Last Updated on March 10, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
If you forced me to identify myself as an athlete, I’d tell you I’m a trail and ultrarunner. It’s the sport that sets my soul on fire, the community where I feel most at home. But I won’t lie, over the last few years I’ve grown from hating, to tolerating, to falling in love with riding my mountain bike as well (much to my husbands pleasure, he nagged for YEARS).
Infatuation with my fat tire bike aside (lovingly named Fatty McRanchpants, incase you were wondering), there are number of benefits of mountain biking for trail and ultra runners. So when a client asks me if they should incorporate mountain biking into their ultramarathon training cycle, I almost always say yes.
And here’s why.
Mountain Biking for Trail and Ultra Runners: 10 Reasons to Hop in the Saddle
1. Spend MORE time in Nature
Ask any trail or ultra runner one of their favorite things about the sport, or why they chose trails and ultra distances over more traditional road racing, and they’ll all give you the same answer: nature.
In addition to simply enjoying the serenity, and for some, spirituality, that comes with being in nature, it’s actually physically and mentally GOOD for you. Spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to:
- Decrease cortisol (Song, Ikei,Miyazaki, 2016)
- Ease the effects of depression (Berman, Kross, Jonides, 2012)
- Ward of negativity (Bratmen, et al, 2015)
- Improve creativity (Atchley, Strayer, Atchley, 2012)
And so much more. Mountain biking will give you a whole new way to explore and enjoy the trails, and experiencing the beauty of mother nature, and reaping all the benefits that comes with spending time in fresh air.
Read more: 5 Proven Ways Trail Running Makes You Happy
2. Make more like-minded friends.
Forget high tech, brand new, flashy attire that looks like it stepped right out of a catalog. Mountain bikers, just like ultrarunners, look like they’ve been wearing the same gear their Uncle wore climbing peaks back in the early 70’s. Ask them where that cool vintage hat came from, and they’re more likely to answer “The Goodwill” vs. “REI”.
I’m only sort of kidding.
Beer at the finish line? It’s there. Or even sometimes, mid ride.
Throwing your Strava time to the wind in order to take in the epic and gnarly views in lieu of the “fastest” route? Always.
Duct tape holding random pieces of gear and body parts together? Probably.
OK I’m making sweeping generalizations. But I’ve found that the mountain biking community is eerily similar to the trail running community, in that so many of us are out here for experiences over PR’s. And it’s always fun to make new friends who appreciate your affinity for being covered in dirt and doing things that sent your endorphins soaring.
3. Mountain Biking is the Perfect form of Cross Training
Most athletes are aware of the importance of cross training as a means of continuing to build fitness, while giving your body a change of pace from the specificity of your target sport, in order to help prevent overuse injuries or burnout. But when deciding what type of cross training to tackle, you need to consider how specific that movement is to running. Further, you need to consider the reason for cross training.
Enter: Mountain biking.
Mountain biking will challenge, and help build, cardiovascular endurance, similar to the effects you are looking for when going for a training run. Further, the movement patterns and muscle groups utilized are very similar to that of running.
However, assuming you don’t fall off your bike (and that’s me assuming from the point of someone who is still pretty clumsy on her bike), mountain biking is considered a low impact sport. Therefore, one of the best benefits of mountain biking for trail and ultra runners is that it can help strengthen your lungs, heart, and trail running muscles while giving your body a break from the high impact stress of running.
Now please keep in mind, specificity is everything: you cannot completely substitute cycling for running workouts. However, occasionally incorporating mountain bike workouts in lieu of running can help minimize the risks of overtraining by putting less stress on your body, while still helping you maintain or build fitness.
(Again, assuming you stay upright.)
4. You’ll realize we aren’t the only sport where people question their life choices.
Mile 90 of a 100 miler and sitting on my bike at the top of a 35 – 40 degree drop both make me wonder what the hell is wrong with me, and why I couldn’t have “normal” hobbies like scrapbooking or golf.
It’s nice to know we aren’t the only ones who question our life choices.
5. Challenge muscle groups in a different way
Trail running is a full body workout. You are using your legs to propel you forward, and your core and upper body to help you stay upright. The constantly varying terrain of trails ensures that you are challenging all of your major muscle groups.
Mountain biking is ALSO a full body workout – but in a different way. Your upper body and core are essential in helping you balance on the bike. Your biceps, triceps, chest, back, and forearms are all used for stabilization, particularly when climbing and descending. And let’s not forget braking, shifting, and gripping.
Further, your lower body mechanics, while still moving in a similar plane are slightly different. After YEARS as a trail and ultra runner, I thought I was strong. Then I tried climbing hills on my mountain bike, only to be met with screaming quadriceps.
So while yes, you’re using the same muscle groups, you may find you use them more, less, or simply in a different manner than you do trail and ultra running. This can help strengthen weaknesses, and even potentially decrease muscular imbalances.
6. You get to use a different button on your Garmin
Let’s be honest, you spent a fortune on that GPS watch. You might as well use it to it’s fullest capabilities.
7. Increase your balance and proprioception
Those of you who know me, know that proprioception is one of my favorite topics in trail running. Proprioception is your perception or awareness of the position and movement of your body in space at any given time. It’s how your brain and body decide where to place your foot during each step of a run on a technical trail. It’s how your brain and body (hopefully) help you catch yourself in order to avoid falling when you trip over a tree root you didn’t see because you were too busy stuffing your face with aid station food.
(I speak from experience.)
In short: the better your proprioception and balance, the more successful you’ll be as a trail runner.
Because of the constantly changing terrain and grade of the trails you ride on, mountain biking can improve coordination and proprioception, as well as challenge and improve decision-making skills.
8. Learn to be miserable in a totally new way!
You know what hurts almost as much as your legs do at mile 90 of a 100 mile ultramarathon? 40 miles on the WRONG saddle.
For the record: I will take leg pain over undercarriage pain any day of the week.
Or peddling endless miles through a trail littered with loose sugar sand, pulling your front tire in which ever direction it damn well pleases, while your back wheel also does whatever the hell it wants.
Or, learning that this particular pair of bike shorts wants to ride up between your thighs, on a day when you are riding a super wet, sandy road, and now your thighs are rubbing the bike seat covered in sand, mimicking sandpaper.
Please refer to point 4: questioning life choices. Also: I hate sand.
9. Mountain Biking is a great form of active recovery
Rest days are important, there is absolutely no doubt about it. But sometimes, I will program my clients an “active recovery” day. This is a chance to move their bodies in a gentle way, to promote blood flow to the muscles and stimulate healing to damaged tissue.
Taking a short spin on a mountain bike, assuming you put forth easier effort (low rate of perceived exertion) is a perfect way to accomplish active recovery, without having to go for another boring stroll around your neighborhood or on the treadmill.
10. You’ll learn to appreciate and better understand other trail lovers/frequent trail users.
…thus putting an end to the “who owns this trail” battle that I see all too often (reminiscent of the whole skier/snowboarder business of the past. You know what I’m talking about).
Understanding is the key to acceptance, after all. And, when you, as a runner, can also view the trail from the point of view of a mountain biker, you’ll be more cognizant of how to best share the trail.
The same goes for mountain bikers – put on some trail shoes and go for a run!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.