Pro-tips for racing a half or full mountain bike marathon

5 February 2015

Competing in an mountain bike marathon format (XCM) event is a truly amazing experience. The A to B classic loop is a unique format of racing and tests both you and your equipment over the course of the distance. There are a few things that you can do in order to make the day on the bike just that little bit easier.


It’s all about consistency and sustainability. For me this means ride frequently and don’t overdo it too much. Leave 10% out there on all of your rides. If you are following a plan ensure you follow the pre race instructions as a reasonable training ride the day before really activates the body. Make sure that you get some long rides in on your bike of choice in the lead up to the event. This will reassure you that you have the position dialled, as well as knowing how you personally feel on the bike when you are tired, your muscles are tight, and you are a dribbling mess!

Today’s Plan have personalised training plans ranging from 6 to 16 weeks, including some event specific ones, that can help take the guess work out of your preparation and ensure well prepared when race days arrives.


Get lots. You work hard on the bike. You spend your hard earned dollars on the best equipment. Don’t compromise it all by missing out on your beauty sleep. That is where the magic happens and you recover from your previous efforts.

Hot tip: Don’t bank on getting the best sleep the night before a race. Nerves, a different bed, an early start time, and weird noises may keep you up. If you can though, try and make sure that 2 -3 nights before the race, you have a really good sleep. This will put you in good stead come race day.


You know the emails you receive from the race organiser leading up to the race? READ THEM!!!! The course profile one is the key here. This tells you a lot about what the race is doing. It also gives you some hints about how you can prepare for the XCM races.

Let’s take the Convict 50km profile for example. Check it out… it’s telling you a pretty good story. The first 11km or so is relatively flat. Just for convenience sake, we will also say that the last 14km is also reasonably flat. That’s looking pretty good then. It also looks like you have about 4km of pretty much a downhill run between 32 and 36km. So doing the math, you should have almost half the course which is flat or pure descending.

At the 11 km mark however, it appears that you have a wall. 250 vertical metres in the space of less than a kilometre… that is pretty steep – like 10-20% type of steep. Then you have about 20km of rolling terrain, where it is just constantly up and down.

Right there, you have a quick overview of what the terrain will entail. So, what else can you do? There are a few blog posts out there where people have described how their day was out on the trails. Here’s one to get you going.

These always have a few little great bits of information that can help you out.

Bike magazines, as well as online forums, and even the official event photographers can have incredible amounts of information that can help you ‘figure out’ as much of the course as you can before you even clip into your pedals. The hot tip is to look at the photos to see the sort of terrain and trails that are being used.


The hot tip is to do the first hour in one gear LESS than you would normally ride. Feeling good? Shift it into an easier gear. You don’t want to be baked at the 30km mark. Of course if you are racing for a specific position, then all that goes out the window, and you have sometimes just have to follow the wheel in front of you. Just bear in mind that at some stage, you will have to pay…

If you are doing the Convict 100km, the infamous canoe bridge comes at the 70km mark. That still leaves 30km to go and includes some really brutal climbs. It is probably a good idea to try and get to this point feeling tired, but not feeling like a broken man (or woman). You can empty the tank at this point as you probably have 20km of mostly up and hard, followed by 10km of ‘down and undulating flat’ until the finish line.

If I am looking at doing a 4 hour Convict 100km, then I still have just over an hour to go until the finish line by the time I reach the canoe bridge. Just stop and have a think about that – I already have 3 hours in the legs. I’ve got some nasty hills to get through and 30km to ride; I’ve got to ensure that I have kept my pacing strategy solid as well as my nutrition intake.

I am fortunate that my Cannondale’s top tube is wide enough to keep my pacing notes in view!


Think about it… from a bit under 2 hours for the half marathon to anywhere up to 8 hours for a full marathon, you are going to be on the bike for quite a while. You will need to take some food with you.

Energy gels and bars are the obvious suggestion. Make sure you figure out in your training rides early on what works for you and more importantly, what doesn’t work for you. You are not going to get a cookie cutter solution here. Different types of energy and even different brands may not work for everyone. That is just how it goes! Everyone is unique and requires different things to power them through the race.

Having said all of that, a general rule of thumb is to consume between 1 and 1.3 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per hour of activity.

I will personally take 10-12 energy gels with me for the a 100km race. I also have bottles with an electrolyte and carbohydrate drink mix. This way I am replacing energy (lost as effort expended) and electrolytes (lost as sweat). I always take a couple of extra gels just in case.

If it is raining, the track will be slower and you will be out there longer. In addition, the track will be ‘grippier’ (or just plain slow) requiring more power. Take a few extra gels.

It’s a fairly simple concept, but try to understand how ‘Average Speed ‘ works and use it to help to pace your nutrition intake. If you are averaging 25km/hr, then for the 100km, this will take you 4 hours. If you rely on x amount of gels per hour… You get the drift. You can even set up your cyclo-computer to beep at you at specified intervals, be they time or distance. Do not forget to eat and/or drink. Otherwise, it WILL come back to bite you later!

Hot Tips: Empty gels into a squeeze flask for easy access. You can usually fit 3 gels into 1 flask.

If it is cold, make up a strong mix of electrolyte drink.

If it is warmer, make up a weaker mix of electrolyte drink.

Get to your local bike shop to get your nutrition requirements sorted well in advance

Bike setup

Make sure your bike is dialled for you and more importantly, how you ride. XCM races are done over predominantly straight line fire-trail/trail terrain. Yes, there will be some ‘rough’ spots, but you are really looking at a fairly minimal distance in the overall scheme of things. Probably only 10km of rough trail over 100km… you get the drift on where this is going!

So, when you are on the relatively straight forward fire-trail, either a hard-tail or a dually that has had the suspension firmed up somewhat will maximise your pedalling efficiency and therefore your power output. This all leads to fast straight line speed, which is good.

Make sure that you experiment beforehand to see what this does for the ride quality and how you adapt to it, or even if you can handle it. If you are putting out a bit of power on the open stuff, or the climbs, don’t let the suspension steal it off you when it is bobbing all over the place.

In Marathon racing in general, the courses are not going to throw too much overly technical terrain at you. Of course, this is a totally relative statement and all depends on the individual’s experience and their skill levels. Having said all this, it does not mean you should run inappropriate equipment. Make sure you consider running at the very least, a rear tyre that has a little bit of extra protection on the sidewalls. Nothing sucks more than a flat tyre.

Spares and Tools

Two tubes, multi tool, tyre levers, CO2 canister, mini-pump, rear derailleur hanger, chain link, tyre boot, zip tie. That should get you through most things and at the very least get you back to event HQ if anything goes pear shaped!

Anything else?

  • Wear gloves – this probably doesn’t need too much of an explanation.
  • Get a cyclo-computer. This will ensure that you can track your distance and time as well as your average speed. These are really useful bits of information and all of which can help you make good decisions out on track.
    If you have the cash, consider getting a top end GPS such as the Magellan Cyclo 505HC. You can download previous GPS traces which can assist with your navigation on the day. Obviously, there will be course markings guiding you, but it can be nice to know how many kilometres left up each hill you have got to go!
  • Wear glasses – Most XCM events starts early and is run in shady or dappled light. Err on the side of caution and run a light lens that allows in more light. This will allow you to see, which is pretty helpful, needless to say. Rudy Project make arguably the best photochromic lenses which can adjust to all different and changing light conditions.

Hopefully some of this will assist you in when it comes to lining up on the start line of a half or full marathon such as the Convict. As one of Australia’s ‘classics’ it makes sense to get the most out of your day through some good foresight.

James Downing is an elite racer with the Cannondale-Sugoi Factory Racing Team. Residing in the fastest postcode in Australia, 2602 in Canberra, he races his Cannondale F29er at as many races around the nation that he can. When not on the bike, he is thinking about being on the bike, and is more than likely listening to classic rock songs of the 80s!

Twitter: @jdowning26
Instagram: @james_downing26