Kate Courtney racing at the Nove Mesto UCI XCO race.
© Jan Kasl/Red Bull Content Pool

Get race ready with this pro training plan for XCO mountain bikers

Want to up your speed, stamina and flow to chase down those podium positions? Follow this training plan from pro coach Alan Milway to go from cross-country novice to a proper racer.
Written by Alan Milway
6 min readPublished on
Cross-country (XCO) mountain bike racing requires a great mix of skill and fitness. Where some disciplines focus on the gravity aspects of mountain biking, cross-country races are based on undulating courses that have both steep uphill and downhill sections, and riders are faced with tough challenges working with and against gravity.
A Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup cross-country race is usually around one-and-a-half hours in duration, with racing held at a frenetic pace throughout over multiple laps of an off-road course. It’s tough on the cardiovascular system. Then add technical features such as rollers, drops, rock features, roots and muddy uphill switchbacks, and it’s easy to see why most cross-country athletes like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Lars Forster and Henrique Avancini spend a lot of time honing their riding skills as well as their overall fitness.
Alan Milway is a professional coach and has trained some of the biggest names in the mountain biking world, including Rachel Atherton, Manon Carpenter and Brendan Fairclough. Here he shares his expertise to provide a guide to getting yourself race-ready, with advice on skills development, nutrition and a 5-step training plan that will ensure you’re in peak physical condition come race day.

What skills do you need?

Tempier, Marotte and Sarrou in XCO Word Cup action at Nové Město, Czech Republic.
Tempier, Marotte and Sarrou at Nové Město
Cross-country racers need to have it all: endurance, power and bike handling skills.
Aerobic endurance is the ability to hold and sustain an effort for prolonged periods of time. Alongside this, you need to have a powerful ‘punch’ to get up steep hills and attack the front. These areas can be trained on road.
But an area that mustn’t be forgotten is bike handling skills; the top racers are fantastic at descending at speed and maximise time saving when the terrain gets tricky. Nino Schurter, Kate Courtney and Jolanda Neff are great examples of this.

Nailing nutrition

As with any endurance discipline, nutrition is key. Long training rides require carbohydrates to fuel them, and you should take on one litre of water per hour’s activity and an energy drink if you’re riding for more than two hours.
There are cases where low carb rides can be useful for improving fat burning efficiency, but if you want to train in this way, be clear as to the effort level, duration and post-ride fuelling required. Done right this can very useful, but done wrong can leave you fatigued and possibly ill.
Kate Courtney poses for a portrait in Marin County, California, USA, on January 7, 2020.
Kate Courtney probably doesn’t rely solely on cookies for race nutrition

The cross-country training plan

The programme set out below, which consists of five steps or blocks, ideally runs for around four months, leading into the first ‘prep’ races. If you’re short on time you can reduce the sections proportionately but don’t skip any – especially not the ones you find the most challenging!

Block 1: Build a strong fitness base

  • Duration: Four weeks
  • Key Activity: Long steady rides for aerobic development.
  • Focus: Keep rides fully aerobic, predominantly at an easy pace. These rides breakdown fuel fully and efficiently, and have little accumulation of lactic acid or fatigue.
  • Tips: These rides improve the efficiency with which the body burns fat as a fuel, allowing you to ride further and longer, but also increases the effort you can put in before lactic acid builds. This block builds the all-important foundation for the rest of the training.
  • Action plan: Aim for two or three rides a week, each of which last a minimum of two hours, longer if possible. These rides should feel ‘easy’!
Evie Richards rides her mountain bike in Malvern, United Kingdom on August 14, 2019.
Long steady rides build fitness

Block 2: Increase your climbing power and stamina

  • Duration: Four weeks
  • Key activity: Interval training to increase anaerobic threshold.
  • Focus: Increase the power you can hold during climbs before you go into the ‘red’ zone - the effort at which your legs start to burn with lactic acid, and you want to slow the pace.
  • Tips: These intervals should be at your anaerobic threshold, which is essentially the tipping point between sustainable effort and rapid fatigue due to lactic acid buildup in the muscles. This is not the same as Functional Threshold Power (FTP) which takes a maximum effort over 20 minutes (or one hour) and scales this back to a pace for intervals, and is generally at a higher level and anaerobic threshold.
  • Action plan: Do four to 5-minute intervals at a moderate-to-hard pace with three to five minutes rest between each one. Ideally a fitness test would be carried out in a lab fit to determine the perfect zones, but you can go on ‘feel’ and perceived effort. Aim to complete 4-5 intervals of 5 minutes with each one being at a consistent pace between the first and last — don’t set a pace you can’t continue during the last interval! These sessions are hard but should be ‘manageable’.
Indoor bikes, static bikes, turbo-trainers or Wattbikes are a good option for indoor interval training when used strategically
Interval training can help, but only when used wisely

Block 3: Get ready for race pace

  • Duration: Four weeks
  • Key activity: Sustained fast pace efforts of 10-15 minutes.
  • Focus: Building race-level efforts by repeating high-tempo efforts.
  • Tips: The temptation is to go all-out in the first lap and then be too tired to get anywhere near that time on the next lap, so pacing is key and FTP can be a useful guide.
  • Action plan: Pick an off-road course and aim to do one lap hard before resting and repeating. Rest can be a very easy pace to get your breath back, or an easy pace with a break to sit before coming back to attach the next lap.
Nino Schurter performs at the UCI XCO World Cup in Cairns on April 24th 2016.
One lap on and one lap off is good interval training

Block 4: Develop race-winning sprint power

  • Duration: Two to four weeks
  • Key activity: Explosive efforts to make the break on a climb.
  • Focus: These efforts will take you into the red zone (as mentioned in block two) but with previous training, you will hopefully be able to recover and then repeat. Think about a high-power burst followed by a sustained effort before backing right off, repeated. You can link these in with longer, steadier road or off-road rides.
  • Tips: Quality over quantity is what’s needed here. You want to hit these efforts hard, so four to six of these per session is usually enough to start with.
  • Action plan: Short, high-power efforts with equal rest intervals, for example a 30-second burst followed by a 30-second recovery. These are known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) efforts where power is much higher and recovery much less, so your body gets used to lactic acid build up in your legs. HIIT trains the body to adapt to this.
Mathieu Van der Poel and Nino Schurter perform at UCI XCO World Cup in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic on May 26th, 2019
It's vital to train for uphill bursts

Block 5: Practise your race-craft

  • Duration: Two to four weeks
  • Key activity: Race preparation – race simulation, other events and bike set-up.
  • Focus: Get ready to race by simulating race day.
  • Tips: It’s easy to train hard but then forget the key components of a race such as the warm-up, maximum effort sprint starts with one foot on the floor at start line, and race duration. This is a good time to plan for this by entering an event as a ‘warm-up’ race before a key event, and get used to going hard for 90 minutes or more.
  • Action plan: Find some events that you can practise key race skills in and hone your race-day planning, preparation and execution. After each event, review, work out what worked and what didn’t, refine and try again.