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Cross Training

Mountain Biking for Trail Runners

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A longtime runner tackles the trail on two wheels

Photo by Gabriel Amadeus, licensed through the Creative Commons.

At first glance, mountain biking might seem like an illogical sport for a trail runner to take up. When you can get the thrill of singletrack by foot, why spend heaps of money on bikes and parts, put yourself at the mercy of a temperamental machine, risk greater physical injury and go too fast to appreciate the scenery?

I started riding partly because I needed a new challenge, and partly—to be honest—because it looked like my husband, Brian, and his biker friends were having more fun. While mountain biking has not exactly come naturally to me, I quickly became enamored of the adrenaline, technical challenges and camaraderie of the mountain-biking community.

The clearest crossover physical benefit of mountain biking is that it builds muscular strength in important places that are often underdeveloped in runners, including the glutes and core. A solid core improves stability and control on the run, while strong glutes will boost your uphill running ability.

For serious racers, mountain biking is probably best saved for the off-season; those with more flexible training plans can replace a run or two a week with a solid ride. Depending on conditions, you can make a mile-for-mile replacement; if you had a 20-mile run planned, a 20-mile ride on rugged terrain would be comparable. But if you’re riding on a nice, flat trail, two miles in the saddle are worth about one on the road.

Mountain biking improves physical confidence as well. The Seven Sisters race in Massachusetts consists of 3700 feet of treacherous climbing over 12 miles. First time around, competitors flooded past me on the steep descents and I decided it was high time to start running downhill more assertively. I practiced on foot, of course, but what helped most was downhill riding. When I finally grasped the combination of poise, balance and release to gravity needed to ride downhill decently, I could apply the same principles to running and feel far more secure. Similarly, riding through rock gardens requires you to look ahead and keep moving forward—just as when running, but with higher stakes. If you learn to maneuver obstacles on a bike, doing so on foot will feel easy by comparison.

When I’ve traveled to new regions, I’m able to see far more riding the trails than I could by foot. The inaugural Bear Brook Trail Marathon in Allenstown, New Hampshire, took place in the 10,000-acre state park where Brian and I often ride. It was enormously helpful to have ridden the trails enough times to anticipate the challenging sections.

On the last day of a recent mountain-biking trip to Moab, my companions planned a technically challenging 13-mile loop on the Saltwash and Sovereign trails. With raw shins and purple knees, I knew enough by this point to avoid trails that even the expert riders called difficult. “But I bet I could run it at about the same pace!” I said. So we played catch-up: I was faster on technical sections, they passed me on descents. We waited for each other at intersections, and finished within minutes of each other.

Though I’d had a fantastic time riding that week, I couldn’t help but think of how much more natural it felt to run, to move swiftly by foot, close to the earth and my breath. It felt like I had come home.

I suspect that ultimately most of us trail runners will always be runners at heart, drawn more to simplicity than to mechanical systems. But mountain biking is sure to energize, strengthen and shake up your training for the better, while connecting you to another community of athletes who are just as passionate about getting out on the trails. In the end, we’re all looking for the same thing: the delight of pushing our bodies and freeing our minds in beautiful natural areas.


Tips for First-Time Mountain Bikers

Convinced that mountain biking is worth a shot? Here’s how to get started!

  • Find or make patient MTB friends to take you out. Over 750 clubs are listed at the International Mountain Bicycling Association website.
  • Use a high quality, well-fitting bike. Bad shifters, an undersized frame, and other deficiencies make riding unpleasant or even dangerous. Your new riding friends might be able to lend you a bike for a while (they always seem to have spares); expect to spend at least $1200 when you do invest in a bike of your own.
  • Ride above your ability level, but not too much above. This should not be a tra-la-la pedal through the woods, but if you’re falling off at every turn you should probably dial it back a notch or two.
  • You surely know some sweet trail systems, but they may not be great for mountain biking. Look to the local mountain bike club for maps and guidance.

Maura Adams runs and rides out of Concord, New Hampshire, often accompanied by her ever-patient mountain-biker husband and little white dog.

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