Excelling at Off-road Triathlons

Cyclist off-road riding
July 30, 2021

D3 Staff


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Whether you love nature or just want to challenge yourself with something new,  many triathletes often eventually try their hand at off-road events.  It often comes as a shock, however, that their hard-earned fitness at road triathlons doesn’t always translate to success in off-road events.  This realization is due to the fundamental differences in both the biking and running techniques unique to each type of event as well as the different types of training required to specialize for each event.   

Practice Techniques


bicyclist triathlete in mountains

Very similar to doing drills at swimming, great gains can be made in mountain biking by practicing techniques specific to mountain biking.  Bikers call this “sessioning.”  You pick a technique to practice and you do it over and over again until you feel more comfortable with the skill.  It would be a good idea to either commit time at the beginning of every workout or one full practice session a week to practice these skills.  While this may be different from what you are used to with road riding, you will save MUCH more time in a race if you can master these skills than if you have one extra day of fitness training.  A year's worth of aerobic training will not help you if you ride your brakes the whole way down a steep descent,  can’t rapidly dismount, and remount to carry your bike over an obstacle or crash because you hit a rock instead of lifting your front wheel over it.

Below is a (starting) list of skills to begin working on and why it is important.

  1. Steep Downhill - besides the safety factor, being tentative on the downhills can cost a great deal of time.
  2. Choosing a line - the difference between hitting rocks or soft ground and not.
  3. Tight turning “eyes on exit” - Switchbacks and steep corners
  4. Riding off drops - not flipping over your bars
  5. Front Wheel lift - smoothly riding over rocks, roots or other obstacles
  6. Mounting and dismounting quickly - If you do have to walk your bike this helps.
  7. Steep uphill - this is a combination of anaerobic training and picking a good line. 


triathlete running on beach

While you may not have to dedicate a separate running session per week to trail running techniques, there are a few skills that are worth incorporating into your sessions.  

  1.  Use a short stride (compared to road running) - keeping your feet underneath helps you to maintain your balance 
  2. Keep your eyes on the trail - look 10 to 15 feet ahead of you scanning for obstacles.  Much like mountain bike cornering, your feet go where your eyes look.
  3. Run with your arms out a little wider than normal on technical sections. - Use your arms for balance.
  4. Power Hiking (steep uphill) - Switch to Speed Hiking at around 16 degree grade , the longer the race the sooner to transition 8-10% for 50-100milers.  (this is worth looking up on youtube if you know your course contains steep hills.  The best mountain runners in the world do this technique on steep terrain.)
  5. Shorten stride even more on steep hills keeping your cadence high
  6. Practice running downhills and don’t overstride as this can lead to injury (land on midfoot)

Fitness Training

While overall base fitness is important in both road and off-road triathlons, off-road triathlons tend to differ in that on the bike they often require explosive power with quick/short recovery periods.  A thing that many road triathletes don’t train that often.  In short, there is a much larger premium placed on anaerobic work when you need to get up a very steep climb or put out large efforts to make it over obstacles.  Additionally, steep, varying terrain on the runs can emphasize the same type of anaerobic training.  

Here are a bike and run workout to try to help improve your ability to put out explosive power and then actively recover before the next big push.  

MTB Workout - Key points.  Must be able to build up a tolerance to going anaerobic and then recover while still pushing.  

Workout Details

  1. Warm up
    5 min @ 1-3 RPE ( 50-60% FTP)
  2. Warmup
    10 min @ 5-6 RPE (80-85% FTP)
  3. Repeat 3 times
  4. Hard
    1 min @ 8-10 RPE (100 - 115% FTP)
  5. Easy
    2 min @ 1-3 RPE (50-60% FTP)
  6. Recovery
    3 min @ 1-3 RPE (50-60% FTP)
  7. Ramp up in 4 steps
  8. 5 min @ 7-7 RPE (90% FTP)
  9. 10 sec @ 10-10 RPE (115% FTP)
  10. 5 min @ 8-8 RPE (100% FTP)
  11. 2 min @ 10-10 RPE (115% FTP)
  12. Recovery
    5 min @ 1-3 RPE (50-60% FTP)
  13. Ramp up in 4 steps
  14. 5 min @ 7-7 RPE (90% FTP)
  15. 10 sec @ 10-10 RPE (115% FTP)
  16. 5 min @ 8-8 RPE (100% FTP)
  17. 2 min @ 10-10 RPE (115% FTP)
  18. Cool Down
    5 min @ 1-1 RPE (40-50% FTP)

Trail Run Workout

On a non-technical trail with rolling hills complete the following:  Using RPE for trail runs is usually a good idea because variable terrain can make training using a specific pace difficult.

An RPE of 7-8 should not feel comfortable but you should be able to maintain the pace for the entire rep.  Don’t stop after the rep, just run slowly for the recovery.

Up-Tempo Trail Ladder

  • Warm up for 10-15  minutes 
  • Run 2 minutes at threshold or slightly above (RPE 7-8)
  • 1-minute recovery jog
  • 4 minutes  at threshold or slightly above (RPE 7-8)
  • 2 minutes recovery jog
  • 6 minutes at threshold or slightly above (RPE 7-8)
  • 3 minutes recovery jog
  • 4 minutes at threshold or slightly above (RPE 7-8)
  • 2 minutes recovery jog
  • 2 minutes at threshold or slightly above (RPE 7-8)
  • 15-minute cooldown

Coach Bill Ledden knows that true success in the world of triathlon isn’t simply about crossing the finish line. It’s about the process of setting goals, being determined to reach them, and most importantly, the learning that takes place along the way.

Bill is a both a
USA Triathlon and USA Track and Field Certified Coach.

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