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Cross-country (XC) mountain bike racing is a challenging discipline that requires strength, skill, and a lot of preparation to succeed. This article aims to help riders new to the discipline of XC racing with strategies and tips that can be implemented before and during the race.

XC Race Tip #1 – Don’t Train Too Hard!

If your mental image of training for an XC race looks like a Rocky montage full of lung-busting intervals and puking on the side of the trail, you’re only partially right (more on this in tip #2). Many athletes come to us tired and burnt out from following pre-built training plans they found online that consist of constant high-intensity intervals and too little rest. While there are no hard rules when it comes to training, a good guideline for the self-coached athlete should be only to train hard 2-3 days per week. Don’t underestimate the value of a solid Zone 2 training ride for long-term progression.

XC Race Tip #2 – Train Extensively, Then Intensively

Most XC races will range from 30 to 45 minutes in the beginner class and up to 120 minutes in the expert class. To ride hard from start to finish, you’ll need a strong engine capable of staying on the gas throughout the race. The key to building fitness that can take you to the finish line feeling strong is to focus on extending your interval duration first, then increasing the intensity as you move closer to your goal events. 

An example of extensive training would be starting with a baseline interval set focused on sub-threshold intensities and gradually increasing the total time spent at the goal intensity. 

Baseline Session: (2) x 10’ @ 90-95% Threshold Heart Rate (THR) 

  • Progression #1: (2) x 12’ @ 90-95% THR (24 minutes)
  • Progression #2: (3) x 10’ @ 90-95% THR (30 minutes)
  • Progression #3: (2) x 15’ @ 90-95% THR (30 minutes, less rest)
  • Progression #4: (3) x 12’ @ 90-95% THR (36 minutes)

XC Race Tip #3 – Always Pre-Ride The Course

If throwing yourself into a technical section of trail at full speed that you’ve never ridden before is part of the fun for you, skip this part. If you want to give yourself the best chance of riding a fast and clean race, then showing up early so you can pre-ride the course is an absolute must. Scouting a course takes extra planning and energy, so it’s important to have a plan. 

  1. Check the race schedule in the weeks leading up to the event to find dedicated pre-ride times listed on the schedule. If you cannot pre-ride the course at one of the dedicated times, always check with the race director before jumping on the course. 
  2. If your pre-ride period is close to your race start time, pay extra attention to total ride time and nutrition. 
  3. During your pre-ride, focus on scouting lines through technical sections and fine-tune suspension and tire pressure.

XC Race Tip #4 – Hydration and Nutrition are Still Important at Short Events!

You can significantly deplete your body’s fuel stores within 60-120 minutes of high-intensity exercise. With a solid warm-up, even beginner XC racers will push into 60+ minutes of total ride time, and expert racers will hit 120+ minutes. Having a fueling strategy in place is essential to keeping energy high so you can ride strong all the way to the finish line. Here’s a basic nutrition strategy to use as a starting point. We recommend practicing in training and making adjustments until you find what works best for you.


If your pre-ride period is significantly earlier than your race start time, plan to have a high-carb snack or sip a sports drink during and after. 


The typical warm-up is 15-30 minutes. To help keep your fuel stores topped off, plan on taking in a gel or sipping on a sports drink with around 20-30 grams of carbohydrates during the warm-up. 

Beginner Race (30-45 minutes)

Stick to plain water. If your nutrition strategy at the start of your race was solid, then you’ll have more than enough fuel stored in your body to race hard for this duration. Some athletes may find a light sports drink with 20-30 grams of carbohydrates beneficial at this distance. Practice in training to see what works best!

Intermediate Race (45-90 minutes)

At this duration, consider using a sports drink or gels. 1-2 gels or a sports drink with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates should be plenty. If your race is at the upper end of that range, aim closer to 50-60 grams of carbohydrates. 

Expert Race (90-120 minutes)

Fueling becomes very important at these durations. 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour should be your baseline goal, with a maximum of 60 grams per hour. Testing out your race fueling strategy in training is important, especially if you want to test the upper limits of how much fuel you can utilize during the race. 

XC Race Tip #5 – Ride Your Own Race

You have zero control over what your competition is doing, so stay focused on yourself and the steps you need to take to ride your best race. 

❌ Don’t ride beyond your limit to maintain the speed of another racer. As you build your racing skills, you can ignore this advice, but starting out, staying within your limits is important for avoiding mistakes. 

❌ Don’t worry about who is in front or behind you. If you can pedal harder while maintaining control, then pedal harder, and everything will fall into place where it should. 

❌ Don’t forget to have fun. XC racing can be hard, and you will encounter moments in every race that are challenging and uncomfortable. Force a smile and remember you’re doing this because you love the challenge. 

✅ Stay focused on the trail ahead of you. When you lose focus on the trail, a scary tree will jump out at you, or a sharp rock will magically appear to slice your tire. Stay focused and avoid scary trees and magic rocks fora your best race. 

✅ Start with a pacing strategy for the course and stick to it. Know the course’s hardest parts and save energy during easier sections so you can tackle them with max intensity.

✅ Be positive and give encouragement to the other racers. Be thankful for the riders that push your limits. This is your community of like-minded individuals that love going fast in the woods, and a little positive encouragement will spread like wildfire. 

Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and holds a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.

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