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Mountain biking is a great introductory sport for new fitness enthusiasts and an ideal way for road cyclists to take their fitness endurance to the next level. The fitness benefits of mountain biking surpass those of road biking in several crucial ways.
Whether you prefer off-road climbs over streams and fallen logs, or the comfort of a well-worn dirt path, mountain biking usually involves terrains that are far rougher and more rugged than the average, concrete-paved road. Routes will often require a variety of different speeds and resistances—from short bursts up a steep incline, to sustained pushing over a long plateau, or cardio recovery as you coast down a mountainside. All of this is good news for your cardio vascular system, which has to work harder on a trail than on a paved road—first to propel you forward (and upward) over tough terrain, and also to alternate back and forth between different levels of cardio endurance. While it is possible to achieve this with road cycling, you have to work harder and pedal much faster at a higher gear for a longer period of time—not easy to do if your biking is mostly confined to a large urban area full of traffic stops.
Riding through nature—whether on or off the train—strengthens muscular coordination, balance and agility. Underlying these skills is proprioception, the passive, mental awareness of where your body parts are in physical space. All of these abilities test your brain’s ability to keep you upright while maneuvering on uneven, rugged routes. In other words, mountain biking gives you a mental workout along with a physical one—your mind is constantly working to solve problems and balance the body on a moment-by-moment basis.
While this may sound exhausting, neuromuscular coordination is what the brain was made for—it’s your brain’s way of staying in touch with the body. But the modern lifestyle affords few opportunities to strengthen this aspect of health. For those of us who spend our days sitting in front of screens, giving our brains the chance to develop these spatial and muscular skills should be a vital component of our fitness routines. Doing so keeps the mind fresh and engaged, which could help alleviate depression and mitigate certain symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s. Mountain biking—with its ups and downs, twists and turns—is a great way to achieve this. On the other hand, workouts that involve repetitive movements—like running, walking, elliptical training or even road cycling—do little to maximize the mind’s spatial and proprioceptive faculties.
All this balance and body awareness means that mountain biking engages a higher variety of stabilizing muscles than road riding, and cyclists who begin to incorporate mountain biking may notice their muscle definition increase, particularly in the legs and forearms. Another added benefit of better muscle coordination is that it stimulates better body mechanics both on the bike and off.