XTERRA Couch to Trail – The Importance of Road Biking (gasp!)

XTERRA Couch to Trail – The Importance of Road Biking

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

Hitting the road can actually improve your times on the trails.

Wait, what?

Yes, as much as I hate to admit it, there is indeed some veracity to this statement. I am a mountain biker through and through. Given the choice between skinny and fat tires, fat ones always win out. But I’ve also come to recognize that for an XTERRA athlete looking to improve on the mountain bike, training with a road bike is actually a good place to start. Utilizing a road bike for a portion of training can not only lead to greater gains in mountain bike specific strength and endurance, it will provide variety and recovery from the trail. 

If you don’t own a road bike, you can definitely throw some semi-slicks or slicks on your mountain bike and ride on the road. In fact, some would argue that riding on the road should be done on a mountain bike. But for this article, I will focus on riding a road bike on the road.     

The pros of riding on the road
For starters, it’s easy and accessible. Road bikes are a great choice if you don’t happen to live within riding distance to local trails, or if your training times are limited. If all you have are two free hours, jumping on a road bike for a two- hour ride can beat driving to a trailhead, riding for one hour, and then heading home.The ability to leave the house and hit some sustained hills makes the road bike useful for many, and it also affords the rider the opportunity to see some of the interesting places (Dunkin Donuts, 7-11, etc.) when there is no dirt to ride.

Road biking allows you to focus on good pedaling technique. On the road you can concentrate on a powerful, smooth pedal stroke and steady cadence because you don’t have to worry about roots, rocks, drops and trees. Furthermore, on a trail, cadence is intermittent at times between coasting and maneuvering obstacles, but when needed, a smooth pedal stroke and good form definitely matter. All this focus on the road will translate over to the mountain bike. Sprinting is also easier on the road because your traction is better and again, there are no obstacles to get over allowing you to focus on power and cadence.

The ability to work long, sustained efforts on the road is much easier than on the trail.  This will permit you to place a greater aerobic demand on the muscles and can be used to gain greater overall cardiovascular and muscular endurance which will significantly enhance all your mountain bike training. Usually on the road, there’s no reason to not just keep pedaling, mile after mile after mile (I know, boring, right?!). But cycling on a paved road will provide a more consistent surface to train on compared to most, if not all, off-road terrain. This makes it possible to train with very consistent intensities to target specific training adaptations–think interval or threshold workouts.

For the most part, this controlled environment will allow for more accurate tracking of training data. It’s much easier to measure distance, time, heart-rate, etc. when you’re not having to constantly adjust your riding to trail conditions. If you want to get even more scientific about your training, you can outfit your road bike with a power meter and download all the data to a computer when you get home. Intervals and other workouts can be performed on trails, but it will be more controlled and easier to measure on the road.

As any mountain biker can tell you, riding trails taxes the entire body. Long duration efforts on the road, at any intensity, are easier on the body compared to long duration efforts on a trail, especially on the upper body and core. Upper body and core conditioning for a mountain biker is important, but you must recover from large volumes of trail work in order to improve upper body endurance and strength. Incorporating road training will allow you to give the body rest from the impact of the trail while you continue to build greater overall cardiovascular and muscle endurance.

How often should you ride on the road?
Obviously, a road bike is not a mountain bike. It can help you gain strength and endurance but it cannot train you for the specific demands of an XTERRA race. The faster you can maneuver past rocks and roots (and sometimes logs), and the better you can corner with speed, the faster you will ride a trail. This takes proper body position and timing that can only be trained on the mountain bike. Therefore, too much road biking can cause you to lose the vital skills needed for the trail.

So how often should you ride on the road? This depends what time of year it is (and I don’t mean what season it is). Road biking can play a larger role in your training during the base and early build periods, when specificity is a lower priority. A good general guideline would be to spend two to three days on the road with at least two mountain bike rides per week in the early season. It’s also fun to knock around on a road bike during the off-season, and even join a group and be social for once.  

As you approach your early race season (assuming here you are planning more than one race), reducing your time on the road bike to one or two days a week will allow you to gain more form and train more specifically for the mountain bike. Once you are four to six weeks out from your first big race of the season, spend the majority of time on your mountain bike to dial in your skills. You can still incorporate one or two road rides a week for variety and structured training, except for the final two weeks leading into a peak event. At this point, switch over entirely to your mountain bike. This will allow your body to fully adjust to your bike and the specific skills needed on the trail to do well in the race.  

What are some specific road workouts I can do?
During road workouts, the focus should be on longer duration efforts during your base and early build periods to improve cardiovascular and muscle endurance.  There are many ways to do this, below is one example.


Do this workout one or two days a week. Can be done for short or long workouts.  

Choose sections of uninterrupted road, hills and flats, and shift into a gear ratio that allows you to maintain a cadence in the 65-75 rpm range.  Target HR intensity should be in zones 3-4 and Target power in zone 3

Maintain these efforts for 5-10 minute periods of time, working both standing and seated

Between each effort spin in zone 2 for 10-15 minutes, or longer if needed, with a natural cadence and deep breath. 

In conclusion, training on a road bike is a great tool for an XTERRA athlete. Road biking will allow you to build greater fitness without the abuse of the trail. By mixing in some road rides, you’re able to expand your cardiovascular threshold and push your body in ways that are so much different from what it’s used to on a mountain bike.  Switching things up is good for your training in so many ways – you work different muscles, mix up the cardio routine, and give your mind a mental break from what it’s used to.

Crossing over to a road ride will do your body and riding performance a great deal of good.  And, it will also give you a better appreciation for just how awesome mountain biking is!  But always keep in mind, to be fast on the trail, you must ride the mountain bike. There is no substitute for learning how to power a bike through the wilderness, especially while in a race.  


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.