Cardio is one of those topics that I could write about every day and some people still couldn’t get enough. To say that mountain bikers are obsessed with cardio training would be an understatement and every rider I’ve ever talked to wants to know how to best improve it. From intervals to base miles the debate rages on over the best approach to allowing you to work harder and/ or longer when you ride.

There is just one small problem, though. The vast majority of riders – and coaches – are missing the most important part of the whole cardio training equation. Without it you are literally making it much harder on yourself to see improvements from your workouts and rides. But once you fix it, your cardio capacity will automatically increase and stay that way even if you never did another “cardio workout”.

So what is this vital ingredient that you need for an effective cardio training program?


I mean, think about it. Since your “cardio” all starts with being able to take in oxygen (you can’t work for very long without oxygen, just try riding while holding your breath) then it just makes sense to train it.

This isn’t something you want to leave to chance, either. For most of us the deep, relaxing breaths we took with our diaphragm as kids have turned into shallow, panic breathing from our chest. You can check yourself right not – take a deep breath and pay attention to your shoulders. If they come up at all towards your ears or you even feel the urge for them to come up towards your ears then you have some chest breathing issues.


So while yes, breathing is natural and something that you already do it is also something that can be – and often is – done wrong. When this happens you have 3 major things go wrong for you:

1 – Chest breathing triggers the Fight or Flight response in the body. This literally changes the hormonal environment in the body, getting it ready for a sprint to safety or fight to the death, not a long ride where you want to stay relaxed and focused. Using your diaphragm to drive your breathing will literally put you in a different frame of mind and get the body to relax.

2 – When you use your chest and upper body muscles to breathe then they are not able to help stabilize the upper body and react to the trail as efficiently. This means you won’t be relaxed or able to flow, which leads to you having work harder to make up for your inefficient technique. When you can drive your breathing from your diaphragm you can stop riding with a stiff upper body and let it relax and pilot your bike.

3 – Chest breathing doesn’t let you use your full lung capacity. A good, deep breathe will start low and fill the lungs all the way up into the chest. When you start at the chest the breath has nowhere to go and it tends to end in the chest. For a lot of riders, learning how to breathe from their diaphragm will add a significant amount to their lung capacity.

What this means is that if you are really interested in improving your cardio then you’d be smart to start using this simple “cardio workout” designed to get you breathing better and help tap into your full lung capacity. Until you can easily complete this workout then you are really just wasting time with other types of cardio training since you are just reinforcing bad breathing habits while doing them.


Breathing Workout

Crocodile Breathing

Start by lying on your stomach with your hands by your sides, thumbs turned away from you. Start by taking one hand off the ground and placing the back of it against your lower back. Breathing only through your nose, send your breath to where you feel the pressure on your lower back. You should feel your hand rise and at no point should your shoulders start to come towards your ears.

After you 5-10 breathes take your hand off your lower back and take 5 more breathes, looking to make it feel the same way but without the hand pressure there to help you.

Now, take the pointer and middle fingers of your hands and poke them slightly into your obliques (your “side abs” found between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hip bone). Your goal now is to push them out using your breath. You don’t want to poke yourself too hard, applying just enough pressure to help you get the feel for your belly expanding in all directions.

After you 5-10 breathes take your fingers out and take 5 more breathes, looking to make it feel the same way but without the finger pressure there to help you.

Breathing Ladders

I got this one from Steve Maxwell who learned it from the Russians. While this workout looks easy on the surface, I’ll bet than most of you will struggle to get all the way through it.

To do these start by walking at a moderate pace (you can also march in place if you need to). Once you have established a comfortable pace you start by timing your breathes based on your footsteps. Breathing only through your nose, start by breathing in for 1 step and out for 1 step.

After a few breathes increase it to breathing in for 2 steps and out for 2 steps. After a few more increase it to 3 steps, then to 4 and so on all the way up to 10 steps in and 10 steps out. Your goal is to build up to those 10 steps and for it to feel easy.

You have to be careful that you don’t start to speed up as your breathes become longer. You’re not trying to get through the workout as much as you want to give your body the chance to improve its basic breathing habits.

Watch this video to see this cardio workout in action…


While this workout may be hard at first, the good news is that won’t take a long time to improve. Your body knows how to do this, it just forgot. Once you start reintroducing it to these breathing habits it will only be a matter of a few weeks before you are seeing dramatic improvements.

One of the most important things you can do for you long term success is to recognize that without great – not just good but great – breathing habits you are handicapping yourself on the trail no matter how “fit” you are. This simple workout will help reset your breathing and improve your lung capacity, giving you an advantage over most other riders no matter how many more intervals they do.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that unless something is hard and leaves you whimpering in a pile of sweat it can’t be effective. Sometimes the fastest way to improvement is to start with something simple, like breathing better. Make sure you have this vital skill down before focusing too much more time and effort on “working hard” and you’ll be riding faster and longer before you know it.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Ultimate Program

Earlier this month I shared a couple of posts about what you can learn from some other sports, specifically Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and BMX Racing. If you read them then you might have noticed that one of the lessons from both of them was to focus more on improving your technical skills.

In fact, if you look at the training programs for athletes in most sports you’ll see a lot of attention and energy being directed towards improving their technique. But, thanks to the strong influence that road riding has on most training programs, this isn’t something that most mountain bikers have come to appreciate as much as they should.

Your technical skill level is one of your most important assets on the trail, especially as you gain more experience. Besides keeping you safe as your ride more challenging terrain and features, your technical skill is the key to improving your endurance as you ride more.

Since your VO2Max can’t increase forever, most of the performance gains after the first few years of riding come from improvements in efficiency and skill. Using less energy to move on your bike and maintaining more momentum on the trail are what really drive your endurance gains over the long run.

Considering the improved safety and performance that improving your skills promise, it makes sense to cut out some of the pedaling based cardio (which counts as skill training for a roadie) and focus instead on improving your skills.

And while there are a lot of different skills you can focus on, I’ve found the top 3 skills that help a rider improve their performance are… Post Continued :: Click to Read More

Pedaling Innovations

Do you want to improve your ability to Manual and Bunny Hop your bike?

Well, if you do then you’re not alone. One thing I’ve noticed from working with hundreds of riders over the years is that almost all of them struggled with this essential trail skill.

You see, this isn’t an easy skill to learn. The trick to manualing and bunny hopping your bike is learning how to push into the bike instead of pulling on the bike to drive the technique.

By driving your hands and feet into the bike you take advantage of the hips and you create a balanced platform to move from. Pulling with your hand and feet uses weaker muscles and rarely gives you the balanced position you need to hold a manual or move into a bunny hop.

This requires something most riders just don’t have, which is the ability to properly explode out of their Attack Position.

This throws off their balance and alignment and makes it impossible for them to follow through with the right technique. If you ever want to Manual and Bunny Hop better then you have to re-train this unconscious habit on the bike.

The best way to do this is to use a simple but powerful concept –  put 100% of your energy and focus on this movement skill for 4 weeks both in the gym and on the trail. This leads to large, sustainable improvements you can’t see with a less focused approach.

Which is why I created this new program. It is based on the system I’ve used to help countless riders improve this skill and I know it can help you as well.

To help you get the most out of the program it includes: Post Continued :: Click to Read More

MTB Skills and Fitness Program

For most of us, moving with speed and power on the trails isn’t something that comes naturally. At first trying to use explosive strength is usually accompanied by a lot of flailing of limbs and a general lack of grace, which leads to the term “spastic” being used to describe your riding style.

Eventually, though, with practice you start to learn that there is a time and a place to put a little explosive strength behind your technique. Maybe you need to get better at manualing to get your front wheel up and over ledges or maybe you need to be able to bunny hop higher (or at all) to clear trail obstacles, but whatever it is you know that you need to be a little more explosive on the trail.

However, before you run out and start doing a bunch of swings and box jumps there is something important to consider –  the type of power we need to be explosive on the trail is a bit different than the power needed in a lot of other sports.

The main reason is that we don’t get to take advantage of the “rubber band effect” like they do. To explain what I mean, imagine that your muscles are like rubber bands and as you stretch them they store energy.

After getting longer and storing energy, that energy can be used when you reverse direction and contract the muscles. Winding up to throw a ball or a punch or crouching down before you jump are examples of this in action.

This is also how a lot of exercises used to build explosive strength work – things like box jumps, kettlebell swings and medicine ball throws all use this “rubber band effect” as the muscles store energy by quickly lengthening and then releasing that energy when you explode in the reverse direction.

And while these are all great exercises, there is another type of explosive strength that we need to work on as well. This type of explosive strength doesn’t use the “rubber band effect” and instead relies on maximum recruitment of the muscles from a dead stop.

If you think about it, on the trail we rarely get the luxury of winding up into something. Most of the time we react quickly without much time to move, which makes being able to explode without first needing to use an exagerated body movement a critical skill on the trails.

This makes training this skill a must for anyone serious about getting the most out of their training program, especially if you want to focus on your Manualing and Bunny Hopping. In my experience, these are best 3 exercises for building this type of explosive strength for MTB.

– Pausing Broad Jump: The Broad Jump is one of the simplest ways to build explosive strength in the hips. It is easy to do, realtively safe and lets you train some basic athlecism that a lot of us lose as we get older.

By pausing for a 4 count at the bottom of the Broad Jump we allow the stored energy to dissapate (a fancy word for dissapear). This means we can’t use it when we finally reverse direction and explode into the jump, negating the “rubber band effect” and forcing us to rely on this other type of explosive strength.

– Deadstop Swing: While almost everyone is familiar with the normal kettlebell swing (which is a GREAT exercise), few are familiar with this variation. By parking the kettlebell after each rep you lose the natural “rubber band effect” that swings usually rely on. The trick is to make sure you saty nice and strong when you hike the kettlebell back and don’t let yourself sink much deeper into your hips, forcing you to recruit as many muscles as possible with the wind up.

– No-Mo Explosive Push Ups: Just like the Pausing Broad Jump, the No-Mo (stands for No Momentum) Push Up has you pause at the bottom by extending your arms out to your sides. This takes the tension off the muscle and gets rid of the built up energy, again forcing you to rely on maximal muscle recruitment instead of winding up.

I suggest keeping the sets and reps pretty low (2-4 sets of 3-6 reps) when using these exercises since they rely heavily on the nervous system, which will tire out faster than the muscles and lungs. Once this happens you can start to use bad technique and build bad habits, which is not the goal of training.

When added to solid technique, explosive strength is something that can really help your skills on the trail. Don’t make the mistake so many others do, though, and not train for both types of explosive strength. Add these exercises to your program and you’ll find your ability to explode when needed will increase significantly.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

MTB Fitness Membership Program

Last week I had the privileged of being on the Angry Mountain Biker Podcast, which is a podcast run by Will Niccolls. I had someone tell me about the show after checking into it I really liked Will’s every-day-rider outlook on things…as well as his love of flat pedals and standing pedaling.

After contacting Will to let him know I liked the show he invited me on to share some info on the pedal stroke, foot position and the real value of flat pedals. We also talked about my new Catalyst Pedal and how it fixes the problems caused by pedals that are too small for your feet (which includes every other pedal on the market).

At the beginning of the show I share the story of how falling over at a stop sign, training Aaron Gwinn and the desire to create the best training programs possible led me down the path that I’m on today.

Click here to listen to/ download this episode of the Angry Mountain Biker Podcast

I hope you like this interview and get some good info from it. Knowledge is power and for too long the cycling industry has preyed on our collective ignorance. Knowing the truth is the best way to decide what is best for you.

And I hope you’ll check out more episodes of the Angry Mountain Biker Podcast, Will has a good show with some fun stuff to share. Good mountain biking podcasts are pretty few and far between so its good to support one when I get the chance.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

MTB Kettlebell Workout

This is a guest post from Jukka Mäennenä, a Finnish cycling coach who specializes in BMX and Mountain Bike training. Jukka is someone I have known for a long time and he has been on the podcast before and shared a great article and video on modern day mobility training for riders.

Photo credit: Peter Holmberg

Photo credit: Peter Holmberg

The last time we talked the subject of BMX training came up and we both agreed that most mountain bikers could learn a lot more from training for BMX than training for road riding. After talking about it for a bit Jukka agreed to write and article sharing the three things he felt mountain bikers could learn from BMX racers.

And after a slight delay so he could write his second book he got it to me last week. I think there are some great lessons in here and I know you’ll get a lot from this unique perspective on training to be a better rider…

For most mountain bike riders BMX racing is an odd sport. Riders sprinting around a track on bikes that suit an average 8-year old. However, on a closer inspection it turns out that race tracks are very challenging – especially when going full speed. It isn´t a coincidence that a lot of the top mountain bike riders have background in BMX racing. I´d go as far as saying the no other sports lays the foundation for bike handling skills and control as well as BMX racing. Post Continued :: Click to Read More

MTB DB Conditioning Program
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James Wilson