I constantly get comments and questions about why I would want to ride a bike only downhill and go back up in a gondola. “Isn’t pedaling a big part of mountain biking? Isn’t it weak, easy and boring to just descend?” Those wouldn’t get asked for alpine skiing. But for mountain biking, it’s not that obvious, so it’s fair to ask if Downhill MTB is good exercise?
Downhill mountain biking is generally a good form of exercise as it’s very taxing on the body similar to a high-intensity interval workout. However, the body position and load are very one-sided which can lead to muscle imbalances and posture issues. Thus cross-training is definitely recommended in addition to the actual riding.
In this article, we will delve deeper into the health benefits, fitness requirements, and training effects of downhill mountain biking. From calorie-burning potential to targeted muscle training, there is much to discover about this fun and exciting sport. So, let’s get started!
DH is challenging
What most people don’t realize is that downhill is more than just rolling down a gravel road. It’s maneuvering very technical terrain at high speeds with major consequences. So muscle tension, heart rate, and mental concentration all have to be very high! This combination is unusual compared to other sports.
In fact, most bike park riders don’t last a full day of riding. Much less multiple days of downhill riding in a row. That’s because it’s physically and mentally taxing, and hard on your body. If you’ve ever been to a bike park, you’ll know that during afternoons you almost got the trails to yourself.
On the Suspension Traveler Youtube channel, I upload videos of myself riding a full trail top to bottom in one take – nonstop. Which is unusual. But a better viewer experience and more enjoyable when riding since you can stay in the flow state longer.
In the video above, the entire run from the peak back to the valley took me about 15 minutes. Which is pretty short for a bike ride, but an eternity for a downhill trail. Many riders take the opportunity for a rest at the 0:47 mark, not even a minute into the run. It easily takes half an hour with short pauses.
That alternating between effort and rest is an important aspect we need to keep in mind going forward.
Is It Good Exercise Tho?
While it is a sport, not an exercise routine like road cycling can be, downhill mountain biking can provide a challenging workout as it works multiple muscle groups and can help to improve cardiovascular health, explosive muscle strength, and coordination. With all those mandatory brakes in between, it’s very similar to a HIIT workout routine.
DH is a full-body sport that requires muscle tension from head to toe. It needs the biggest muscles – the thighs, quads and hamstrings – and smaller ones like shoulders, arms and hands to work together. And all those muscles require oxygen to put out the power needed. So your cardio gets a workout too. And you’ll notice that by high heart rates.
Riding fitness or race fitness is definitely a thing. It describes conditioning optimized for bike riding. Including more endurance and less fatigue to last longer on a day of riding. Especially grip strength and stabilizing muscles are really only trained the way you need them by time in the saddle. But there’s also a glass ceiling limiting the level of fitness you reach by only riding DH.
What muscles does DH MTB train?
Quads, thighs, calves, pecs, front shoulders, triceps, lower arms, core and neck are the key muscle groups engaged when riding downhill MTB. Muscles require endurance and explosive strength going over big obstacles. Most are not used in their full range of motion but remain under tension the entire time riding.
As most of the weight and impacts are handled by the muscles in the front side of the body, other muscle groups like the upper back, biceps or rear deltoids (shoulders) are not activated much. Even the glutes (butt) don’t get a good workout, which is unusual for biking. All those are simply not required as much while riding.
The standard riding position is squatting on the pedals, hunched over in a push-up starting position with hands wide apart. So imagine holding the squat and plank position. The muscles burning when doing that are those that burn on the trails. So there’s definitely strengthening and some muscle-building potential here! But if that was your only exercise routine, you’d get muscle imbalances pretty quickly.
Don’t rely on Downhill as your only fitness routine.
Cross-training activities like strength training, HIIT, and endurance work can help to supplement and improve your potential and skills on and off the bike. For example, incorporating strength training exercises that focus on the key muscle groups used during downhill mountain biking can help to improve your overall performance and reduce the risk of injury.
If you’re interested, I created this resource where I share all my favorite gym training routines that help me ride longer and faster.
And then there’s the fat-loss potential. Having fun while burning calories? Sign me up!
Downhill MTB burns calories in a range between 300 kcal and 600 kcal per hour. That’s at a heart rate of about 130 to 140 beats per minute (bpm). The amount and duration of breaks in between actually riding are going to be the determining factors of the final calories burnt.
In other words: Whether you’re trying to lose fat or not, make sure you get enough food, water and fuel in your body! DH is exhausting and takes a toll on you. Hauling down the mountain is not the time to count calories.
About 40 to 65% of the time is actually spent riding. The rest is time on the lift or resting trailside. So most of us can expect about 300 calories an hour. It’s basically a HIIT workout with no way to shorten the (mandatory gondola) pauses. There simply aren’t many downhill trails around that take an hour or longer. Unless you’re racing a Mega-Avalanche event. Then 600 kcal may be possible.
Those are the average numbers recorded using a Garmin smartwatch over many days in a bike park. Riding alone and in a group. On slow and fast gondolas. It’s also not unusual to get into the 170 bpm range of heart rate too. But that isn’t sustainable for very long since it requires not only good conditioning but also great strength and mental focus to be able to go so fast that your body gets to its limits.
Some of that may sound desirable, or very undesirable – depending on how you look at it and at what station you are in life. Let’s discuss …
How hard on your body is DH?
While downhill MTB is very physically and mentally demanding, riders are free to pause on their own accord. Especially when fatigued. Overuse injuries are possible like in any other sport and a good warm-up is key to starting the day.
It’s considered an extreme sport due to the risk of injury and the high consequences. That being said, Downhill isn’t nearly as risky as many think (here’s a full article on that, backed by research). In fact, the dangerous part is more overestimating one’s skill and capability. So totally in control at the individual level.
The constant vibrations and big impacts take a toll. Sore hands (blisters etc.) and the infamous arm-pump (lower arm fatigue) are very different things that often get confused. The small muscles in hands and arms are what most notice first and foremost.
DH can put a lot of strain on your muscles and joints, and test your cardiovascular system, especially if you’re not properly prepared. As with any sport, beginners and unfit riders experience increased demand and need to adjust their expectations accordingly.
Proper pacing and preparation are a good idea to maximize the amount of time riding and the fun while doing it. This starts with a proper warm-up routine and cool-down (after-ride beer /joking), as well as a gradual progression of intensity and difficulty on the trails.
It’s also important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard. If you’re feeling fatigued or experiencing joint pain, it’s a good idea to take a break and allow your body or mind to recover. Peer pressure is very real in MTB, be mindful of that as well.
Conclusion: Can you get fit from Downhill MTB?
Downhill mountain biking can help people get fit, build some muscle, improve coordination, balance and focus, and exercise the cardiovascular system. It’s not a great training tool for either one of those aspects, as it doesn’t focus on any one in particular. But it certainly offers the most fun while doing so!
One of the key benefits of downhill mountain biking is its full-body workout. Unlike many other sports or forms of exercise that focus on a single muscle group, downhill mountain biking engages multiple muscle groups and requires coordination, balance, and endurance all at the same time. This combination of physical and psychological demands is unique and makes it a highly engaging way to improve overall fitness.
If anything, DH is the most fun interval training out there! (Say what??) The intense nature of the sport coupled with mandatory breaks in between runs can help to increase conditioning and build endurance, which can lead to improved cardiovascular health.
But also be mindful of imbalances that can result from only doing DH or even mountain biking in general. Be sure to implement other exercise routines like running and resistance training and maybe some stretching.
Now, get yolked and then fit riding!