Zone 1 on the mtb?

As an off-road focused athlete, I really feel the need to incorporate mtb into my base training. It’s less boring, not as cold in the winter, and I get some skills work at the same time. But the fundamental principle of aerobic base rides is having a steady effort which is very difficult to manage on singletrack; between the turns and keeping momentum over terrain, mtb is inherently stochastic in its power demands. While I can easily keep a very low heart rate on the road, for a similar “feeling” ride my heart rate will be easily 10-15 bpm higher on the mtb.

Is the LSD impossible on the mtb trail? Is the higher heartrate relative to road a problem or simply a result of the greater contribution of the upper body in mtb? Thanks!

My initial thought is what is the definition of a MTB Trail? Age and injuries (or fear of agitating old injuries) have made my MTB days far behind me. But an easy/LSD would be dependent on keeping that HR low. If the technicality of the trails make it hard to keep the HR low then you may need to find other terrain. Much like tackling a long climb while keeping the HR low - it is hard to do. If you can find off-road trails that are flatter and less technical that would be the route to take on those “easy” days.

Steve and Brian, great question and great points you bring up. Trevor and I were actually just recording a few more workshop/screen share sessions this morning. One of those in the funnel is on exactly this topic. My background and longtime love is the MTB, and I do a lot of my base miles on the MTB, especially over the winter for exactly those reasons - not as cold, plus you get the skill work, and it’s just plain fun!

So what Brian said about the technical nature of the trail is the biggest variable in my opinion. Not to say that you should avoid all technical trails, but there is a certain point where the effort required to get up, over, or through some technical section of trail will certainly push out out of your zone 2/LSD range. There are two things I consider with this:

  1. Can you adjust the terrain or the direction of travel to accommodate your need to maintain a more stable HR with less variation due to high effort segments?
  2. Can you turn your LSD ride into a bit of a hybrid? It’s still base overall, but can you add a neuromuscular component to it? (e.g., ride base, but when you get to short sections of trail that require high power output, go hard to overcome that section, and then dial it back)

This way you can maintain the overall goal of the ride while having a little “planned” fun, knowing you will reap some benefit from the neuromuscular component. This will not add undue stress to the body since you’re not going crazy with 20, 30, or more minutes at LT2 or above. Here’s a snip from one of my “true” base MTB rides that will be coming up in the workshops. Main takeaway - let yourself really learn to slow down. On the MTB is SO hard to do (because MTBs are more fun when they go faster!), but it’s a structure piece that is crucial to being able to do this properly. This snip only shows HR (power is only my SS rig, but not the geared one), but you can see from the HR response that there are some very low speeds (3-4 mph up a climb around 30 minutes) to keep the HR under control. Overall effort is only about 60%, and max HR never exceeded 142 beats (usual max is around 181 beats).

Thanks for posting on this one. I love this topic, so send any other thoughts or strategies that you use to accomplish stuff like this. There’s another ride here near Boulder that I love doing because it allows you to incorporate some high quality work into your long sessions to build skills and fitness.

Coach Ryan

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Thanks for the reply. In past years I have done the majority of my MTB during the winter base season. I just upgraded footwear to some legit winter shoes and I’m looking forward to when things finally freeze here!

It is super hard to go slow on the MTB because as you say, they are so much more fun when you’re going fast and sliding around. I recall Dr. Seiler’s mantra of intensity discipline and need to keep that in mind.

The combined session with Z1 plus neuromuscular work is very appealing. I think it goes hand-in-hand with riding slow too; if you enter a turn or technical section without much momentum you need to use some force to keep the bike moving. The trick will then be to lay off the gas quickly before the heart rate goes up.

How do you manage the coasting/downhill parts of the ride? I get concerned that if the VI is too large it defeats the purpose of the LSD ride.

Another interesting concept is putting a heart rate ceiling on the rides and tracking your time over a given section. If you go over your limit you have to stop for “x” seconds. Eventually as you become more fit and smoother the times will go down. It is kind of gamifying these rides!


After a couple weeks of rain/snow our trails dried out enough to make an attempt at a zone 1 MTB ride. Here’s a screenshot of my file from trainingpeaks.

From my file you can kind of get a sense of what I’m dealing with in my locale. For example, despite living in SW Ohio, on a 16 mile ride I get more elevation than your ride in Boulder! The climbs at this trail are stupid steep and heavily eroded (it’s an old-school fall line style trail). So even when making use of my 52T cog I’m still unable to avoid getting into my threshold HR zone (my peak HR is in the 185 bpm range depending on the temperature).

Despite this I was able to stay steady when not climbing and avoided accelerating too hard out of corners. My overall average HR was definitely in the endurance zone at about 80% max HR. When I finished felt like I could ride for at least another two hours at that pace. And this morning I feel totally fine to accomplish my strength training and short threshold intervals.

Was this ride still too hard to be considered a zone 1 (of 3) ride? What are your thoughts?


Hey Steve,
thanks for sharing. Wow, that’s some elevation gain. I’m from PA originally, so know what you’re talking about with old school trails - super fun, but not great for trying to keep HR under control!

So this is a scenario where I always want to step back and think of the big picture. It’s winter, and if we don’t have any events coming up right away, I feel that maintaining some flexibility and fun is crucial. Could this ride have been executed more “cleanly”? Sure, but at this time you were able to enjoy a MTB ride while maintaining the focus on the goal - you stayed in your endurance zone, felt at the end like you could keep riding, and are good to go for today’s strength session. If you did this for every single endurance ride, that might be a little too much variability to include all the time, but to bring balance to your riding, I think this is a great option.

Personally, I would not consider this too hard if your overall effort was in zone 1 (of 3), with the caveat above of finding that balance of enjoyment and more highly structured rides. I’ll do a similar approach. Some days just need to be on the trail because it’s an enjoyment factor, and it also has the added benefit of developing the feel of riding easier while on trail. This comes in handy when racing as you can focus on recovery and smooth riding in a higher stress scenario with other racers around. In contrast, I’ll balance this with days where I’ll take the MTB or road bike out on dirt roads and achieve a better looking HR graph.

To your question of managing coasting/downhill parts of the ride, I’ll go with the annoying “it depends” answer. With the frequency of grade changes you likely have in your terrain there, it can be hard to manage, almost to the point where we get stressed out a bit by trying to micro-manage the effort, thus the VI. I do like how @trevor calls those LSD rides L “Steady” D rather than slow. So in your case with the coasting/downhill segments, I’ll try to plan my effort based on the descent coming up. If it’s technical, I know HR will remain somewhat elevated even though I might be coasting and just absorbing bumps. If not, and it’s more of a pedaling descent, I’ll try to continue pedaling. Coming into those descents though, I may push a little higher in my base range, nearing the upper end (tempo-ish) because I know that HR will peak and then start to decline, but I’ll likely be at the base of the descent before it dips too low for too long. Otherwise, if that’s a problem and the descents are too long, it may be necessary for a change of terrain to better accommodate those needs.

Great questions and feedback. I think the way you’re approaching this is excellent. Just keep in mind that balance, and the big picture. That way you can enjoy the riding and not become a slave to the data.

Coach Ryan

I only ride mtb outside as it is the only bike I have and that includes 12 mile commutes to work. I also live in a hilly location and my commute home albeit mainly flat has 1000 ft of climbing as I live on top of a hill. To top it off the less steep climb home still has a shortish 1:4 section and is considered a Cat2-3 climb. I’ve found that though initially you can not climb the hill in Seiler zone 1 after a while you will find that you can/will as your power at LT1 increases.

Most of my mtb goals are PBing descents and off-road climbs but I always have 'climb the hill home in zone 1 or <150 bpm as a goal. When I can do it easily (not in my lowest gear (34x46) then I know my fitness is going places! Currently I can do it very few rides so more zone 1 work required!

My main problem with keeping HR in zone 1 on mtb trails is when descending - adrenaline has a lot to answer for! So I only concentrate on zone 1 on climbs and flatter sections rightly or wrongly

Sometimes it’s adrenaline on the way down, other times I think it’s exertion. There’s a technical descending MTB trail near me that’s about three miles long during which you loose about 1800 feet of vert, full of roots and chunky rocks. It’s the only time I ever needed to stop and rest because I was too tired, and it was on the way DOWN


That’s awesome! I don’t have any DH trails here that long. However, I do have some that are super chunky and take 4-5 mins. They are quad burners for sure! More so than riding back up!

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yeah this one takes almost 30 minutes if you are really moving, otherwise can be 45 mins +

I had to lie down afterwards

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