CAPE EPIC 2023 | Why you need some gym time

Nino Schurter is the world’s best cross-country mountain biker. And even he must carry a bike at times, during the Cape Epic. That requires gym strength. (Photo: Simon Pocock/Absa Cape Epic)
Nino Schurter is the world’s best cross-country mountain biker. And even he must carry a bike at times, during the Cape Epic. That requires gym strength. (Photo: Simon Pocock/Absa Cape Epic)
  • To prepare for the world's most challenging mountain bike race, you need lots of time on the bike. That's a given.
  • But for extreme endurance mountain biking on Cape Epic terrain, strength is the secret weapon for all riders to reduce the risk of muscle fatigue.
  • How valuable is gym work for the Cape Epic, and how much should you be doing?

Allow me some self-indulgence to recount an anecdote from my cycling back story.

Around 2015, my wife thought it an excellent present to give me an entry to the 36One half. That's right, the 180km version of that rather brutal Karoo ultra-endurance race. At the time, I had been training properly for a few years and placing well in local marathon races in my age group (sub-vet).

I had four months to train, but despite all the five- and six-hour rides I could muster on weekends, it took me eight and a half hours to complete the 180km route – and I finished utterly wrecked.

Mentally it was draining, but more so, the physical distress it caused my knees resulted in six weeks off the bike to repair the damage.

A physio at the Sports Science Institute of SA explained that the muscles around the knees weren't strong enough to deal with the constant effort. When they fatigued to a non-functional point, the surrounding muscles had to try and hold the knee in place but weren't meant for that function and strained. The physio then explained that it would probably take years of riding to get the muscles up to strength capable of mustering a long effort like that, but it could be improved by targeted strength training.

Cape Epic
Gym training for mountain biking can be very functional, replicating your handlebars, if you have access to Nino Schurter’s level of equipment. (Photo: Scott MTB racing)

Pros and cons of strength training

Strength training in the gym has had multiple studies conducted to determine its benefits to cyclists. For the most part, it seems that it provides modest performance improvements in professional, non-time-constrained athletes and almost no performance benefit to time-constrained athletes.

Most of us non-pros with day jobs, and limited training hours available find performance gains are made on the bike more effectively than in the gym. However, strength training vastly decreases your risk of injury. This is where you have to make a decision based on the event you're entering, and in the case of the Epic, a minor niggle on stage 3 can be a very degrading, inflamed injury by the final few stages.

The good news is that there is still time to work on injury prevention in the gym without missing out on that essential base training phase.

mountain bike
Traditional strength exercises like the squat, are valuable for pro and amateur riders, alike. (Photo: Scott MTB racing)

Go heavy or light?

Never start in the gym by trying to lift anywhere near your maximum on day one. Anyone who has ever had a prolonged sabbatical from the gym and gone back knows the physically debilitating effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or 2nd-day stiffness that makes moving any muscle absolute agony.

Phase your way into the gym sessions with two to three weekly sessions of light weights and high reps, focusing on technique. This will leave you with far less stiffness and prepare the muscles for those more intense efforts that need to be completed.

When it comes to heavier weights, form is key, so make sure you use the mirror or have a partner watching out for you making sure you're not doing more harm than good. Basic exercises for injury prevention include squats, leg presses, lunges, calf raises and step-ups.

During maximal strength training, 3-6 reps are enough and during the maintenance and initiation stage, look at doing high reps and lower weights. Always make sure you warm up and cool down properly as well.

I don't want to gym

Some intervals make for a poor weight training replacement if you refuse to hit the weights.

Most on-bike sessions revolve around torque delivery and extremely low cadence efforts. It works best on a road bike, where you can use your hardest gearing. Come to a complete stop, but stay clipped in and then, while seated, drive the pedals as hard as you can for 10 seconds. Recover for at least 3-4 minutes between these intervals and do between 6 and 10, building up over a few weeks.

The key metric here is torque, not power, so unless you know how to work those figures out from cadence and power, you'll need a good cycling coach to work that out for you and discuss progress.

mountain bike
You can amplify the effort by jumping off that indoor training, for some plyometrics, during a session. (Photo: Giant Liv Racing)

Core is key

You don't know how important your core strength is until it fails on you, and you're rendered useless.

Good core strength will make you fatigue-resistant, which has a knock-on effect regarding endurance and recovery. 'Never skip ab day', should be an endurance mountain biker's mantra. Mountain biking can be brutal on the body, and the Cape Epic is renowned for its rough and abrasive terrain. Your body's number one deterrent to it is strong core muscles.

Google and Youtube will provide you with plenty of good core exercises to build strength in that area but don't forget to ride. We often replace the mountain bike with the road bike to save on maintenance costs. But a long mountain bike ride on trails will work more of those muscles you'll need come race week.

A road descent does not come close to the impact you're in for a long singletrack descent during the Cape Epic. You can't prepare for something like the mighty Groenlandberg descent, without putting in a lot of off-road riding hours, to strengthen those wrists and arms.


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