Mountain Biking and Injury Risk Study: A Myth, Debunked

If you tend to think a day of mountain biking will likely end at urgent care—or at least a trip to the drugstore for some bandages—a recent study in the journal PLoS ONE offers a different perspective.

Researchers analyzed data from 24 studies on injuries, with 17 of those covering mountain biking and the other seven looking at hiking. The most common type of injuries sustained by the bikers were bruises, scratches, and minor cuts, which made up nearly two thirds of the injuries. (For hikers, the most common injuries were blisters and ankle sprains.)

Although some fractures and head injuries were also reported, the breadth of lower-level injuries led researchers to conclude that the perception of mountain biking as an extreme sport isn’t well founded.

That said, any sport comes with injury risk and with mountain biking in particular, you’re combining speed, uneven and rocky terrain, and bike handling skills. That’s why doing some prep work when you’re off the bike—and knowing a few key tactics when you’re riding—can go a long way toward protecting yourself. Here’s what you need to know for each.

First, Prep With a Purpose

Injury prevention begins before you start riding, and continues between your cycling sessions, says Bekah Rottenberg, PMBI-certified mountain bike coach and founder of Brave Endeavors. She tells Bicycling there are two main focus areas for this: strength training and investing in a skills clinic.

“Mountain biking is a full-body sport,” she says. “You use your legs to power you up climbs and support you on technical descents. You use your upper body to stabilize the bike, push through steep and rocky sections of trail, and your core to provide power transfer in corners, resist turning forces, and stabilize your torso on long climbs.”

That’s why she recommends a full-body workout plan as a complement for all levels of mountain biking, from recreational to professional riders. Short on time? She suggests focusing the most on shoulders and grip.

“For shoulders, do a workout that incorporates a horizontal push, a vertical push, and a pull,” Rottenberg says. Examples would be push-ups, push presses, pull-ups, Turkish get-ups, and banded rows. Moves like these create shoulder stability, which is essential when you’re navigating an upward climb or going down a steep path. Of note, the recent study found that the serious injuries for mountain bikers involved clavicle fractures and shoulder dislocations.

Similarly, grip strength can improve bike handling, because it gives you much better control while you’re steering, switching gears, and braking, she adds. Moves for this can include hanging on a pull-up bar and doing farmer’s carries.

The other side of injury prevention is continuing to boost your skills off the bike with clinics, Rottenberg adds: “The more you learn and understand how to properly ride a mountain bike, the less likely you are to get hurt. Think of taking a mountain biking lesson like taking a ski lesson. Skills clinics will not only help you understand how to properly and safely pilot the bike, but most will also help you with trail selection, map reading, and provide assistance determining if a trail is safe for you to ride.”

Rottenberg suggests searching for in-person skills clinics in your area, which are ideal for helping improve your form, and there are also some online clinics and courses that can add to your knowledge.

Expert Tips for Lowering Injury Risk While Riding

In addition to working on strength and handling skills, it’s also helpful to think about injury prevention when riding, according to Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S., professional cycling coach and founder of Absolute Endurance. That starts with knowing what to do when an overwhelming challenge comes up faster than you expected.

“If you find yourself coming down a hill or around a corner into something you don’t feel confident riding, you should immediately go into the ready position, which is with your arms bent and out, and your rear end off the seat slightly behind the saddle with your weight shifted slightly to the back,” he tells Bicycling. “You can help keep your weight to the back by dropping your heels.”

In this position, your body is ready to let your bike take most of the beating from any rocks or drops. Be sure to keep your eyes forward, looking at where you want to go, and let your bike do the work for you and try to slow down as fast as possible if needed, he adds.

“Other things to consider if you need to stop in a hurry is that your front brake has far more power than the rear, but is much more dangerous to just grab a handful of,” says Seacat. “The front tire will lose traction and put you onto the ground in a hurry. You can see just how much brake you can grab without losing control by practicing on trails you are much more familiar with by going down a hill and trying to stop yourself as quick as possible without having any issue. Basically, remember to use your rear brake too.”

Another tip he often shares with beginner mountain bikers is to look where you want to go, not where you are going. By that, he means keeping an eye on the trail about 10 to 20 feet ahead, rather than toward the three feet in front of the bike.

“If you only look down at what’s directly in front of you, that often means you won’t be prepared for what’s coming,” Seacat says.

Of course, not every injury can be anticipated and prevented—you’re speeding along uneven terrain, after all, and that’s a huge part of the enjoyment of mountain biking—but building up strength and skills both on and off the trail can boost your chances of having a safer ride.

Headshot of Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food. 

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