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Ironman pro Michael Weiss tells you how to improve your Ironman bike split by heading off-road

Michael Weiss (Photo: Xterra)

Michael Weiss came from an off-road background and is now one of Ironman’s fastest cyclists (Photo: Xterra)

I believe that mountain biking is my special weapon as an Ironman triathlete. I used to do it professionally and I still ride off road all throughout the year, especially during the winter. There are several benefits, but one of the biggest is that your average speed is lower because of the higher rolling resistance of the tyres and the surface, which makes the wind-chill lower.

So when it’s an icy day you don’t get anywhere near as cold as you do on a road bike. For that reason I use my mountain bike for all kinds of winter rides. I use it for my long aerobic sessions, which are three to four hours at a steady pace. And I also use it for fartlek sessions, where I mix up the intensity and have fun with it.

You naturally tend to ride at a lower cadence on a mountain bike, which makes it good for developing leg strength. It’s more intense, so you get more out of it in less time. I find mountain biking is better from a social perspective too. When you’re out on the trails it’s slower, quieter and there are no cars to worry about. It means you can talk to your buddies more easily. I love getting a few triathletes together once a week during the winter for a long ride.

In the colder months, about half of the training rides I do are off road. I know many triathletes prefer to train in a gym or on a static trainer in their garage, but I think you lose your feel for the bike by doing this. I think training off road helps you to learn how to really ride a bike.
Having a power meter on your road bike is important buts it’s less important on your mountain bike.

I see mountain biking as being a bit like cross-country skiing. It allows you to develop your fitness and boost your training volume, without you having to obsess about the numbers. My cranks are the same length on my mountain bike as on my road bike, but to be honest I don’t think it really matters. As long as you don’t get knee pain, the change between the two bikes will do you good. It means you won’t over-stress your legs, as you’ll be using slightly different muscle fibres.

Switch your focus to fun
When I was a pro mountain biker I used to train too much, regularly doing up to 35 hours per week. I loved clocking up rides of five to seven hours even though they were far longer than I needed for mountain bike races. But now I’ve become an Ironman triathlete I think all those long rides have helped me. Also, a lot of mountain bikers like me would go running in the winter as cross training so I was already a decent runner when I started doing triathlons.

My one mountain biking tip for Triathlon Plus readers is to switch your focus from training hard to having fun and don’t over-think things. As I always ride with a power meter, I’m always impressed at what a good workout mountain biking gives you. Sometimes I’ll be thinking, “OK, this is nice and easy”, but then when I analyse it later it turns out that I rode at a high wattage and a low cadence. You’re so busy thinking about the trails or chatting with friends that you don’t notice how hard you’re working.

The equivalent ride on a road bike would somehow feel a lot harder. It’s also really important to make sure your rides are safe, and that you wear the correct protective gear. There’s no need to ride crazy technical trails. Riding off road can take a bit of getting used to, so take it steady to begin with until your confidence grows.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in’s Training Zone section.

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