Getting into endurance mountain biking

Anyone who considers themselves a mountain biker already knows the joys of venturing into the vast wilderness with nothing but their trusty two-wheeled companion and whatever they managed to cram into their backpack. After all, there is something to be said about the serenity of the great outdoors and the beauty that Mother Nature has to offer. While most riders would find a two-hour ride to be a quality workout, there are others who are left feeling unfulfilled and with plenty of steam left for another lap. If that sounds like you, it might be time for you to consider getting into endurance mountain biking.

What is endurance mountain biking?

As you can probably tell from the name, endurance mountain biking is just that—mountain biking for a longer than normal time and distance. Generally, when mountain bikers are talking about endurance rides, they mean rides of 50 or more miles. While it can be the absolute most miserable sufferfest for some, there are many riders out there who live for a solid endurance ride.

It goes without saying that mountain biking can be a dangerous sport by itself, but once significant distance is added into the mix, physical, nutritional, and psychological preparation become a real concern. In other words, if you don’t take the necessary steps in order to prepare for your first endurance mountain biking ride, you might crawl away beaten, battered, and confused. If you prepare well, you might have one of the best days on the bike.

Why get into endurance mountain biking?

People end up falling in love with endurance mountain biking for many reasons; be that the fulfillment of pushing past a fitness plateau or the reward of an endless flowy downhill after a treacherous climb, most can agree that it’s an adrenaline-packed day of fun and adventure! As much fun as riding can be, the most common reasons people take up endurance mountain biking are to:

  • Gain fitness
  • Break through a fitness plateau
  • Race an endurance mountain bike race event
  • Cross-train for another endurance event
  • Explore remote areas
  • Physically challenge themselves on a new level

Endurance mountain biking can be an especially challenging workout, even for someone who is, by normally accepted standards, in “excellent physical shape.” It can, however, be a highly beneficial addition to your training regimen, particularly if you are a seasoned cyclist or triathlete; because it requires such strength, the power that you acquire through mountain bike training will cross over to your road riding.

Whatever your ultimate goal is in taking up endurance mountain biking, the most important thing you can do is plan and prepare in advance. When sufficient time and effort are put forth, endurance mountain biking comes with some tremendous mental and physical benefits.

No, you can’t just set your mind to it.

The idea that “you can do anything you set your mind to” is well-intentioned, but faulty, since it completely ignores the physiological aspect of endurance training. Just like you can’t instantly become good at math, you can’t simply get off the couch and crank out a 100-mile ride in the mountains.

There’s a common misconception among road cyclists that a 50-mile mountain bike ride could be easily completed by someone who consistently does significantly longer rides, such as centuries, on the road. While your riding skills will certainly put your worlds ahead of a newbie, mountain biking requires much more dynamic fitness, from quick bursts to sustained anaerobic efforts. The rugged terrain forces the body to work much harder to maintain balance, constantly shifting the center of gravity and engaging a wide range of muscle groups that you may not have even known you had! The cognitive load is also higher, as the brain is constantly analyzing the trail ahead, seeking out the best line, and in many cases, trying to convince your body to just keep pedaling.

If your ultimate goal is to do day-long mountain bike rides or even participate in one or more endurance races, you will have to train like an endurance athlete. Luckily, long hours in the saddle tend to develop technical skills as well. In short, the more you ride, the easier it gets and the faster you go.

Adjusting your existing bike

If you already own and ride a mountain bike that you’re comfortable on, there is probably little or nothing for you to change, but it doesn’t hurt to experiment. As you start riding greater distances, shortcomings of your equipment or fit might manifest themselves. Pay particular attention to the little things that could translate into major issues as the distance of your ride increases. It could be rough stitching on the gloves, a hot spot in the shoe, a saddle that causes soreness, a handlebar that is too narrow, or grips that are too firm.

Unlike a casual bike ride where you are likely to spend a lot of time out of the saddle, on long rides, time in the saddle becomes significant, and so does the bike fit. If your saddle is too low, you will not be able to produce your maximum power; if it’s too high, you are likely to end up with hip pain. Adjusting your fit for optimal on-bike performance is a good place to start.

Gear and Equipment

If you don’t have a mountain bike and are looking to get one with the goal of doing endurance rides, there’s a laundry list of things for you to consider. There are so many quality mountain bikes and components on the market that choosing “the one” can be overwhelming. After you’ve determined your budget, do some homework to find the best bike you can afford.

What makes a mountain bike an endurance mountain bike? In short, the best endurance mountain bike is the kind you can ride comfortably for an extended period of time. What that ends up being will depend on your budget, fitness level, the terrain you plan on riding.

When selecting your bike, consider how it’s going to be used. While some people prefer to keep both wheels on the ground, others itch to hit every single bonus line, be that a rock garden on a jump section.

If you like staying grounded and do not venture off the beaten path very often, a short-travel cross-country bike is probably your best bet. These bikes have an aggressive geometry and are usually lightweight, which allows them to move efficiently on gravel roads and single-track. While efficient climbers, cross-country bikes give up some stability and durability when it comes to rough terrain and downhill.

If you like jumping and tackling technical terrain, high speed descends, and constantly looking for bigger features and obstacles, a trail bike is going to be a better fit. These bikes are designed to cater to the adventurous side of the sport: “trail riders” ride the same trails as cross-country riders, but always keep an eye out for the black diamond bonus lines. Trail bikes are normally full-suspension with bigger (140 mm - 160 mm) travel forks and slacker geometry, designed to be pointed straight at the rough stuff. While the extra suspension travel makes descending and attacking chunky rock gardens a lot more enjoyable, it also makes climbing and low-speed maneuvers more challenging. There’s also the case of the extra weight, which translates into more overall effort required to propel the bike forward, especially over long distances.

Once you’ve decided on the kind of bike you want, you’ll have the big decision of picking out a manufacturer and model. When making these determinations, there are a few factors to consider. First and foremost, make sure you get a bike that fits you. There are plenty of bike sizes out there that can accommodate the shortest and the tallest of people. Getting a bike with a frame that fits you is imperative if you are to enjoy it over long distances.

Bike manufacturers follow various frame design philosophies, continuously chasing the developing trends. Two “medium” sized frames from different manufacturers might have significantly different riding positions and riding dynamics.

Full-suspension vs Hardtail

When determining whether or not your bike will work for your endurance rides, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: do I need full-suspension or hardtail? The answer to this question will be highly dependent upon your budget, the terrain you will be riding, your physical fitness, and your personal preference.

As their names might indicate, the critical difference between a full-suspension and a hardtail mountain bike is the presence of a rear shock. Not so long ago, cross-country bikes were predominantly hardtail since the rear suspension was heavy and often less efficient on the climbs. Through the marvels of engineering, both the weight and the efficiency concerns were addressed to the point where all the bikes raced in the recent UCI XC World Cup were full-suspension.

In general, you will find that because of the additional complexity of the rear suspension, high-quality full-suspension bicycles tend to have a heftier price tag than their hardtail brethren. If you’re going to be riding mostly smooth trails, then a hardtail should more than suffice. However, if you expect to be riding “chunkier” terrain and tackling jumps, then a full suspension bike would probably make more sense; not only does the additional rear shock absorb more impact, making landings more comfortable, but it enhances the rider’s comfort over rougher terrain.

Test riding a bike

The best way to determine if a bike is a good fit is to ride it. Since mountain bikes are designed to be ridden off-road, a short pedal through a parking lot is unlikely to give you an indication of what the bike is really like to ride. Your best bet is to attend a bike demo at a local trail and put your candidates through their paces there.

Bike shops are usually aware of the local demos taking place for the brands they carry, so ask around!

If attending a demo day is not in the cards, consider asking a local shop if they can request a demo bike directly from the manufacturer. This practice is becoming more common as the market is pivoting towards the direct-to-consumer sales channel.

Finally, you might be able to rent the bike you’re thinking of buying. The vast majority of bike shops also have rental fleets, many of which are refreshed every year, so there’s a good chance that they already have “your” bike.

Whenever possible, find ways to test ride bikes from different manufacturers. While bike sizes are comparable across most brands, geometry and suspension designs could be substantially different.

Buying direct

With the advent of direct-to-consumer bike manufacturers, having a bike delivered to your home is becoming an acceptable practice. If you decide to go this route, be sure to do extensive research: ask fellow mountain bikers and look at online reviews and cycling forums. Hearing the experiences cyclists have personally had with various bikes gives you an idea of what to expect, particularly when you notice a trend among the reviews where similar feedback is being repeatedly reported.

Most direct-to-consumer retailers offer a limited money-back guarantee, should the bike not meet your expectations. The likelihood of this happening when buying a bike “sight unseen” is higher than when buying something you’ve ridden before, so this should be the number one requirement when buying direct.

Making your bike yours

If you already had a mountain bike or purchased a new one with the purpose of endurance riding, you might need consider making some tweaks to make your bike endurance-ready.

Contact points

When you’re riding a bike, your body is interfacing with the bike at three contact points: the saddle, grips, and pedals. If either of these isn’t perfect, it will manifest itself eventually, as the duration of your ride increases.

Saddle

Saddles are easily changed and can, once properly adjusted, add a little boost to your ride. Mountain bikers sit on the saddle a lot less than road riders, as the constant need to shift the body weight forces the rider to get out of the saddle frequently. This nature of mountain bike riding makes many saddles seem comfortable. Once you’re forced to sit on the saddle for extended periods of time, you might find out otherwise. A word of caution is not to give up on your saddle too soon; if your saddle doesn’t feel quite right, make sure the position is correct and give it some time.

Grips

Even though grips are sometimes swapped out to simply freshen things up, they serve a much greater purpose than to just add a pop of color to your ride. Grips provide a cushioned comfort to your hands and reduce the likelihood of injury by protecting bar ends. Grips come in a number of materials, textures, and sizes. There’s no right or wrong choice; some riders like the “connected” feel of an ultra-thin foam grip, while others prefer fattier, rubber grips that offer more support and less arm pump. Luckily, grips are affordable, so there’s no shame in experimenting. Ergonomic grips tend to be a bit pricier and can be difficult to get used to, but if you find yourself suffering from hand, wrist, or arm cramping; numbness; or pain, they might be worth trying.

Shoes

Picking out the right shoes might not sound like rocket science, but it can be more difficult than you think. It’s imperative that you pick out the right shoes because failure in doing so could result in foot, leg, or back pain, as well as affect your riding posture and increase your effort level. You’ll need either trail riding shoes or hard sole shoes.

Hard sole shoes are very similar to their road counterparts. They have a rigid sole that delivers all the power to the pedal. These shoes provide a very connected feeling when on the bike, but are challenging to walk in, especially on rocky terrain.

Trail riding shoes tend to be softer-soled and a lot easier to walk in, especially if you have to hike your bike. By gaining some flex in the sole, you’re giving up a nominal amount of the power transfer and possibly increasing foot fatigue. Pedals with a larger platform are a must when riding soft-soled shoes.

It is highly recommended that you try as many shoes as possible. Unlike normal footwear, cycling shoes often come with much finer size increments and other parameters such as toe box sizes and adjustable insoles to tune arch support. If you haven’t done so yet, visit your local shop and have your feet measured with a Bannock device. Armed with this information you’ll be able to make a much more educated decision about the footwear that you’ll be spending hundreds of hours in.

Pedals

As you pedal your bike, you make numerous minute adjustments that ensure that you’re comfortable: you move your hands around on the grips and change the seating position on the saddle by moving your body from the nose to the rear, and everywhere in between. If you’re riding clipped in, the pedals become a somewhat rigid interface, limiting the movement of the foot. A foot locked into a pedal is not allowed to move forward or aft. It is allowed to rotate freely around the axle of the pedal, which roughly aligns with the ball of the foot. The foot’s lateral movement is limited by only a few degrees. This is known as “float.” Pedals from various manufacturers provide a different amount of float.

As your riding distance increases, the stresses on your feet and knees will also increase. If you start noticing soreness in your knees, or numbness in your feet, your pedals might be to blame. Try switching to pedals that provide more float, or even riding flat pedals for a bit, at least to diagnose the issue.

Dropper post

A dropper post is another bike component that can make a world of a difference in both comfort and confidence. A dropper post is just a seatpost whose height can be easily and quickly adjusted by simply pushing a mounted remote. It allows the rider to move the saddle out of the way and get behind it on steeper sections, then to rise it to its original position for climbs or rolling singletrack. Initially only available on trail bikes, dropper posts are starting to get specced on cross-country bikes and are becoming increasingly popular in endurance racing where overall comfort supersedes a small weight penalty.

Bike fit

While the norm in the road cycling community, a bike fit is rarely discussed in the mountain biking circles. The seeming oversight is not undeserved: mountain bikers are in contact with their bikes a lot less than roadies and fit-related issues need to be significant to become pronounced. When it comes to endurance riding on a mountain bike, the level of interaction between the rider and the bike becomes very similar to that of a road cyclist riding on tarmac: the vast majority of the time the rider remains seated, fully engaged at all contact points. This is where the bike fit becomes important.

Improper bike fit not only shaves off previous watts of the power, but also tends to manifest itself in discomfort and even pain. If you’re experiencing pain during or after the ride, especially in your joints or lower back, you should consider getting professionally fit.

Your first endurance ride

Having a bike optimized for the challenges of a long ride goes a long way, but the most critical part of the equation is the engine, which is you. Endurance riding presents a number of physiological and psychological challenges. Pedaling on hours on end stresses the muscles, the endocrine system, and most certainly the mind. If your nutrition is off, your blood sugar might drop and that will not only result in diminished muscular performance, but your mind will slow down as well, significantly increasing the chances of making a mistake and getting injured. You can also become dehydrated, start cramping, or bonk. A carefully dialed hydration and nutrition plan can prevent this from happening.

Hydration

In order to be prepared for your endurance mountain biking ride, the first thing you’re going to want to do is educate yourself on your own personal hydration needs. Hydrating properly begins before your ride and never really ends. You’ll want to start hydrating several hours prior to the ride. Throughout your ride, you should aim to drink every 15-20 minutes. To determine your personal hydration needs, you could calculate your sweat rate, which is outlined below. While water is an obvious choice for hydration, don’t forget to also include electrolytes in your hydration plan. Replenishing your electrolytes is nearly as important as replenishing lost fluids because they regulate nerve and muscle function, prevent cramping, and help the digestive system function effectively. You can ensure your electrolyte replacement by drinking sports drinks or by adding electrolyte powder or tablets to plain water.

Since endurance riding is significantly more taxing on your body, you will find that your body requires replenishment of fluids and electrolytes on a much greater scale than when you were simply riding for a couple of hours. As a result, you will likely need to carry more water than you usually do. For an average endurance ride of five to seven hours, a 3-liter hydration pack is recommended. If you plan on riding for more than seven hours, a hydration pack with a greater capacity would be more appropriate.

Another inexpensive purchase that can possibly save your life is a portable water filter. These devices are very compact and can be used to turn otherwise non-potable water into drinking water. If you ever find yourself out of water and away from civilization, a portable water filter might become a lifesaver.

Sweat Rate

Sweat rate simply refers to the amount of fluids lost during a workout routine. By knowing what your personal sweat rate is, you can better create a hydration plan for yourself. Calculating your sweat rate is simple. Always start out well-hydrated. Weigh yourself before beginning your workout regimen and again after you’ve completed one hour of your workout. When tracking your fluid loss, do not drink fluids during the workout. Once you’ve weighed yourself, you can replenish lost fluids.

An interactive calculator is available via the Ironman website.

Nutrition

Like hydration, figuring out your nutritional needs during an endurance ride is imperative to the outcome of the ride. Even if you’re an experienced mountain biker and ride three hours a day nearly every day of the week, it does not mean that you’re ready to double the time and distance. Assuming that you can just add a little more trail mix to your arsenal of snacks probably isn’t going to cut it; you might find yourself bonking halfway into your ride.

Invest a little time at the grocery store ensuring you select only the foods with ingredients that will continuously fuel your ride, instead of spiking your insulin levels just to crash an hour later. Quality carbohydrates are going to be your best friends, so be sure to enjoy a carb-infused dinner the night before your ride, and solid carbs on the morning of your ride. Starches, such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and quinoa, are excellent carb choices because they are packed full of nutrients your body needs, such as magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, and lots more. Pair your dinner carbs with a lean piece of meat and some greens. Add some nuts and honey to your oatmeal and some eggs cooked to your liking. There are countless simple ways to eat right before an endurance ride!

If eating solid foods while riding doesn’t jive with your digestive system, consider adding liquid nutrition. The market is flooded with numerous supplements, many optimized for endurance training. Like the electrolyte powders, the liquid nutrition powder is simply mixed into plain water, providing an optimal ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and vitamins.

Ultimately, each cyclist has unique hydration and nutritional needs. In order to really fine-tune your plan, you’ll have to experiment with both. When it comes to endurance nutrition, there’s a number of schools of thought and an abundance of scientific research. While there’s no universal plan, there’s plenty of examples that can be used as a starting point for your personal endurance nutrition plan.

Riding Apparel and Protection

Setting out for a long ride means you’re going to be outside, exposed to Mother Nature and all she has to offer, for a lengthy period of time. Whenever you’re planning for an endurance ride, a big part of the prep process is checking the weather forecast. You need to know whether or not you should anticipate rain or other inclement weather. Depending on the expected forecast and your riding experience, you might discover that you should reschedule your ride, or at the very least, be prepared for certain conditions. In addition to your normal riding apparel, you should always bring some kind of sun protection and a riding rain jacket.

Whenever you go out riding, you should take measures to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays. Sunscreen with a 30 SPF is the universally agreed upon minimum SPF, but SPF protection only refers to UVB protection. Because the sun produces UVA and UVB rays, both of which can be cancer-causing, it’s important to seek out sunscreen that is specifically labeled as “broad spectrum” to ensure that you are shielded from both. Waterproof sunscreen is likely the better option, as it is designed to withstand a couple hours of sweating. It’s a good idea to reapply every couple of hours, as it rarely lasts longer than two hours. If you’d prefer to avoid slathering your body in sunscreen, you can also opt for sun protective clothing. Make sure to protect your eyes with sunglasses that offer UV protection.

Emergency Planning

It’s always a good idea to incorporate a bit of emergency planning into your endurance rides. Even the most experienced riders should always do some emergency planning. Although accidents and emergencies don’t occur often, they usually happen when we least expect them. It’s better to have a plan in place when the unexpected occurs so that you can fare better in the end.

If you happen to know someone who is an experienced endurance rider, it could be to your benefit to ask him or her if they would accompany you on your first long ride. Not only will your experienced buddy share the dos and don’ts of endurance riding, but he can make sure you’re properly equipped for your ride before departing. Having a friend to ride with can also work to your benefit should you find yourself injured or unable to continue. While endurance riding can be an undeniably exhilarating experience, it still comes with its risks, just as any other sport does.

You don’t have to know someone who does endurance rides to take planning and safety measure into your own hands. Even if you don’t have someone to ride with, you can still increase your chances of enjoyment and safety by taking a few simple precautions:

  • Inform your emergency contacts of your routes
  • Update your emergency contacts of your progress
  • Rely on social networks
  • Rely on tracking apps such as Strava

Create a list of several close friends or loved ones you know you can count on in case of an unexpected situation or emergency. Keep them as informed as possible regarding your riding plans. This includes giving them all pertinent information, such as trail routes, road names, or other useful geographical information. Also, tell them how long you expect your ride to be and a “no later than” time so that someone knows when they should start worrying about you.

In addition to keeping your contacts informed about your long ride, you should also pack a few extra items that you wouldn’t normally pack, subject to the weather forecast. Be sure to enclose any items that could be damaged by rain in waterproof bags or contains. These items include:

  • Solar blanket
  • Fire starter
  • Bike repair tools
  • Battery bank (to charge your electronics)
  • Offline (or paper) maps if venturing into the backcountry
  • Hard copy of emergency contacts on your person
  • Easily accessible identification, such as RoadID or a dog tag
  • Pepper spray
  • Extra food and water
  • Water filter

Very often, endurance mountain biking takes cyclists to isolated areas that aren’t frequented by others. If you plan ahead and have an offline, or paper, map available to you, it’s unlikely that you will get lost. However, simply being geographically isolated from civilization means that in the event that you get lost or experience an emergency, you might have to hunker down for the night. By having the above essentials, you are planning ahead for that unexpected overnight stay. If you happen to know someone who has done endurance rides, don’t hesitate to ask questions pertaining to gear, equipment, nutrition, etc. That advice might just be what saves you one day!

Knowing when to bail

Venturing far away from home with minimal gear, even if not particularly far from civilization, is always a risky proposition. Even if you don’t travel through especially remote areas, a disaster might strike around challenging terrain, making rescue difficult, if not impossible. Even the most experienced riders get lost and caught in inclimate weather. What separates experienced riders from novices is not just their level of preparedness, but also their ability to make go/no-go decisions and knowing when to scrap the plans and turn around.

As you spend hours preparing for a day long ride, scrutinizing over every detail and playing out scenarios in your head, it’s easy to get overly excited and overlook a looming disaster once you start pedaling. That remote thunderstorm might move in quicker than you expect. That broken spoke might not be a big deal now, but will the wheel hold up for another 80 miles? Making a decision to turn around and head home might seem like failure, but it’s a lot more glamorous than spending the night in the woods, cold and wet, shivering under a tree.

As you gain experience, get better at navigating the terrain, and using your equipment, you will also become a lot more risk-aware. The decision to “live to fight another day” is ultimately yours, and each time you make the call be sure to make adjustments so that you’re prepared to deal with a similar situation on the tail.

Keep yourself protected

Velosurance was created by cyclists for cyclists, it recognizes the need for equal bicycle insurance protection and offers a highly customizable policy designed to provide coverage for almost any risk associated with cycling. The policy covers the bike for theft and damage, and offers optional coverages including gap medical, liability, vehicle contact protection, and even roadside assistance, if you ever get stranded far away from home.

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