirements regarding your stamina. You need to know how to ride long and hard, conquer ascends like a champ, and navigate through downhill sections without breaking a sweat. So naturally, building your stamina should be on top of your list of priorities if you want to make your XC rides even more fun. And we’re here to help with some valuable tips.

Tip 1: Have a goal

Ok, that won’t build stamina on its own, but it is a great way to get into the state of mind you need to become stronger. Having a goal will drive you to stay on the trail, push yourself harder, and go that extra mile when your whole body and soul cry to go back home. Your goal could be anything, but in my personal experience, nothing rallies you up like an upcoming event. So, with the specific event in mind, try to focus on riding on similar terrains and pushing yourself harder every day.

Tip 2: Gradually increase the exercise load

Just like muscle-building exercises in the gym, building your stamina requires a gradual increase in the training session load. While in the gym, you can either increase the weight resistance or number of reps. When riding in the mountains, you have a few more options. You can take a longer ride or choose a steeper climbing section. There are a variety of training sessions you can go for. You can go for three similarly difficult and long rides three days in a row and have two rest days afterwards.

Or you can have one medium-hard ride, followed by a day of rest. Afterwards, you go all out, giving your maximum effort, followed by another medium-hard ride to close the cycle. Take at least two days of rest before the next cycle.

On the other hand, if you have a busy work-life, you can go with two 60-90-minute rides with different gradients twice during the work week and make two half-day long-distance XC rides back to back over the weekend. Again, the point is to ride as often as possible and increase your ride’s difficulty levels after each training cycle. The exercise cycle depends entirely on you.

Tip 3: Assess your weaknesses

The most exciting part of riding XC is the variety of riding styles you experience. An excellent way to better your endurance is to assess which component of the cross-country ride is most difficult for you. So, for example, if you are great at the DH sections but fail at climbing, you need to work on your climbing technique and muscle endurance. But, on the other hand, DH sections could also drain your energy if you don’t have the proper technique or skills to go through them fast and effortlessly. Assessing your weaknesses will allow you to adjust your training sessions properly, so they will focus on what counts.

MTB ride
You need to know how to ride long and hard, conquer ascends like a champ, and navigate through downhill sections without breaking a sweat. © Profimedia

Tip 4: Keep track of your improvement

When we start pushing ourselves, at times, it’s possible to feel as if we have wasted our time. That’s definitely not the case, though, as a simple chart of your endeavours will show. Keeping track of your improvement will not only help you stay motivated despite the lack of visible gains, but will also show you if there is a problem with your training plan. If you really have no improvement, maybe your entire exercise schedule is wrong.

There are enough apps that will track your performance automatically. Still, a nice sheet will allow you to stay on top of your results. Make sure to take all the relevant measurements. So, if you are trying to improve your climbing skills, make sure to take your time, average speed, and heart rate into account. On the other hand, if you are going for an overall training session, the distance plays a huge role, as well as the time, heart rate and average speed.

Tip 5: Fuel

You may have noticed I mentioned heart rate several times. Well, the higher the heart rate, the more calories you burn. Typically, with an average pulse of 130, a person will burn between 450 and 750 calories per hour, depending on gender and weight. As you know, calories are the fuel you burn when riding a bike. So, it stands to reason that you will need to replenish your losses if you want to go further. Generally, consuming at least 400 calories per hour is a good idea when riding long distances. Remember that your goal is not to lose fat but to enhance your endurance, so calorie loss is not a priority at the moment.

While consuming proteins is a good idea, the sheer volume you have to eat each hour to reach the 400-calorie benchmark is incomprehensible. Moreover, consuming proteins will do wonders for your muscle growth but ultimately give you little excess energy. Thus, a better snack would have a high carb count, with at least 40 to 60 grams of the nutrient.

And don’t forget to drink a lot of water. Make sure to take a sip every 20 minutes and consume about 500 ml of water every hour. Make sure to spike your water with some minerals or lemon juice. This way, you will get the electrolytes you so desperately need.

Tip 6: Master your pacing

On long-distance rides, pacing is everything. Finding your comfortable pace and gradually increasing it will give you a great boost in building up your stamina. Going all out at the start might sound like a good idea, but it definitely is not. Unfortunately, you will learn that down the track when you are too far away from your home or car to simply give up. Don’t opt for a particular speed but for watts or heart rate. A good indicator that you are at a comfortable pace is the ability to hold a conversation while climbing. If you struggle to talk due to heavy breathing, you’re done. You might push to the top of this climb, but the next will be difficult to conquer. So, find your pace and make sure to increase speed gradually over time.

Tip 7: Have fun

That’s the main idea behind riding a bike in the first place, and it would be good never to forget it. If riding becomes a chore, you will quickly lose interest. Don’t forget to make your rides fun and enjoy your routes. That’s the most crucial step in improving your stamina.