Ask the Expert: How Do Strength and Flexibility Needs Differ for Mountain Bikers?

We asked the coach and founder at the MTB Strength Factory for his advice

What with its short days and soggy weather, the winter is a great time to focus on training to complement your mountain biking. Building strength and flexibility will help get you ready for next season’s riding, whether that’s for racing or for a holiday with your bike.

Emma Cooke spoke to Ben Plenge, founder of Bristol’s MTB Strength Factory, to find out how strength and flexibility work can really help improve your riding. Around half of Ben’s clients (coached in Bristol and online) are female, so we also wanted to find out what the key differences are between men’s and women’s training needs. 

Stronger, fitter, faster: MTB Strength Factory’s strap line will certainly appeal to those riders who want to better their own performance, but what exactly does this Bristol-based coaching company offer? Its founder, Ben Plenge, explains: “I offer strength and conditioning to mountain bikers, so they can have more fun and ride faster, through feeling fitter, stronger and gaining the confidence that comes with that.

“I work with anyone who rides a mountain bike, from World Cup racers and national level elite riders to those who do the occasional, fun race. I also work with people who don’t race at all, but who just want to get better on their bikes – for a big adventure maybe or their first trip to the Alps, or just to keep up with their buddies on the trails.”

Ben’s very strict about the fact he only trains mountain bikers, not people just looking to get fitter, and not even riders of other disciplines. Training a mountain biker is different from many other sports: “There’s a lot to think about when training a mountain biker and a lot of it’s about getting the balance between time on the bike and time in the gym.

“You’ve got to be careful that cross country riders don’t put on lots of weight. And for downhillers, the danger element puts it into action sports territory. This means the training, in many ways, is similar to how you might train a snowboarder or someone like that. You’re looking to make them injury-proof, so they bounce and roll better! I tend to include building robustness into my programmes, to help my riders cope with falls.”

Flexibility and mobility work is really important, especially for those riders who spend most days sitting behind their desks

It’s not just strength that mountain bikers need though. As Ben explains, flexibility is also key:Flexibility and mobility work is really important, especially for those riders who spend most days sitting behind their desks, driving their cars, then go home and sit on their sofas, using their iPads.

“Staying flexible and mobile has the side effect of making you less prone to injuries, both from riding lots and from falling off. You’ll see all the top-level riders looking after themselves properly – doing yoga, doing mobility routines, stretching. And I’d absolutely recommend doing that alongside the strength stuff. It’s got to complement it – one shouldn’t go without the other.

“If you’re really flexible and you can get your body in crazy places, but you’re very weak in those positions, then actually you’re vulnerable and prone to injury. Similarly, you might be really strong, but stiff as a board – when you fall off and you get in an awkward position, again you’re very vulnerable. The person who has both – who is strong and flexible – should be able to perform at a higher level because they’ve got no restrictions. If they do run out of talent and fall off, they’ll be less prone to injury. And if they do get injured, the stronger, more flexible rider tends to heal more quickly, meaning less time off the bike.”

Most people who come to see me are really imbalanced, which they don’t know about until I test them.

There’s no one exercise that Ben would recommend all mountain bikers do. Instead, he points out the importance of single-leg work: “Most people who come to see me are really imbalanced; they’ve got one really strong leg and one really weak leg, which they don’t know about until I test them.

“So, it’s basically all about creating symmetry and control, because when you’re mountain biking, especially when you’re pedalling, it’s a series of single leg movements. Things like step-ups, lunges, single leg squats and split squats are all really great for balancing the strength in your legs.”

By being fitter and stronger, you feel better, you hold yourself differently and this gives you confidence on the bike.

Ben’s noticed that his strength training programmes are really popular with female riders: “Currently, exactly half the people I train in the gym are women. As well as training people face-to-face, I sell an online bodyweight training programme people can do at home, and a third to a half of all the programmes I sell are bought by women.

“The female riders I work with have a mix of motivations, but many of them want to be stronger, particularly in the upper body. They recognise that this can really help them ride their bikes faster. Women don’t tend to be as strong in the upper body naturally, but if they work on it, they can be really strong – it’s as simple as that. I think they appreciate that the whole body needs to be strong to ride the best they can.

“Some women I work with lack confidence on the bike. You can increase confidence through skills coaching, through just riding your bike and by being fitter and stronger. By being fitter and stronger, you feel better, you hold yourself differently and this gives you confidence on the bike.”

Ben doesn’t adapt his training programmes or the exercises he sets based on gender. Instead, he treats each rider individually: “Everyone who comes to see me goes through a strength and flexibility assessment, which determines what work we do.

“I do notice gendered trends though: a lot of the women who come to see me can’t do a full press up when they start and maybe they can’t do a pull up either, so often those are some of the bodyweight strength goals they aim for. Most men I work with, on the other hand, can do at least a couple of press ups when they come to see me and maybe a couple of pull ups. We’re starting from a different point, but that doesn’t mean the overall goals or approach to training is any different.”

Women are starting to think, ‘Hey I want to go riding, not because my brother rides or my boyfriend rides, but because I want to go riding for me.’

Through working with a lot of female riders, Ben’s noticed the growing participation of women in mountain biking, and it’s something he’s keen to see more of: “Most of the mountain biking women I’ve met have come to the sport through their boyfriends or their brothers, although I know that’s not true of everybody. I think though that with the increased profile of the top female riders, more edits from women and female bike clubs, women are starting to think, ‘Hey I want to go riding, not because my brother rides or my boyfriend rides, but because I want to go riding for me.’

“It’s great to see so many women racing now and it’s really fun and rewarding supporting those racers as well. They’ve got the same goals as the men: they just want to win stuff!”

Mountain biking is about more than just racing though, and this is something that Ben recognises too: “My approach to training is about helping people reach their potential, whatever their goals are. By helping someone get fitter and stronger, I’m helping them to get closer to reaching that potential.

“For some people, it’s not about being the fastest person down the jump line. By building fitness and strength, they’re increasing their body’s ability to tolerate long, physical days on the trails. And that’s what it’s all about: getting maximum enjoyment and fun out of riding. That’s at the heart of what we do.”

If you’re interested in working with Ben to reach your potential, check out his website here.

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