Health & Fitness

Roger Phillips: Take your mountain biking to the next level

Whether you’ve been mountain biking for months, years or decades, your learning curve is bound to flatten at some point. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe you’re confident in your abilities and enjoy the predictability of your favorite trails, but many of us want to get better because there’s a trail, trip or riding group that seems a little beyond our abilities.

Here are five steps to help you achieve the next level.


Before you say “duh,” honestly think about how often you ride, how much time you spend in the saddle and how far you go. Then think about how long your riding season is. Truth is, you may be riding less than you think.

Look at people who train for a half marathon, which is roughly the equivalent of a long, difficult mountain bike ride. Training plans recommend running five days a week for 12 weeks leading up to a half marathon. Are you riding that often? Probably not unless you live next door to a trail, you’re training for a race, or both.

Riding trails takes a time commitment because many of us have to drive to get to a trailhead, so doing it five days a week is unlikely.

But you can augment trail rides with street riding (boring, I know), or commuting to work, if possible.

Keep the road work challenging by riding hills, or ride intervals if you’re stuck on flat ground. Long, casual rides benefit you more than you realize. They’re a staple in a roadie’s training plan because they help build stamina, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re working hard. If pavement bores you to tears, find a gravel or dirt road in a scenic place to crank out the miles.

When you get on the trail, extend your rides. Even if you just add a few miles of easy riding on the end of your normal ride, you’re training your body to go farther and last longer.

Extend your riding season by starting earlier and ending later. All you need is another layer of clothes. Better yet, ride year-round. Studded tires, fat bikes and Southwest Idaho’s mild spring, fall and winter make it possible.


This is different than riding more often. Mountain biking is a different beast than road riding because there are times when you need brute strength as much as aerobic fitness. Think about a steep, technical climb. It’s more like powerlifting than jogging.

It doesn’t take a gym membership or a weight room to increase your strength and improve your mountain biking. Get familiar with some basic body-weight exercises that improve your legs, core and upper body. You probably did them as a kid in P.E. — pushups, squats, burpees, etc.

Crank out a few sets every morning, or as often as is feasible. You will quickly notice a difference. It’s not as fun as riding, but you can do these nearly any time or place.


Part of the reason you hit a plateau is because you’re not challenging yourself mentally or physically, so this is where the fun starts. Find different trails or terrain.

It doesn’t even have to be trails. Go to the pump track or BMX track, such as the ones at the Eagle Bike Park. Get on a lawn or playing field and try to track stand as long as you can. While you’re there, try to ride a wheelie as far as possible. Grass is softer than a dirt trail. Challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to crash once in a while.

Give yourself a new challenge on every ride. Find a technical trail and ride it several times so you’re honing your skills rather than just trying to survive.

Mix things up. If you’re a seated climber, stand on the pedals. Try cornering faster by using better technique and carrying more speed through each corner. Work on perfectly bunny hopping a water bar or rock. Present yourself with a mini challenge on every section of trail. The point is to take yourself out of your usual riding style and focus on improving different aspects. Do something new until you can do it without thinking about it.


This is where group rides come in handy. There’s usually a mix of faster and slower riders. Pick out someone who’s better and try to keep up.

Watch what faster riders are doing and ask yourself whether they’re in better shape, have better technique, or both. If you consistently fall behind on hills, twisty or technical sections, it shows you what skills you need to improve.

Group rides typically aren’t races, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t competition. You know it’s happening, whether subtle or overt, and you know you would rather be in the front of the pack than in the back of it. It’s human nature, so use it to your advantage.

You will push yourself harder when you’re with faster riders because you have no choice if you’re riding at their pace.


You’ve probably heard that piece of advice since grade school, but goal setting is a fundamental step for improvement. It’s practiced by all levels of athletes and crosses over into all aspects of life.

Setting goals doesn’t have to be boring and turn mountain bike rides into numbers on a spread sheet. The key is to make your goals quantifiable. Set a goal to ride a certain number of times per week for the next three months rather than saying, “I’m going to ride more often.” Set a mileage goal to your weekly riding rather than saying, “I’m going to go farther.”


The beauty of mountain biking is most of us got into it to have fun. We had no plans to become world-class athletes or racers. Regardless of our age or experience, we’re not dramatically different than we were the first time we threw a leg over a two wheeler and flew down the street. If you keep riding, you will inevitably get better.

But mountain biking can be physically demanding and challenging, which means sometimes it’s frustrating when others can do something you can’t. If you commit to improving — in other words, if you start taking mountain biking more seriously — you will become a better rider and, equally important, have more fun.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215;

Twitter: @rogeroutdoors