XTERRA Couch to Trail – MTB Skills for Beginners

MTB Skills for Beginners

By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ

I’ll admit it, I’m completely devoted to my mountain bike.  You’ll regularly find me tearing through trails like a mad woman, competing in both cross country bike races and XTERRA triathlons.  Why am I in love?  Because mountain biking is pure joy.  I find it nearly impossible to not have fun when I’m out on the trails.

But this love affair didn’t start off so smoothly.  After having taken a break from mountain biking for about 15 years, I decided it was time to get back on the saddle.  I had missed it.  I was invited to join a group of guys one evening–they were going to show me how to navigate the local trails.  I couldn’t wait.  My fitness was excellent and I had been road riding for many years.  How hard could it be to ebb and flow through the forest again?  I would play it safe, I told myself.  As I jumped on my bike, I quickly realized I was in over my head.  A mountain bike is a different beast than a road bike.  I had forgotten simple things, like sometimes the best way past an obstacle is straight through it, that momentum is your friend and that the thing that nails you is the one you don’t see coming. Those two hours were painful, excruciatingly painful, and I saw my life flash before my eyes more than once.  Yet I kept pushing on because I knew without pushing my limits I would never learn how to exceed them. I would be okay.  I would make it out of the trails alive, perhaps a bit beaten up, but alive nonetheless.  I grew a little bit that evening and walked away with a smile on my face.  A tiny part of me kept saying “I’m never doing that again,” but I knew deep down I’d be back.

It was a few days later that my mind and body agreed to venture back into the wilderness.  I vowed to be better prepared the next time I went off with the boys.  So I practiced.  And practiced.  And practiced some more.  And I learned a few very important things that every beginner mountain biker needs to understand.  If you want to do an XTERRA or mountain bike race and improve your biking skills, this list is for you.  Read it, digest it, memorize it, live it.

  1. Pick a Trail That’s Suitable for Beginners

Don’t do what I did and hop on a trail that is above your ability.  Many roadies have been directed to a mountain bike trail that is much too hard for beginners. You’ll have a better experience if you begin on a relatively easy trail and increase difficulty as you improve skills. If this isn’t possible, for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to walk your bike across the hair-raising, death-defying hill sections.

  1. Figure Out Where You Want to Go and Trust the Bike

You have to be looking well ahead of your bike. Decide where you want to go and keep looking ahead on the trail. Don’t look at a section of trail and keep your eye on that section or obstacle until it’s under your front wheel. If you’re looking at what’s under your front wheel, there’s no way you can be ready for the next section of trail. Mountain biking takes tremendous focus.  Look away for just a split second and you might find yourself hugging a tree.

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, trust that your bike can handle the rough treatment. Mountain bikes, unlike road bikes, like it rough. They are built to crash into things.

  1. Don’t Stop Pedaling

Most of the time, power to the pedals and momentum are your friends. It is tempting to stop pedaling right before an obstacle. A little voice inside your head is telling you that the obstacle looks frightening and you need to take a second or even third look at the thing. Assuming you are beginning with a trail that is appropriate for beginners, much of the time just keeping the pedals moving and keeping even power to the wheels will get you around or over the technical section. Steady, even power will also help you climb a loose section of trail.

Remind yourself to pedal, to keep the momentum going.  Next time you’re out on the trail and you lose momentum you will quickly find out what happens.  Prepare to fall over.  Prepare to get muddy.  I guarantee next time you will not stop pedaling.

  1. Sometimes It’s Better (and Necessary) to Aim for the Rock

This probably sounds crazy, especially to a roadie who tries to avoid all obstacles at all costs.  But in mountain biking, sometimes aiming right for the rock and riding over it is your best and safest line. Remember, mountain bikes are made to ride over stuff.

  1. Move Your Body Weight Forward on Steep Climbs

When climbing steep trails or roads with loose sand, rocks and dirt, you will need to move your body weight forward so your rear wheel stays in contact with the ground.  This provides optimal traction. If you move your body weight too far forward, you lose traction, and if you move your body weight too far back, your front wheel can lift off of the ground.  After many hill climbs you will find that sweet spot.

  1. Move Your Body Weight Back on Steep Descents (Get Your Butt Behind Your Seat!)

You have probably seen photos or videos of mountain bike riders screaming down steep roads and trails where their body position is so far back, the seat is completely visible in front of their torso.  You want to mimic them.  This is an essential piece of advice…unless you want to endo and fly off your handlebars.

  1. Don’t Try to Be a Hero

There are going to be some sections of the trail where you are better off walking your bike.

Yes, even the best riders get off their bikes and walk some of the really crazy technical sections. Don’t expect to ride every section of every trail. In fact, sometimes it’s more energy and time efficient to just get off the bike and walk.

  1. Expect to Feel Unstable

On a mountain bike, expect to have a feeling of sliding around on loose dirt, gravel, rocks and tree roots while you’re riding. Unlike road riding, the ground is often loose and moving beneath you. Be prepared for that feeling of sliding out of control.  Accept it, try to relax and remain upright.  Being scared, hesitant and nervous will cause you to stop pedaling and lose momentum, and you know what happens when you do that.

  1. In the Beginning, Plan to Work on Skills and Forget About Aerobic Fitness During Some Rides

What does this mean?  It means you will get off the bike and complete several “do overs” on one or more sections of the trail that you want to master. Did you miss the line you wanted to take?  Hope off the bike and do it again until you get it right.  Your confidence will grow immensely on these types of rides.  When your legs get too tired to give a solid effort on tough sections or you find yourself unable to focus, call it quits for that day.

  1. Ride With Experienced Riders (But on Ability-Appropriate Terrain!)

Riding with people who want to take you to the toughest local trails on your first couple of outings on a mountain bike will most likely end badly and leave you discouraged and maybe even injured.  Find people that will take the time to help you learn new skills on terrain that is appropriate for beginners. Be patient.  It takes time and effort to master even small obstacles.  But having some foundation skills will help you be a better rider in the long run and will undoubtedly lower the likelihood that you’ll get discouraged, injured or worse still, quit.

So get out there!  All you need is a bit of practice, some determination and a kick in the butt to face your fears and push your limits…which happens to be a pretty good analogy for just about anything in life worth accomplishing.  #LIVEMORE


The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance.  Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.