One of the more controversial pieces of advice I give surrounds your pedals…and no, I’m not talking about flats or clipless. I’m talking about which pedal, or foot really, you have forward when you ride. Specifically, the need to be able to ride with either foot forward.
Technically known as riding switchfoot, this is the stance that has you with your “other” foot forward. For me, I like to ride with my right foot forward, so having my left foot forward is riding switchfoot.
If you are like most riders then you feel a marked decrease in your balance, flow and skills when you are riding switchfoot. For this reason it is usually something that is avoided on the trail and rarely is it something that is purposefully practiced.
This is unfortunate because I really believe that riding switchfoot is one of the top skills you should have on the trail. It increases your safety and performance and I’m really shocked that it isn’t promoted more as a skill that new riders should invest time in learning.
I know that I certainly didn’t hear about it when I started riding. All I knew was that I needed to be able to hang on if I got stuck riding switchfoot for a short time until I could switch back to my regular stance but I never even thought of going there on purpose. No matter what the situation was on the trail I figured I was better off just focusing on using my regular stance.
Then I read a book by a samurai who lived in the 1600’s named Miyamoto Musashi. Called The Book of 5 Rings, it contains Musashi’s wisdom from the journey to becoming the greatest swordsman in Japan as well as an accomplished artist.
Musashi had a very logical way of looking at the mindset you needed for training and one of the things he mentioned was the need to “be neither left or right footed”, as he put it. He said that you couldn’t count on your enemy always attacking you from your “good” side and that you should be able to execute your skills from either side.
This got me thinking about riding switchfoot. I’d gotten into a couple of really hairy spots because I couldn’t get my regular foot forward going into a technical section and this made me think about how I couldn’t count on the trail always “attacking me” from my good side.
So I started to make a conscious effort to learn how to ride switchfoot at a much higher level. I started forcing myself to ride switchfoot as much as possible and only use my regular stance for sections that I really needed it or if my other leg needed a break.
At first it wasn’t easy and I definitely had to slow down. I had to re-learn how to ride my bike on some level but I actually found it pretty fun as well. It made familiar trails a lot more interesting and I could see myself improving pretty quickly with my switchfoot skills.
Its been a few years now since I started out to improve my switchfoot skills and while I’ll always have my right foot forward when things are really testing my limits, I’ve also gotten really comfortable with either foot forward in 90%+ of all situations I run into on the trail. In fact, I probably use my switchfoot stance more than my regular stance and I can’t really tell which foot is forward most of the time.
Along the way I’ve found that being able to ride switchfoot has some serious performance advantages on the trail. In fact, anyone who can’t ride switchfoot at a decent level is definitely handicapping themselves. In my experience, here are 5 reasons you need to be able to ride switchfoot:
– Off Camber Trail: These are some of the trickiest sections of singletrack to ride on because you can often get some speed going but it is real easy to get sucked off trail. But when you can ride switchfoot, you can make sure you have the foot closest to the “inside” as the forward foot. This will allow you to easily shift your hips out to weight the outside foot. This action “steers” the bike back into the hill and helps keep it from getting sucked off trail. This action is much harder if the feet are switched and much more balanced than just dropping the far side crank.
– Cornering: I’ve talked about this a lot and this is usually where I start to get a lot of push-back on my switchfoot ideas. I have found that the easiest way to get your body to do what it needs to do in order to corner properly, you need to have the inside foot forward. This means that for a left hand turn you would want your left foot forward and for a right hand turn you want your right foot forward.
This foot position allows you to shift your hips over towards the support leg, which will help you “set the edge” as you turn. While you can pull this movement off with either foot forward, it is easier and more efficient to learn if you can get your inside foot forward. Check out this video to see what I’m talking about and why this hip action is much different than just “dropping the outside crank”.
– Riding Down Switchbacks: Riding down a switchback is just an extreme corner, so getting your inside foot forward will help you ride these easier as well. Just like regular corners, you need to shift your hips to turn your body in the direction you want to go. Again, this is much different than just “dropping the outside crank”, which can result in an unbalanced position when you need your balance the most.
– Helps Distribute Fatigue: Your trail leg is your main support leg when you stand up to pump and flow on the bike. If you can’t ride switchfoot, then you are always putting the most stress on the same leg, which will take its toll both on and off the bike. Your overworked trail leg will not only fatigue faster on the trail, all that extra tension and stress will create some nasty flexibility imbalances as well. By being able to ride switchfoot you can “save” your good leg for when you really need it and help keep your body healthy and moving well.
– Improves Safety: Like I mentioned before, we’ve all had those times when we got caught riding switchfoot and we weren’t really ready for it. The fact that your skills and confidence plummet simply because your feet are switched means that you are putting yourself at unnecessary risk. Being able to confidently navigate the trail with either foot forward means you won’t have a glaring weakness that can really get you hurt.
As you can see, riding switchfoot is something that every rider should be able to do. It just takes some time and practice to improve it, which means that you have to have some sort of plan.
If you’re interested in improving your switchfoot skills and seeing how it impacts all aspects of your riding then here are 3 tips to help you:
1 – Use strength training to iron out the core asymmetries that are behind the problem. By using exercises like the ½ Kneeling Shoulder Presses, Stagger Stance/ Single Deadlifts and Stagger Stance/ Single Leg Squats (among many others) you work on the specific core strength you need to feel strong and stable with your feet switched. Once you feel equally strong and stable with either leg in the gym, you’ll be amazed at how much stronger you automatically feel on the bike as well.
2 – Practice your switchfoot trackstands. For a lot of you this would also mean to practice your regular foot trackstands as well, since this is another valuable but often neglected skill. Similar to getting stronger with either foot forward, learning your balance points and improving your “no speed” balance with your weaker side will also translate to improved balance and confidence on the trail.
3 – Make a conscious effort to practice it on the trail. Challenge yourself to put yourself into switchfoot on all easy sections of trail and only use your regular stance when you really need it. While you may find this hard to do all of the time, spending at least one ride a week focused on improving this skill will quickly help you turn it from a weakness into a strength.
Best of all, riding switchfoot is one of the easiest skills to learn and improve with. While it can take you years to figure out cornering or to really get your body position dialed in, you can see dramatic improvements in your switchfoot skills pretty quickly.
Within a few months you’ll find that you can easily ride with either foot forward 80% of the time and eventually you’ll get to where you can hardly tell the difference. And since your body position and balance points won’t be limited by always riding with the same foot forward you’ll find that your other skills will come along faster as well.
As you can tell I’m a pretty big fan of this skill. It is easy to work on, easy to improve on and can immediately impact your riding in several different ways. This makes it a “must have” skill that I’m surprised isn’t promoted more.
If you’ve never worked on this skill before, you should take a personal 30 Day Switchfoot Challenge and see how it affects your riding. Spend the next 30 days focused on Stagger Stance and Single Leg exercises in the gym, working on your switchfoot trackstands and practicing your switchfoot skills on the trail. The improvements you see as a result of this approach will help you immediately and will set you up with a more solid foundation to build your other skills from.
Sometimes the simple skills get overlooked for the bigger, flashier ones but they are often the foundational pieces that we really need to work on. I hope this article will help you make sure that you aren’t being held back with this overlooked skill. And if you have any questions about riding switchfoot or how it can help you on the trail then leave a comment below, I’m always glad to help.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems