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Why You Should Use Mountain Biking In Your Cross-Training

Abe Maynard on April 15th, 2022

With closing day behind many of us, it’s once again time to lube up the chain, pump the tires, and recalibrate the suspension.   Mountain biking can be a skier’s best friend in the off-season due to the demands it places on the body as well as it’s speed-eye coordination element. But how much mountain biking is too much mountain biking? Should you be sacrificing fun rides for gym hours? I think not.  Through this post I will outline some of mountain biking’s key transferable elements with respect to skiing, as well as a few blind spots you’ll need to keep in mind. My hope is that you better understand how to use mountain biking to your advantage, as a skier, and how to structure your training to become more well-rounded come November.


Why Mountain Biking Rules:


Aside from being in the elements, further enjoying the mountains, and getting away from the crowds, mountain biking has a few incredible benefits to skiers looking to stay in shape. The first and most obvious is that mountain biking, like skiing, is cardiovascularly demanding. When you ride, your muscles need oxygen. As a result your heart rate will elevate to circulate more blood during the ascent. Additionally, Mountain biking will help to condition your lower extremities’ ability to buffer lactic acid as it accumulates during the repetitive nature of the climb. Have you ever been mid-way down a ski run and notice your legs are on fire? That’s lactic acid and it accumulates in muscle tissue as muscles repeatedly contract and relax to perform joint actions.  The more frequent and further you ride this summer, the better prepared you will be to ski without your legs getting tired.  Mechanically this will improve because both skiing and mountain biking rely heavily on your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes to operate the knee joint whether it’s through the arc of a turn or the cadence of a pedal stroke.


As your cardio and lower extremity strength and endurance begin to improve, you will be able to take advantage of another benefit of mountain biking that plays directly into your ski season: speed-eye coordination.  Whether you’re skiing down the mountain or ripping a single track, your eyes and body must operate as a team. The faster you go, the quicker you must process incoming information and react appropriately. Your proprioception will be put to the test as you make micro-adjustments and changes in weight distribution to accommodate the environment coming at you. Plain and simple, mountain biking will keep you sharp.  With improved speed-eye coordination from a summer of technical single track, you will make faster decisions and produce quicker muscular responses the next year.  The same benefit can be achieved running downhill yet this seems to create knee issues for many people.


A Key Consideration:


The main thing to remember about mountain biking versus skiing is that the two sports differ in their primary planes of motion. When you’re on your bike, you are always facing up or down the trail. Your knees are under your shoulders and in most cases, your feet are fixed to the pedals below your hips, and the clips are attached to a fixed crank that connects to the frame.  In short, there’s no major lateral movement of the mechanism beneath you. You go straight down hill, or bank your entire body over the frame to execute intense turns, and adjust the angle of the bike to rebound against incoming objects.  Obviously this doesn't hold true if you're airborne. But for the most part, you and the bike travel in the same direction all the time.  When you ski, the hips roll over, knees angle outward, and feet drive over the surface of the snow. Your hips can be facing the fall line while your chest and upper body move freely and laterally. Additionally you can stack your torso over an entirely lateral angle at the shin. One that you won’t typically find in most mountain biking situations.


All these elements speak closely to the angle and position of the body in space.  There’s another key difference we should cover; The strength demands of the two sports. 


Strength Demands:


When you’re mountain biking, you will use three main systems to propel you up the hill: your cardiovascular conditioning, the power available from your glutes and quads, and the muscular endurance of these two muscle areas.  As you drive down into the pedal, your glute medius and maximus extend your hip while your quad flexes to extend the knee. These happen in reverse on the opposite leg to bring the foot back to the start position. Your cardiovascular conditioning limits the number of times this action can be repeated before fatigue kicks in and demands rest.

Skiing is much more isometric in nature. With the exception of mogul skiing, your turns are largely isometric. This means that the muscular contraction in a ski turn is very minor relative to the large range of motion covered in a mountain bike pedal stroke. For this you will want to make sure to complement your mountain biking with isometric training exercises all summer. You will also want to maintain lateral core strength training exercises that place rotational stress on your core muscles while your legs perform strength movements. This will prevent you from becoming a one-trick pony that is great at pedaling up hill but limited in your athletic ability on the descent when your feet are fixed to separately moving objects (skis).


You must also consider the lateral demands of skiing, the need for ankle and knee stabilization drills, and the necessity of lateral power exercise that benefit skiers but are not entirely necessary to improve mountain biking abilities. Completing programs like Skier Legs Level II or Balance and Stability Level I will complement your mountain biking well as it will fill the gaps not covered by the sport of mountain biking.


In Closing:


Mountain biking is skiing's best friend. With some smart programming and a minimal strength training frequency of 2x per week, you can make mountain biking an equally valuable training modality to complement the work you’re doing in the gym.  Build speed-eye awareness and cardiovascular conditioning while your gym sessions reinforce the balance, stability, and lateral strength required to ski at your highest capability.