Mountain Bike Skills: Four Drills to Practice

Bike handling skills are crucial to having a successful mountain bike race and overall fun time enjoying the sport. As a mtb coach,  I recommend dedicating some of your time to training these four mountain bike skills drills.  I design workouts into athletes’ training plans that look like this: “Skills Focused MTB Ride, 1.5 hours” 

Bike handling skills, although automatic and simple at times, need refreshing, especially after a series of only gravel or road events. The geometry of the mountain bike and the way it responds to terrain varies from our road and gravel bikes. Doing an easy skills-based ride the week prior to an event is a great way to remind yourself of the basics, get a recovery ride in, and feel confident going into the mountain bike event. 

If you’re a seasoned mountain biker, the routine skills-based ride is also important to hone in on your technique, eliminate any bad habits, and create a better understanding of how you and your bike move together.

Below, I am going to describe the 4 mtb skills drills and how to practice them.  I'll describe the drill, the terrain you need, your focus, the drill itself, and bonus instructions.  Remember to have fun and 'be one' with the bike!

Here are the four mountain bike skills I encourage all mountain bikers to practice: 

1. Steep Climbing Position

One thing that we cannot avoid as mountain bikers are climbs. To get to the fun, flowy descent, we typically have to climb there! This drill helps lower your center of gravity in order to feel more stable and efficient on steep climbs.

Terrain: Either a grass hill at the park, your steep driveway, or an uphill section of trail.

Focus: Slide your hips forward on the seat and lower your chest towards the handlebars. Try not to pull on the handlebars, in fact you should be able to open your hands on the bars while climbing.

Drill: Repeat the climb 3-4 times while focusing on the position of your body

BONUS: Try hovering over your bike by staying in the same position but lifting your hips slightly from the seat. This will allow the bike to move more underneath you if there is rough terrain and give you a boost of power.

2. Descending Position

Once you’ve hit the local downhill trail a few times, going faster and being comfortable is the natural progression. It’s easy to get into the habit of being too comfortable which is when mistakes happen. A reminder of your body position on the bike is the reason for this drill.

Terrain: Either a grass hill, driveway, or downhill section of trail

Focus: Bend the elbows out to the sides as if mid-pushup, hinge at the waist, and slightly bend the knees. This position may be hard to hold for long periods of time and require intermittent upright positions on the less steep and rough terrain.

Drill: Coast down the grass hill or driveway while focusing on the position of your body. This also goes for riding down the trail at slower speed than you typically would go in order to put more focus into your body position. Feel free to do the drill 3-4 times and pick up speed if you’re comfortable

BONUS: Try going between the lower and upright positions on the bike while riding downhill. The upright position allows for more rest when riding downhill and can help with longevity.

3. Braking Refresher

Braking is often something we do without thinking. As a beginner rider, there might have been/be less of an emphasis on the front brake. This drill is important for all riders - from beginners to experienced riders - as it helps maintain flow and speed on trails if you can effectively use your brakes. The front brake is not our enemy and something we can more easily use with the widely recent transition from 27.5” wheels to 29” wheels.

Terrain: Flat area to ride back and forth on

Focus: We want to control the speed of the bike and reduce skidding by utilizing the brakes effectively. There are 3 different combinations of braking: front only, back only, and both. The most important thing is to get in that lower position on the bike with the elbows bent out to the side, hinging at the waist, and knees slightly bent. Remember to keep your eyes forward.

Drill: Start pedaling to get speed before coasting and try to come to a stop only using the front brake. Doing this will allow you to feel the speeds you can comfortably brake into a stop from without skidding and more confidently apply the front brake. Do this for each of the 3 combinations of braking.

4. Cornering

One of the most important and sought-after aspects of skills work is cornering. Whether it’s increasing speed, stability, or confidence into turns, we all need to start with the basics. This drill takes the most amount of time and is something you can incorporate into the warm-up of multiple rides per week. 

Terrain: A grass hill with cones or markers; and, as an option for progressing, a downhill trail with multiple turns. The cones or markers need to be set up as if you are racing dual slalom, so the apex of each turn needs to be indicated with the markers. You are going to ride around each cone in a zig-zag pattern down the hill.

Focus: Being in the descending body position - bent elbows, hinged at the waist, and bent knees - is the first thing to focus on. Play with how low you can get on the bike. The second big thing is to move the hips to the outside of the turn and point the belly button to the direction you want to go. Your hips will be off-centered from your bike either on the left or the right depending on which direction you are turning. If it clicks better- you can focus on pointing your knees in the direction of the turn. Keep your eyes up and look where you are going!

Drill: Pedal into the cones from the top and ride down the formation 2-3 times only focusing on the low body position. Next try moving the hips while riding through the turns. The key is to be squared up with the hips directly over the bike before you enter the turn, then move the hips to the outside throughout the turn until you are squared up again at the exit. Practice this another 3-4 times and try focusing on where the knees and belly are pointing. 

BONUS: Once you feel comfortable- hit the trails and focus on the body position and hips through the turns at a slower speed before amping it up.

In Summary: practice, Practice PRACTICE 💪 😄🚴


Sierra Sims is a professional MTB Coach and Athlete.  To speak with Coach Sierra about improving your mountain bike skills, please fill out our new athlete questionnaire to have a free coaching consultation with her.