Winter Training: Endurance & Cardio

January 28, 2021

In my first blog I wrote about three areas of reflection and possible improvement for the winter: Endurance, Strength, and Skills. So, let’s hone in on the first one: Endurance.

Pedaling sections on mountain biking trails are a love-hate relationship for many. If you’re an XC rider at heart you likely don’t mind or even relish the pedaling. If you’re more on the enduro and gravity side you may tolerate it, but only because there’s no better way to the top. Regardless, a little focus on your cardiovascular fitness this winter will pay dividends come springtime.


Establishing a Baseline

If you’re willing to make an investment, I can’t recommend a heart rate monitor or power meter strongly enough. These are the keys to gaining fitness in a measured manner. They yield better results faster. Once that nut is cracked, do an FTP Test. There are various formats and protocols out there. I like either a 2×8 minute all-out or a 1×20 minute all-out effort. I vary between those based on the experience level of the athlete. Take 90% of the 8 minute tests, or of 95% of the 20 minute test, and that’s an estimate of FTP power. For heart rate, take the average heart rate for the duration of the effort. I included a table at the end of the blog showing percentages to build training ranges along with example figures.

Once you have a baseline of fitness you can look at workouts with proper intensities. Avoid the mentality of all-out, all the time to start. Take some time to remove higher intensity that may have happened between group riding, racing and Strava glory. Go slow now to go fast later. Ideally spend some time working at a zone 2 pace to help reestablish a good O2 system. This will allow for a deeper fitness base later in the year to add in more intense efforts.



At a certain point you’ll be tight on time due to life or weather, or both. This is when the addition of some intervals helps. I like to do several types of workouts in the winter with athletes. The goals of those are to boost the workload or ATL per session. Essentially getting the best use of time. Those can take shape in the form of Muscular Endurance (big gear efforts at a z3 HR/power in the 50-60 RPM range- we refer to as Muscle Tension), Neuromuscular Power (big gear bursts for 10-20 seconds with lots of rest known as Power Starts) and then some good old Aerobic Tempo (z3 HR/power but in a more normal cadence range of 80+ RPM). Layering in these sorts of workouts allows for a few nice adaptations. First off, the Muscular Endurance work adds a layer of fitness to those lower gear grunts that we all have on longer tech sections of climbs/trails. Neuromuscular Power efforts will help build sprint power to burst over obstacles on the trail. The Aerobic Tempo work is really just high end O2 system development. Using that workout in an interval format boosts your workout density or workload in the same given time. So, more bang for your buck.The time it takes to make gains and adaptations for this sort of work is on the longer end of the training continuum. Generally speaking, I like to give twelve to sixteen weeks to the development of the O2, Aerobic Tempo, Power Starts, and Muscle Tension efforts. I mention this so that you can plan when to start this sort of training after your end of season break so that you’re ready to move into higher intensity riding or training at the correct time. For example, if you’re looking to start some harder riding in May, I would suggest getting on this work in January or February at the latest.


How You Sweat

One huge consideration is the mode for all of this. Some riders are geared up to ride outside year-round, others go with a mix of trainer and outside, and some neither. That’s ok. Incorporating in other modes of training is fine and good for the head. I use rowing, running, and various types of skiing to get riders heart rates where we want them for general conditioning. If you have access to a trainer, hop aboard for one or two sessions on the bike to work on the more specific training mentioned before. Another good tool to make the time go by faster are online apps such as Zwift. It’s a great way to make trainer time go by faster and offers good variety in “terrain” and some racing if you need to scratch that itch. If you don’t have a trainer etc, dress accordingly and get outside for a short but precise ride, if you can.Measurement of all the above is key as well. How else do you know if you’re improving? Using software such as Training Peaks or Strava is a great way to track and measure gains. Both are pretty inexpensive and will give you trackable metrics so you can see if what you’re doing is moving the needle. Both offer different formats of reviewing progress and are valid and meaningful in different ways. For the scope of this article, keying in on workloads and training stresses outweighs new KOM’s. Training Peaks offers great online video resources that you can review to get a better handle on the metrics they use and what they mean for your riding pleasure.

This is a huge area of discussion. We’re just scraping the surface, but you can start to see a theme developing. Assess, measure, and plan. Doing this will yield results in less time this winter and make for a better spring!

About the Author:

Colin Izzard is a full-time strength and conditioning coach with CTS. He works with all levels of athletes that seek improvement and are willing to put in the work. Learn more here.

He lives, works and rides in Brevard NC near the Pisgah National Forest. He can be contacted at if you have thoughts or questions.

More News


What do you do to stay busy in the off season? To stay busy in the offseason I work at Continental Ski and Bike in Duluth, MN! How do you stay active in the winter? Hockey and nordic/downhill skiing keep me active in the winter!What are you looking forward to in...

Adam Buck: What do you do to stay busy in the off season?

What do you do to stay busy in the off season? That's when we handle all our maintenance on machines, and when we do all of our planning for the upcoming season! Lots of dreaded desk time! This year has been unusually warm, so we actually still have crews in the...