A Training Challenge: Off-Road Tri's and 100-Mile MTB Races

Gale Bernhardt rides the trails near Loveland, Colorado, in preparation for the Leadville 100.

Q. Hey Gale: I know you have some experience at both mountain bike racing as well as triathlons and I hope you can answer my question. Is it possible to train for a 100-mile mountain bike race and go under 12 hours while still training for off-road triathlons?

I really enjoy XTERRA events, but I want to do a 100-mile mountain bike race as my key event this year. My mountain bike buddies think I ought to give up swimming and running to focus on mountain biking—they tell me I can't keep swimming and running and expect to go sub-12 at the mountain bike event.

What do you think? Is it possible to keep swimming and running in my training mix, while building the speed necessary to go under the time cuts at the 100-mile mountain bike race?

A. I've received this question a few times and the short answer is, "Yes, it is definitely possible to include swimming and running in the training mix while aiming for a sub-12 dirty 100."

As you probably expect, the devil lives in your expectations, athletic history and the training details. For most people, it is very difficult to optimize both sports and the respective distances at the same time.

I think it would be best if you focus on the off-road triathlons first (build some speed), and then change your focus to the 100-mile bike race (building the long-distance endurance) for about eight weeks before that event. If you have to do the opposite (focus on the bike race first, then the off-road tri), you will need to maintain a minimum amount of swimming and running during the cycling build-up to the mountain bike event.

For one example, my personal training for the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race for the past five years has included swimming and running. I keep swimming and running in the mix because I love those sports. In gross terms, I include three days of swimming from October to March. Once March hits, I cut back the swimming to two days per week and most of the intensity is removed.

Over the course of a month or so, I'll bleed time off of my swim pace to the tune of around 5 to 7 seconds per 100 yards when it's said and done. Once the pace is done bleeding, I can hold that pace through September on only two swim days per week. (Know that I come from a swim background, swimming competitively since age 10.)

For running, I run one day at 30 minutes and a second day of trail running at 1:30. During most winters I run a third day for 30 to 45 minutes until March, then I cut back to two days of running—the first two I mentioned. The only intensity in running comes from the hills on the long trail run.

About 4 to 6 weeks out from Leadville, the long run is cut to 1 hour with all intensity removed (hike if necessary) and is still on the trails. I find a trail run beyond an hour and any intensity on the run takes too much away from my cycling speed. I'm not sure what happens to my run speed here, in terms of actual pace data, but I do feel the run slow down as the cycling volume and intensity is peaking for the ultra.

In summary, for March through July I'm riding three days per week and sometimes four, swimming two days, running two days and strength training one day at a maintenance level. Though my off-road triathlons have all been after the mountain bike race, I think I could do some off-road triathlons before Leadville, but I suspect I wouldn't be very fast. I included all of this to let you know that other sports are included in my personal training, and I've gone sub-12 at Leadville each year while using this training mix.

In my opinion, if you want to do really well at an XTERRA event that is less than two months before your 100-mile mountain bike race, I think it would be tough to keep speed high enough on the run—unless you are a gifted runner and cyclist.

That written, it is possible to be fast at XTERRA and mountain bike racing. For example, Susan Williams won the 2008 Buffalo Creek XTERRA and went on to win (overall female) the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race seven weeks later. She also did the Wild West Relay (24-hour running event with a team) just one week before Leadville. She, however, is an Olympic bronze medalist in triathlon and a very gifted athlete.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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