Cage fighting and mountain biking

If we were to make a list of athletes we could model our training approach after I’m sure that a Mixed Martial Artist would not make many rider’s list. After all, what does a guy who trains himself to get into a cage and fight another man have in common with a mountain biker? Well, I for one think that they have a lot to teach us.

While I think that their physical training has a lot to teach us (I personally look more at what a guy like George St. Pierre does than what Lance Armstrong does to get training ideas), I think that a lot of riders would do well to look at their general philosophy. Basically, Mixed Martial Artists (MMA) pride themselves in being able to overcome any opponent by having a wide variety of skills. They don’t just learn how to box or how to wrestle, they learn how to use it all.

While the traditional martial arts teach you one skill set that usually only works if you fight someone with the same skill set, MMA fighters train to handle anything. While they may certainly have a strength in one area that they bring to the cage, no one is successful for very long unless they can diversify their skill set.

I look at the trail as our “cage”, if you will. Each time you ride the trail is trying to beat you down, either by throwing stuff at you that you can not ride or by trying to wear you out to the point that you start to make mistakes. Either way, the trail has a distinct advantage when we close out minds to other skill sets and only concentrate on what we are good at or is traditionally associated with our riding style.

For example, most XC riders totally tune out my advice about getting stronger and increasing their technical skills. These are things that are usually associated with downhillers and freeriders while they usually worry about logging more miles and building their “cardio”. To me, this is like a fighter stepping in the cage with great stand up and cardio but no ground game.

Again, this is just my take on it but I think that technical skills are like the Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu of mountain biking. Learning how to corner, pump terrain and bunny hop are like learning how to turn the flow of the trail to your advantage. Instead of just trying to pedal and impose your will on the trail you learn how to take what the trail is doing and turn it against it.

This means that you will use less energy to cover the same distance at the same speed. XC riders would benefit greatly by increasing their technical skills because they would be able to ride harder or go longer without actually increasing the cardio capacity, something that is pretty hard for a lot for them to understand because they have been told for so long that the only way to get faster is to pedal more.

While I’m picking on the XC riders a bit here, the examples of riders who have tuned out other skill sets doesn’t stop there. I just wanted to address this persistent objection to my advice by that crowd as it being only for the DH and freeride crew. I am simply addressing the more aggressive side of riding which is a skill set that every rider could benefit from, some just more than others.

We would all do well to take a good, hard look at what we do well on the trail and what we tend to avoid. Being able to pedal for 5 hours but not being able to navigate your way off a 2 foot ledge is no good. Being able to huck a 20 foot cliff but not being able to pedal a 2 hour trail ride is no good. To me, mountain biking is being able to show up at any trail and being able to handle the majority of what it throws at you. Too many riders get hung up on one riding style and miss out on what our amazing sport really has to offer.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Cookie says:


    I totally agree with your analogy. XC racers need more then just hill-climbing legs. So many races and endurance events these days are populated by riders with fantastic fitness and poor skills. Its frustrating being blasted away on hills only to ride your brakes on the downhills because the rider/s hasnt taken the time to learn those skills.

    I know your focus is the strength training components but do you have some good resources for the skills you mentioned? ie: corner, pump terrain and bunny hop


    Reply • December 2 at 4:07 pm
  2. Rick says:

    Interesting concept. I trained and fought with several known MMA fighters back in the late 80s and early-mid 90s when MMA was in its infancy. We used to get fighters/instructors of different backgrounds together for “closed door” sessions. We’d spar with each other with the expectation that we’d all learn to become more diversified, and thus more complete fighters. As a mtb’er I can relate to this comparison and the idea that the trails can throw anything at you in the most unpredictable way. That’s why I have a hard time understanding how XC riders structure their workouts when to me its the trail that is going to dictate what skills you employ. Its funny and perhaps ironic that I see similarities between my post ride and post fight exhaustion.

    Thanks for the cool article

    Reply • December 3 at 7:18 am
  3. bikejames says:

    @ Cookie – I recommend Lee McCormack and Gene Hamilton for skills stuff. Lee has a great website with a lot of good info at and Gene does camps around the country, which you can find out more about at

    Reply • December 4 at 9:16 am

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