The Difference between Road and Mountain Bike Power Output

The Difference between Road and Mountain Bike Power Output and What Your Training Should Do About it.

Cyclists and the industry as a whole know about the power demands of road racing, but in comparison, we don't know a lot about the power demands of mountain bike racing. In this article, I'll show you the differences in power output in road and mountain bike racing. Going one step further, I'll discuss how you can optimize your training to meet those demands for each discipline.  

Comparison: 2 x 10 minute climbs at similar perceived exertion show two very different power plots.

To illustrate the difference between road and mountain bike power, I collected powertap power data on two different 10-minute tempo climbs. The first climb was on a powertap equipped road bike up a steady 2-4 % grade hill. The second 10-minute effort was on a powertap equipped mountain bike up a 10-minute singletrack climb with a 2 - 4 % grade. I rode both efforts at the same rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and had an average heart rate of 159bpm for both climbs.

In the graph below, I set up a direct comparison between the interval on a road bike and mountain bike. This helps us clearly visualize the difference in the two 10-minute climbs. As you can see, the power fluctuated much more from the mountain bike data compared to the road bike data. Average power for the MTB effort was 220 watts, while on the road it was 246 watts. 

The main difference between the two power files is the dramatic number of efforts above 300 watts for a 220-watt average singletrack climb. On the road, we see that the power is more even, with zero efforts above 300 watts. Whereas the mountain bike power graph is a lot more 'spikey' and less smooth than the road bike power.

Our training tip explaining criss-cross intervals for mountain biking is another great article to read on this topic. Check it out here!

Dissecting Mountain Bike Power Demands

From the power data, we can see that this 10-minute singletrack climb contained 6 sections where it was necessary to produce more than 300 watts. These short bursts lasted 5 to 25 seconds, and I've highlighted in purple below. Short efforts like these occur repeatedly during mountain bike racing, close to a hundred times during a 2-hour cross-country race. I crossed checked a 2-hour mountain bike cross country race file and saw 88 such instances!

Mountain biking’s "bursty" power is primarily a function of terrain. Rocks, roots, ruts, short steep climbs, switchbacks, obstacles and more all contribute to the highly variable power demands of mountain biking. It’s essential to mountain bike racing to be able to produce these efforts in order to clear the technical terrain and maintain your speed up, over, and thru the terrain.

Conversely, you’ll notice that most of these efforts are periods of zero wattage (highlighted in blue). This indicates that the terrain was fairly technical and I had to stop pedaling temporarily to clear a section of trail but then was back on “the gas”.

When I started pedaling again I went from 0 to 300 watts to keep the momentum going. It’s these short burst efforts and the subsequent changes in wattage or cadence that truly distinguishes mountain bike racing from road racing.

Cumulatively, these efforts add up to a big ‘ol physiological demand. Once or twice is nothing, but 88 times will absolutely bring you to stop.

If you reach that "capacity" in a race you’ll have no choice but to slow down. However, if you work on raising your anaerobic capacity in training, you’ll have an extra gear to race faster. Much MUCH faster.

How to Raise your Anaerobic Capacity

In summary, mountain bike power is bursty as illustrated by the tempo climb above. Mountain bike power is even more bursty when racing flat out with your heart rate pegged at 180bpm. Therefore an athlete’s ability to perform zone 6 level efforts over and over during a mountain bike race is critical. Having a huge aerobic engine is important too but having both is a lethal weapon.

At FasCat Coaching, we like to have mountain bike athletes perform Tempo Bursts Intervals. These structured intervals are performed at normal tempo wattage, but every 2-4 minutes, the athlete jumps up out of the saddle for 10-30 seconds at 125% or greater of their threshold power. After the burst, the athlete returns to their tempo pace/wattage until the next burst. Here is an example tempo burst workout:

Tempo Bursts: 3 x 9 minutes ON 9 minutes OFF b/w 224 - 266 watts with 10 seconds > 357 watts @ 3,6, and 9 minutes. As the athlete progresses, tempo can be replaced with Sweet Spot and even FULL GAS Threshold work/wattages.

As the athlete progresses, another example would be:

Sweet Spot Bursts: 4 x 10 minutes ON 10 minutes OFF b/w 245 – 286 watts w 15 seconds > 357 watts @ 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 minutes. The Sweet Spot Burst workout above is more advanced and much harder than the first tempo burst example. The most advanced workout is to perform bursts during a threshold interval. In other words, going harder when you are already going as hard as you can.

Threshold Bursts: 2 x 20 min On 10 min OFF b/w 268 – 310 watts w 15 seconds > 357 watts @ 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes.

As a side note, this is an excellent workout for a time trialists racing over a variable and hilly course like the Tour of Missouri or jumping out of corners and accelerating on a course like the USPRO TT in Greenville this past year. At FasCat, we reserve the Threshold Burst Intervals only for the 2 – 3 weeks pre-A race competition. These bursty intervals force the physiological adaptations required for the constant start/stop pedaling and short bursty anaerobic power that are necessary to ride fast over technical mountain bike terrain.

An Example Anaerobic Capacity Interval workout to work exclusively on your anaerobic capacity is the old tried and true Zone 6 workout.

Here is an example. Zone 6: 2 sets of 4 x 1 min On 1 min OFF, Full Gas > 357 watts; 5 min in between sets.

This workout contains 8 minutes (2 sets of 4 x 1 minute) of anaerobic capacity work. We adjust the total workload duration for the athlete on an individual basis between 5 and 25 minutes with never more than 7 intervals per set. One-minute is a good middle of range anaerobic capacity duration but 30 – 90 seconds may also be used. If you want to take your A game up to an A-plus game this season on the mountain bike, these mountain bike specific intervals are just the ticket.

You can find these workouts featured in our XC Intervals Training Plan too. Like our other plans, this one is designed following the fatigue dependent training plan method so that you feel fresh for your key workouts!

Copyright © 2019 FasCat Coaching - all rights reserved.
Join our *FREE* Athlete Forum to nerd out with FasCat coaches and athletes about your FTP, race data, power based training, or anything related to going fast on the bike!

About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

Hire Coach Frank!