How to Train for a 24hr MTB Race

So, you had that crazy moment and hit the enter button for a 24hr MTB race… There are more and more of these ultra-endurance events popping up each year so why not?

Well don’t panic just yet! In this article we will be looking to give you the basics to taking on a 24hr event. I work with current World, European and National 24hr MTB champions so have a little bit of knowledge on how, to not only survive, but also win these events that I can share with you to make sure you meet and maybe even surpass your expectations.,

Conrhenny before 'Doris'

As with any endurance event, the important thing to do is set your goal within your event: are you looking to stand on the podium or are you wanting to complete the event without sleeping or maybe ride non-stop for the whole 24hrs? Once you have this goal, you can look at your approach to the event.


Whichever of the above you have chosen, my next piece of advice is critical to help with your success of finishing. Support/pit crew!! These are the people that stay up all night to make sure you stay on your bike pedalling to the finish. Having been in pit crews and watched many races, the role these people play is not to be underestimated.


Most 24-hour events will run a lap system which sends you through a pit lane each lap. Your pit crew will have everything in place so when you roll through and mumble your tired requests, they will sort it and get you back out riding.

Pit Lane

24-hour racing can bring out the oddest techniques… Cream being applied to areas I will not mention with various different techniques, strange food requests and people sleeping in the oddest of places.


Ideally you need someone who can keep your bike ticking over and someone who can keep food, drink and motivation going.


So get these guys on board ASAP as your pit crew can make your race!


Event entered and pit crew signed up so what’s next? Oh I guess we better do some training.


Again, similar to many endurance sports, we can’t just go and ride 24hrs over and over to teach our body how to cope as it will break and not improve us. Therefore, we have to look at ways to replicate the fatigue that we will experience and teach our body to deal with it. Our bodies are super clever and if we teach them correctly, it’s amazing what we can get them to do.


Now as a coach, I believe we must treat every athlete as an individual and that we cannot get the best from people if we just apply the same approach to everyone. This said, the details I will give here are a general approach which have worked for many ultra-endurance riders – please feel free to contact me for a personalised approach to your training.


Firstly, you will want to have given yourself a good length of time to train pre-event: if you are completely new to endurance sports with no history, a 12-month approach with a couple of 12-hour races may be a good way to go. If, however, you have some history in endurance then a 6-month block would work.


The biggest training psychological barrier is ‘what pace can I ride at and for how long?’ Well the only true way to know this is to have done it. Sorry, not much help but at least you will know for your next one.


As I mentioned earlier, our bodies are super smart and learn patterns and routines pretty quickly. By ‘quickly’, I don’t mean 1 week, we can be talking 6-8 weeks to get physiological adaptation to specific training. Our brain is the first thing to adapt and tells our bodies to just deal with the new training as we are, but over time the brain says ‘hang on we need to make some changes physically’ and so our bodies start to adapt. We therefore begin to be able to ride at a lower heart rate but a faster speed as our leg muscle will adapt to climbs better. Of course, the key here is that you train to a specific pattern and are consistent in what you are doing.


If you are a world champion at 24-hour racing, trying to complete your first, or you’ve got the bug of 24-hours racing, you will find you need to be using similar heart rate zones on a five zone chart. These zones can be found online on various websites and the effort increases as we increase from zone 1 up to zone 5. We are talking zones 2-3 for training as we cannot survive in zone 4-5 as this is just below maximal effort and for 24 hours you will be sure to go pop! What we can make our zone 2-3 fast and efficient by training it consistently.

Current Manx Champion - Stephen Kelly

We need to work our higher zones but this is not our primary training area and will be added to training further down the line. For now, we are looking at what we need to get round for 24 hours.


Now we have our targeted area of intensity at zone 2-3 but most of our work in the early days will be in zone 2. Being aware of how boring this can be for some people, we need to make sure we are doing it right.


Teaching your body control in zone 2, when we reach a hill on our ride that heart rate is rising just at the thought, slow down your approach take control of the bike, ride the bike with your chain tight and just relax into the climb and try not to increase effort too high, the more you practise this technique the quicker for less effort you will get, hills are a great way to train this discipline as they put us into an extreme position, once up the hill, focus on keeping that Zone 2 effort riding downhill and then on the flats.


While we are working on this low end intensity we put in what I call over geared climbs! Riders I have coached for many years be it road or MTB have a love hate relationship with these, firstly let me explain the session and then how we apply it.  You have a 2hr over geared climb ride, what this means is that your riding along nice and easy at Zone 2 effort then you find a hill, slow the bike down and put the bike into a gear you can only just turn and start to grind your way up that hill using upper body muscle as well as legs and glutes. If the bike is accelerating, you will need to slow down and try and put into a harder gear still. This session is what I call the Gym on a bike, an all over muscular work out. Not only are you getting a real strength work out but the fatigue effect on the muscles is as if you have ridden at least 2hrs longer than you actually have.


This approach of an over geared ride is normally followed up the next day with an easy zone 2 ride (2-5hrs depending on stage of training) what this does is help muscular recovery by getting the blood pumping back into the muscles and it then builds extra endurance on top of your previous days over geared ride.

Night Riding - stay focused

Being in the saddle for potentially 24hrs non-stop means we need to have some solid core strength to prevent our back giving out, so along-side a good bike fit we need to get working on those sit up and plank exercises, I am a great believer in the gains of doing 5-10 mins core straight after our ride session. Why? Well while we are riding our core is already having to work, so we are in a sense doing a super set and so by hitting the floor we are getting more gains than by doing an isolated core session. The other bonus is you are already in the mind frame to train and even hot and sweaty, so just get on and do it.


Remember that when we mountain bike we are stabilizing ourselves a lot more than if we were on a road bike and so the core sessions will also help you handle your bike better.

Core strength is important

While we are on the subject of core/strength a great tip, make it specific, go measure your handle bar length and then use this measurement as your push up width, or get a spare set of handle bars and put them over a Swiss ball and try your push ups. Now go measure the the width between your pedals and use this to do squats, not many people have pedals at two shoulder widths like many people squat……. Make it specific if you’re going to do it.


We now have some ideas to work on for training, along-side this we to get our nutrition dialled in, this is the major cause of failure in endurance events, no fuel no go!  You need to practise nutrition plans along-side your training again making it specific in some of your longer sessions 6hrs plus or maybe even use a 12hr event to look at what your body works best on, this can be anything from soup to sports gels, the key is it gives you the energy required to last the 24hrs and that it does not cause and upset stomach which can bring an early end to your event. Be prepared that overnight your choice of foods may be different, with this in mind it would be worth trying to ride at least once late at night and try your nutrition products.


On race day remember prevention is better than cure, keep topped up, have a plan each time you come through the pits to take on fuel and take more for out on the course, do not leave it too late or it becomes very hard to get your energy levels back up.


Go and have a great 24hr experience.

by Jon Fearne

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