Benefits of mountain biking / Development of Physiological Characteristics In Downhill – Cross Country and Enduro Mountain Biking

Image by Andy McCandlish

Who doesn’t love riding a bike ? Right from very young age health benefits of mountain biking or cycling are so obvious.  We build ramps and jump off the end, imagining ourselves to be rocket powered. Taking risks – especially rocket-powered ones – is all part of growing up. And despite a learning curve of few bruises and broken arms, the very moment you are off on two wheels on your own, you will smile and stay happy for the rest of the day. For those owning a mountain bike, the fun of riding could mean many things: An adrenaline-charged buzz in your ears as you pull off that miraculous save from a certain death – Satisfaction from extreme physical exertion sending you to a hospital for an observation – Or, serene beauty of a spectacular view from atop of the climbed mountain in the company of your friends. But apart from thrills, risks of serious overtraining, and a fun of having to socialize with other riders, riding a bike has numerous health benefits and can be an excellent cross activity for other sports.

Benefits of mountain biking to the human body

Downhill Vs Cross Country  Vs Enduro

Generally, Mountain Biking falls into three categories: Downhill Mountain Biking (DH), Cross Country Mountain Biking (XC) and Enduro Mountain Biking. Each discipline will produce highly specialized bikes for their own purpose. While all three forms of riding require from competitive riders to look for additional training routines to maximize their riding abilities, DH, XC and Enduro can be an excellent part of cross training itself. Athletes and non-athletes can develop leg muscles, improve cardiovascular health, coordination, muscle strength and endurance, and can lose a few pounds of excess weight. XC riding in a gentler form can also be perfect for those returning from injury as it can be a non-load-bearing exercise. Mountain biking is also an excellent brain fertilizer…well, maybe with an exception for those crazy adrenaline junkies that won’t hesitate to attempt 100-meter drops :) Regular riding combined with beauty and serenity of the environment and increased supply of oxygen to your brain cells will help keep hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in check. It will also boost the production of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. All these mean you’ll feel less stressed, have sharper memory skills, improve concentration levels and hopefully live happier. Let’s take a rough look at the physiological response of our bodies to different forms of mountain biking.

XC / Cross Country



Cross Country is probably the most familiar form of mountain biking to an average man. It involves riding a set of easier trails with varied terrain that can be pedalled up and down. In competition time frames can vary from 30 minutes (beginner cross-country) to over 3 hours (Semi-Pro, Pro, and Expert Cross Country).


In the world of athletic endurance, cycling ranks second only to cross-country skiing in terms of cardiovascular demand. The multiple hours spent in training at high heart rate and high lactic acid concentrations make cross-country highly demanding on your body and need a very refined system. Additional training in the form of cross-country riding can increase your VO2, lactate threshold, and add to faster recovery. All these values are very high in successful cross-country racers. For a recreational rider, it simply means improved cardiovascular health.


Hamstrings, hips, quadriceps, gluteus, calve muscles and so on… The whole lower body will benefit from the development of muscle mass, endurance, and explosive power during short periods of “crank-ups” required to clear an obstacle, overtake a competitor or get over a small hill. But apart from an obvious engagement of lower body, XC riding also requires many upper body muscles during an intensive ride. Biceps, shoulders, forearms, abdominals which serve as pressure regulators during strenuous uphill rides are active during the intensive ride. All these and other upper body muscles are not only involved during stabilizing an isometric contraction, but also work hard during a number of dynamic movements which manoeuvre the mountain bike over and around obstacles or aid the dampening of trail shocks.

DH / Downhill


Image by Dave Trumpore

Downhill, on the other hand, is mainly focused on descending trails as fast as possible, something like downhill skiing, just on a mountain bike. While cross-country rides can last anywhere from 1-6 hours or even more, downhill will last on average 5-10 minutes. A 40-minutes descent would be considered a true luxury. Competition wise, DH is divided into technical demands rather than an event length. Beginners would start on easier course with wide open fire roads and singletrack with obstacles of appropriate difficulty. Professionals are thrown at trails that for most people are difficult to walk, much less race down at full speed. Rock gardens, 2-5 foot drop-offs, multiple steep pitches (45-plus degree) of gnarly rocks and roots…It’s all part of the fun.


If you think or you insist that downhill biking does not work your cardio, you’re either wrong or simply you don’t have skills yet to ride the downhill course. But if you know what you are doing you will engage your cardiovascular system to the point of heavy breathing. Even very fit XC riders will have a hard time breathing on some of the courses. It’s not really the same as going down on a road bike. It’s not a typical cardiovascular exercise which you can carry on for an hour. During 5 minutes or so you’ll have to pull, push, squeeze, and at the same time have skills to balance the bike with finite precision. Think of a proper downhill run more like of a 5 minute, very intense Crossfit training, just much riskier. Not being able to support certain decisions with matching skills can have very unpleasant consequences.


Downhill mountain biking requires tremendous fitness not only in the cardio department but also in muscle dynamic power and endurance. Generally, there are many more muscle groups engaged at the same time than in XC, which require much more explosive power. You will work more on static strength endurance (isometric contraction) and will need to engage more in explosive dynamic power. Gymnastics kind of training would be a great base for this kind of riding. You won’t put as many pedal strokes as in XC riding, but don’t get me wrong…your legs will burn and your grip endurance will be put to the real test.



Image by Dogman Photos

Enduro riding will involve the type of terrain ridden by XC and DH riders. Apart from killer uphill fire roads that will incur a time penalty if not completed within the set period of time, enduro riders will encounter technical trails and crazy downhill sections full of obstacles, drops and jumps.

Cardio / Muscles

As you probably guessed enduro rider will have some of the characteristic of the both: a cross country and a downhill rider. Apart from developing strong muscle strength endurance and cardiovascular ability to sustain long ascents between stages, the rider will need dynamic power isometric strength endurance and a bag full of skills to be able to tackle downhill section.

Which one is better for me?

If your body is injury free and you want to do something akin to interval training while having a fun…taking up downhill can reward you with very fun and satisfying workout. But if you are after marathon runners cardio, or are bothered by some injuries than steep drops of downhill course are probably not for you. XC is probably something that will suit you better. You could also mix a little bit of both in enduro mountain biking. At the end of the day, it’s all down to your personal preference or sport-specific requirements. Have fun.

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