“Balance good, karate good. Balance bad, may as well go home.” – Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid
While we aren’t preparing to fight Johnny and the Cobra Kai dojo in a karate tournament, Mr. Miyagi’s advice about the importance of balance applies to the trail as well. If you are balanced on your bike then you feel confident and safe on the trail…but when your balance is off it can feel like you are trying to kill yourself, causing you to wonder why you didn’t just stay home.
As important as it is, though, balance training is something that isn’t very well understood in the mountain biking world. This leaves a lot of riders missing out on the benefits of balance training or wasting their time on less-effective techniques.
At the heart of balance training for any sport is the need for applying the Specificity Principle, which says that the results you get are specific to the way you train something. While this seems obvious, when you look at how most riders approach balance training you see that it isn’t.
This issue was first brought to my attention at a Steve Maxwell workshop. I’ve talked about Steve before and he is one of the most well-read and experienced guys in the fitness industry.
Steve mentioned a study (for transparency I haven’t been able to confirm the exact study) that looked at different balance training methods and their effectiveness. What they found was that using a balance training method improved your performance using that method but it didn’t translate over nearly as well to the other methods.
In other words, balance was specific to how you train it and while one method may have a little transfer over to another, the best way to get better at a specific balancing task is to work on that task.
So, for us as riders this would mean that the best training method for improving your balance on the bike is going to involve the bike. Everything else is by definition general/ non-specific and therefore can’t have the same transfer.
And this brings us to our good friend the Trackstand.
Like I talked about in this podcast, the Trackstand is just your ability to balance without any momentum. When you are moving then momentum is helping you balance, meaning that the only way to test and improve your true balance on the bike is to not use any momentum…a.k.a. Trackstand.
In my mind this is how I see it – if someone wants to improve their balance on the bike then the first question is “can you hold a Regular Stance and Switchfoot Trackstand for at least 10 seconds”?
If the answer is “no” then that is the first – and only – thing to work on. Nothing else will help your balance on the bike like achieving that standard.
If the answer is “yes” then we can discuss other non-specific stuff that might have some transfer to the bike.
But to have someone who can’t Trackstand on a BOSU ball, stability ball or other balance training tool in an attempt to improve bike-specific balance makes no sense.
It also boils down to time – if you have a lot of training time like a pro rider or someone who works in the fitness industry tends to have you can do extra stuff that might have some transfer just to fill in the time. How someone with 4 hours a day to train versus someone with 4 hours a week would approach this problem is going to be different (I talked about this problem in the analysis I did of a Nino Shurter training video where he was doing some balance training in his workout).
And I’m all for using other sports and activities to help grow and to learn lessons that help with riding but, like my time in BJJ has taught me, having good balance and fitness on my bike isn’t the same as having them for BJJ.
Plus, if you enjoy using a particular exercise or method then by all means keep doing it. Having fun and enjoying your training is an important part of the process…but just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you don’t need to learn to Trackstand because you do something else for “balance training”.
Just remember fitness is specific to the task at hand and so, again, the best way to improve your balance on the bike is going to involve the bike. Plus, learning to Trackstand will help a lot of other areas of riding, making it just another reason that you need to have it dialed in.
So, if you need to improve your balance on the bike then go work on your Trackstands. You can also work them into your rides by challenging yourself to not put a foot down when you stop or playing around with them for a few minutes before a ride (which is a great way to “warm up” your balance on the bike).
While balance training for mountain biking is important, it isn’t complicated. Get to where you can hold a Regular and Switch Foot Trackstand for at least 10 seconds and you’ll notice a huge difference in your balance on the trail.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems