Is Mountain Biking Aerobic Or Anaerobic?

Mountain bikes require solid energy from within to close a gap between you and the rider in front of you or provide a boost while climbing a narrow steep road. Controlled breathing is a must as your heart beats at about 180bpm while riding.  What is aerobic or anaerobic biking and how does it help?

Is Mountain Biking Aerobic Or Anaerobic?

Aerobic biking involves controlled breathing with an excess of oxygen to pump up the body and boost stamina. Through this, the rider can achieve a higher degree of speed for a limited amount of time, as it exhausts the muscles pretty quickly. Anaerobic biking involves a zero amount of oxygen. That means, the rider holds back his/her breath and uses muscle power to overcome any upcoming obstacles. A correct mixture of aerobic and anaerobic biking can create the most amazing biking experience.

That doesn’t answer the question in depth obviously. As a mountain biking enthusiast, I faced many problems of exhaustion and troubled breathing while I took part in competitions. I looked for the best possible mix of aerobic and anaerobic biking and here’s detailed information on what I got from my experience.

Physical Qualities Required for Mountain Biking

To know more about aerobic and anaerobic biking, we must first get some ideas on how the body of a mountain biker reacts to certain exercise criteria. For this, we selected some mountain bikers and put them in 4 different categories. Differing from their range of training abilities, the inner physiological change of these bikers were measured according to their power output. Here’s the result of the experiment:

Category of Biker
Maximum Power Output (Percentage)
Stressed Primary Energy Output
Duration of Certain Exercise
Targeted Muscles for Primary Exercise
Generally 3 to 10 seconds
Typically Anaerobic Type II A
Random Glycolysis
More than 10 and less than 20 seconds
Typically Anaerobic Type II B
Random Glycolysis and Oxidative
10 seconds to 20 minutes
Both Anaerobic and Aerobic Type II B and Type I
More than 20 minutes
Mainly Aerobic Type I

From the above experiment, we can imagine a bigger picture. The main goal is to switch between aerobic and anaerobic energy efficiently. There’s a time when you need to push harder to cross the rider in front of you. That’s the perfect time for an anaerobic sprint. When you just need to keep the pace as it is, aerobic energy is the way to go.

Aerobic and Anaerobic, When and Why?

Maximum Power Needed
20% to 70%
70% to 100%
Muscle Usage
Less Intensity for Muscles
More Intensity for Muscles
Heart Rate
Controlled and Random
No Breathing
Time Limit
Lasts for 1 minute to more than 20 minutes
Lasts for 3 seconds to 10 seconds
Wears Out
Lung Capacity
Leg Muscles

Anaerobic Energy Flow

As you can see from the given data, an anaerobic sprint, which takes more than 90% of your maximum power output, generally lasts a little over 3 seconds. It just gives you the push you need at the correct time. But, with that single push, you can even burn out your whole muscle power for some time. It lets you push your boundaries to the limit.

On the 6th stage of the infamous Tour de France (2012), Greg Henderson provided a remarkable display of anaerobic cycling discipline. He pushed his maximum power output to more than 1100 watts at the last 2 to 5 seconds of the race. As a result of this, his teammate Greipel got the chance to win the title.

In those 2 to 5 minutes, Henderson held back his breath and pushed his leg muscles to produce such a tremendous amount of power in a flash. Knowing his muscles will tire out completely after that, he chose the last few seconds to perform a Type II-A Anaerobic stunt.

Aerobic Energy Flow

Aerobic energy involves complete control over your breathing. You need to keep your heart rate at an average value to save your muscles for the final hours of the race or track. A Type I aerobic exercise can take mostly 35% of your power output and give you enough stamina to ride for more than 20 minutes straight. Your heart won’t feel like it’s running out of your chest during the ride.

A typical aerobic run is essential around the middle of a race or track. Suppose, you’re on a 1-hour track, to get the best efficiency, you would need to perform an anaerobic stunt at the first minute or two. After that, you need to save your energy and stamina for a long time. For the time being, you need to ride at a constant speed, with perfectly controlled breathing. Run for 15-20 minutes and give yourself a push with an anaerobic stunt whenever you need to.

Build Your Mountain Biking Endurance

For a longer biking capability, you need to train harder. If you want more endurance, you would need to learn how to switch efficiently between anaerobic and aerobic energy flow, while pushing your whole body to the limit. Practice makes a man perfect and here are the best training tips to build your mountain biking endurance:

Warm-Up Session

Give yourself a nice warm-up before every training session. Personally, if I get into a hard ride straight away, I won’t be able to hold my breath or body for much longer. That’s why I try to ride for 5 to 10 minutes before I start to train for the day. This warm-up session is not only good for your muscles but it also makes you mentally prepared for the upcoming training schedule.

Maintain Average Heart Rate

While it may seem pretty tempting to go at your highest level too soon, try and maintain your average heart rate throughout the first few minutes of your training. It could be climbing a steep mountain road or even a narrow bushy road. Don’t start at your highest speed. Start with a lower speed and keep your heart rate at an average amount throughout the whole climb.

Change Your Natural Cadence

Try bringing some change to your cadence instead of using your natural cadence. Typically, at the end of each run, I love to push my boundaries if I have any energy left. I love to charge my full strength forward for 10 to 15 seconds before finishing the training. It gets my muscles more active and heart burning like a stove. But it’s completely worth it to get out of your usual cadence and run at a different rhythm than your body is used to. We’ll talk more about cadence later.

Try New Training Sessions

If you’re used to 2 to 3 hours of rides each day, get out of your habit once per week. Go for cross country rides and take on new challenges. Try to aim for 6 to 7 hours rides and try to stop for breath from time to time. The mission is to increase stamina while keeping your muscles fed enough so they don’t get contraptions. Try to engage in less intense training programs for a while and focus on a longer time.

Take On Challenges

Challenge yourself in every way possible. There are sometimes uphill tracks that are too steep. We don’t usually ride on these tracks; rather we just walk with our bike. But, every once in awhile, try to break your barriers and take on the challenge of riding that track. It will surely tire your legs and burn your lungs. But it’s totally worth it as it will introduce your muscles and whole body to complex situations and help in adapting to these situations in their own way.

Keep Track of Time

Maintain a solid time frame for each training period. For instance, if you’re climbing a steep uphill track as training, try to set a stopwatch and time yourself very carefully. Try to control your breathing and perform the task faster each time. Don’t put your complete effort over a single ride. Rather, try to increase your efficiency over time, by updating the time frame with each ride.

Take Breaks Before Repeating

Don’t forget to repeat a session and take short breaks. If you have a 1-minute climb and it seems like a good challenge to you, try to repeat it a minimum of 5 times with more than 2 minutes break after each climb. If you don’t give your body the break it needs, you won’t get to use it for much longer. As a result, your body will tire out sooner and you will need much greater time to recover from a typical training session.

Distribute Time Over Whole Week

Burning up all your energy in one day with an intense training schedule may seem fit, but it’s not actually worth it. You will need some days to recover from that and after the recovery, you would again have to get your body ready from scratch. Instead, try to maintain regularity in your training. Riding for 2 hours every day is far better than riding for 8 hours in one day.

Stretch Your Body After a Ride

Remember to stretch your muscles after each riding session. Stretching your body can get it ready for the next ride without any delay. Stretch your whole body for more than 5 minutes before you switch between different exercises. Try to focus on your joints and breathing capacity.

Cadence in Mountain Biking

When it comes to efficient mountain bike racing, cadence plays the most important role. Cadence is typically called the pedaling rate by mountain bikers. But it’s not as simple as that. It usually depicts the rate of the rotation of the pedal which is proportional to the speed gained at the wheels. On top of that, it is measured through differentiating the rate of rotation at the crank vs the rate of rotation at the wheel.

But, there are many factors that affect the cadence during a race, and it’s very complicated. The rider needs to switch between gears effectively while watching out for aerobic and anaerobic sprint style differences. There are different cadence outputs at different sprint styles and mostly, we need to switch between them efficiently to get the most out of it.

Cadence Ranges for Different Tracks

As I’ve mentioned earlier, you need different cadence strategies for different tracks. Using a high cadence on a long steep ride can make your muscles sore and unable to continue riding. Here’s some info of different cadence ranges for different types of tracks.

Low Cadence Ranges

While climbing long steep tracks, you need to keep a low cadence when you just run out of gears to use. In those times, rotating the pedal constantly at a lower amount will save your muscle power to ride for a longer period of time without wearing them out. Though you will get less speed, it’s totally worth it.

Medium Cadence Ranges

Medium cadence ranges are a must to ride efficiently on rubble or dirt induced surfaces. If you come across any rocky surface, you may find yourself pounding on your pedals to keep the balance at a higher speed. But, instead of giving you better balance, the higher cadence increases the chances of falling off from your bike. Riding at a moderate cadence can provide smooth transitions on these rocky or dirt roads.

High Cadence Ranges

High cadence is important at the most intricate and difficult times. Like, when you’re behind a biker or accelerating towards a solid obstacle or running through a tough corner. At these places, you need to calm your breathing and put extra effort into your leg muscles. The high amount of rotation provides a smooth transition to a higher speed but exhausts your muscles.

Three Cadence Workout Manual

To make the most out of your body power, train your muscles and lungs for a better cadence efficiency. Trying out different training programs can help bring more variation to your everyday workout sessions and clear your views over tough situations.

There are mostly two styles of cadence workout practices: 1. Seated Cadence and 2. Standing Cadence. Here’s my favorite 3 cadence workout manual that can get your body ready for the perfect racing experience:

Tempo and Gears

To start this workout session, get yourself ready by stretching your muscles first. Perform a normal 5 to 10 minutes ride first before following the next step. When your body is ready, choose a steep climb of 30 minutes long. Start riding at a pedal speed of 50 to nearly 70 rpm and keep it at an average amount while sticking to your seat properly.

Remember to take off from your seat every five minutes and drop the amount of cadence from 50 to 30 or 40. This will provide enough time to freshen up your leg muscles while keeping the tempo at an average amount.

Ride at a selected gear the whole time. You will feel some relief in your leg muscles and your back. Continue to do this over a selected amount of time and don’t tire yourself out in one day. Try to perform this workout at least once every day.

Speed Up and Down

The best cadence workout to get your body pumped up is riding at different speed variations. Choose a flat track for this one and get your muscles ready. Choose a light and easy gear to start and over a time period of 30 seconds, increase your pedal speed smoothly and slowly. Speed up to the maximum speed possible by you. But don’t try to hold it. After you’ve reached your limit, gently let your legs relax. Let your cadence run to the lowest value slowly. Repeat from the top when you’re at your lowest speed.

This will make your muscles more familiar to random speed variations. As a result of this training, your body will react better while cutting in line within seconds of turning on a very narrow road. Again, this is not applicable to rough surfaces, as random speed variation may interfere with your balance heavily. Try to learn something new from each run and challenge your limits.

Forced Uphill Acceleration

On a gentle uphill track, slow down your speed to 3 miles per hour and lower your cadence to 35 to 40 rpm. Right after that, don’t shift your gears and try to achieve your highest cadence through pedaling at your maximum output. The maximum cadence can be reached in around 5 seconds and you need to hold it for 2 more minutes. After that, slow down and let your legs rest for nearly 10 seconds before starting from the top again.

Shift between gears and adjust it according to your climbing needs. Take a rest of 2 to 3 minutes after you repeat this each time. Use this drill to keep your muscles burning and heart-pounding at the correct amount and at the right time. Remember, you need a suitable uphill track to perform this training session.

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