How to Conquer the 4 Cycling Disciplines

Most recreational cyclists begin on the road. It's a natural transition from the kind of riding you do as a child or the leisurely rides you might do on bike paths.

As recreational riding turns into more competitive cycling and you begin to dig deeper, you'll realize that there many disciplines of the sport—and each have their own challenges.

While all four cycling disciplines involve riding a bike and pushing pedals in a circular motion, they each have different physical and mental demands with their own set of challenges. Transitioning from one to the other won't be easy, but it will make you a stronger cyclist.

The variety you'll get from racing multiple disciplines will keep your training fresh and different and prevent burnout.

Before you get started in a new discipline, it's important to recognize the demands that lie ahead to make the transition a smooth experience. Here are a few key physical and mental challenges you'll need to conquer to race each discipline and one key workout that will help you get started.

More: 10 Workouts Every Cyclist Should Do


Physical Demands:

  • A high steady state and average power output are required to succeed.
  • Road cycling requires training for maximal efforts to initiate or chase down a breakaway, or to sprint for the finish.

Mental Demands:

  • You'll need to learn how to draft and conserve energy.
  • Tactics, strategy, and patience play an important role in racing.
  • Recognize that the fittest/fastest person does not always win. When a large group comes to the line together, it takes a bit of luck to be in a good position. It's a skill that can be improved. Road cyclists must learn from their mistakes and not judge their performances solely on their finishing results.

Workout: The 5-minute maximal "blow out" effort-Ride easy for 5 to 10 minutes. Complete 2 sets of 20 minutes at Zone 4 threshold with a 10- to 15-min recovery effort in between intervals.

More: How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor to Find Your Threshold


Physical Demands:

  • There's a lower overall average power output in mountain biking, but there's more fluctuation of effort compared to the other disciplines. During a race, you'll have huge spikes in power output to get over tough obstacles or up steep grades. These efforts can be followed by steep descents where zero power is generated. These short bursts usually last 5 to 25 seconds and occur 75 to 100 times in a 2-hour cross-country race.
  • Huge anaerobic capacity is needed to handle the changes in power and to go from 0 to 300 watts multiple times during a race.

Mental Demands:

  • Mountain biking can feel like one long solo effort since it's easy for racers to get out of sight in the woods or on a trail. Mountain bikers must learn to keep pushing and never give up, because huge gaps can be closed quickly if someone makes a wrong turn or has a mechanical issue.
  • Realize that everyone makes mistakes. It's important to learn from it, but don't let it affect your race.
  • Confidence and the ability to commit are imperative. Tough obstacles and adverse conditions are a part of mountain biking. It's necessary to believe and attack the trail to have success.

Workout: Tempo-burst workouts are essential for race-day success. Ride at Zone 3 tempo for 3 to 5 minutes. Complete 10 bursts of 30 seconds at 125 percent of your functional threshold power (FTP). Repeat for 20 minutes then ride easy for 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat.

More: Calculate Your Training Heart Rate Zones