Don’t ride for “fitness”

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when getting into mountain biking is to think that it is a great way to get into shape. This mindset is actually a big problem with the fitness world in general – playing a sport is not how to get into shape. Things work out much better when you have a base level of fitness going into trail riding and it becomes a way to apply and hone your fitness.

There are a couple of problems with trying to use mountain biking as a way to get into shape. First, riding a bike is great fun but it is not the healthiest thing to do from a structural point of view. Sitting in a hunched over position while taking your legs through a shortened, repetitive range of motion a few hundred or thousand times a ride causes all sorts of imbalances. Sitting down also takes your core and hips out of the equation and will cause movement dysfunctions that can lead to problems down the road.

Sure, you may lose some weight and gain some cardio fitness but you don’t create the type of broad based fitness you really need to be healthy from a larger point of view. Remember that you are a human being first and a mountain biker second – don’t ignore the need for basic human function before you try to develop specialized fitness.

Another pitfall to the mindset of using sports to get healthy is a lack of perspective on the training plans of the pros. As I mentioned before, sport is not really about health, especially at the highest levels. To get your body into shape to be excellent at a few things means that other types of fitness and movement patterns will suffer.

There is an old Greek saying – where good sport begins, good health ends. Pros know that there is a physical cost for what they do to hone their bodies into peak shape for the demands of their sport. However, your average rider who looks at riding as “healthy” doesn’t have the same perspective.

They think that the pros represent the pinnacle of “fitness” and try to emulate the lopsided, unbalanced programs they use. They don’t realize that the pros usually spent years developing their fitness base and go back to work on it often – all they see is the amount of time spent working on specialized fitness qualities and think that copying their approach is the key to achieving their fitness goals.

The truth is that most riders have no business following a program inspired by a pro rider – they need to focus on building their fitness and movement base through a strength and conditioning program and then just getting out on their bikes and riding hard. In fact, focusing too much on the narrow fitness qualities needed to excel at the pro level of mountain biking may lead to short term gains but will lead to long term stagnation and injuries.

My point is that if you love riding then ride for fun, not for “fitness”. Use a smart, balanced strength and conditioning program to address your basic fitness and then ride hard to hone that fitness into “mountain biking shape”. Riding is a great way to take your fitness to another level, just don’t come into it thinking that it is a great way to get into shape in the first place. Keep some perspective on what the pros do to excel at the highest levels and you’ll progress further, enjoy riding more and avoid overuse injuries by taking this approach.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Martin says:

    Very good advice, James!

    Reply • November 21 at 9:57 am
  2. Allison says:

    Hmmm.. good point! I feel like there are a lot of benefits to working your core, not the best though. Definitely ride for fun, keeps your coordination sharp too!

    Reply • November 21 at 3:56 pm
  3. dave says:


    Do you think mixing it up between DH, DJ, pumptrack and XC is a reasonable compromise or still too ,much on the bike? Awfully hard to get fired up about kettle bells in the middle of the Summer riding season. . . even though I know I should.

    Reply • November 21 at 4:25 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Still too much, riding has general overuse patterns that switching types of riding won’t address. I’m sure you can find 30-45 minutes 2 times a week to ride faster, longer and with confidence on the trail. If you don’t train you’ll start to lose that.

      Reply • November 21 at 5:37 pm
  4. Judd says:

    I totally aggree with this post. I watched a show called strange addictions that had a guy who spent at least 6 hrs a day on his road bike and that was his only workout. He had been doing it for years and although he thought he was very health the guy could barely walk because of all the muscle imbalance through his legs and back. Besides you can kill the fun of it when you focus so much on the performance of it.

    Reply • November 21 at 11:54 pm
  5. xoidi says:

    good point thanks for that one. I find that too many of my riding buddies are looking at mountain biking in exactly the way you describe in this post. Still I’ve got one question: Would you say that it changes anything if you do ALL the uphills on your bike as well? Of course this means even more time on the bike, but at the same time I feel that this gives me better opportunities to actually train and work out. And of course I do a lot of your stuff off the bike as well.

    Reply • November 22 at 4:30 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If anything the hard uphill efforts “cement” the movement dysfunctions even more. There is no way to just ride and be balanced and fit. Trust me, if all I needed to do was ride I’d skip the gym too but I know how much better I ride when I do.

      Reply • November 22 at 6:31 am
  6. Greg Heil says:

    Interesting article! I need to do a better job of this…

    Reply • November 22 at 5:28 am
  7. John K. says:

    I agree with this article, but it really depends on your definition of “fit”. I only ride in the summer, no weights and no mobility work. Yes, I suffer. I do my strength and mobility work in the winter. Up here in northern BC, we only get 4-5 months to ride so when summer comes you have to drop everything and get out there. That’s just the way it is.

    So, after a summer of riding (and nothing else), my resting pulse is very low (high 30s), my blood pressure is way down, and my heart and lungs are tip top. Am I fit? I think so. Am I tight in the hips? Absolutely.

    I think your definition of fit is comprehensive and accurate. I guess as a counterpoint, I suggest that the definition of “fit” can vary between individuals and even over the year. I’ll come out of this winter more limber and stronger (i.e., moving more functionally), but I will have lost some of my cardio fitness. To me that’s the reality of life in the north where we have such defined seasons, and the riding window is so short.

    Reply • November 22 at 10:03 am
  8. Awesome post! We run a crossfit facility, and see exactly what you described almost on a daily basis. Our most common scenario is with runners, particularly long distance runners. They typically can run (long and slow), yet can not do a pull up, strict push up, box jump or sprint. I like how you presented sport as something you do for fun – yet you need to focus on strength and conditioning to build fitness!

    Reply • November 22 at 10:29 am
  9. HundredDollar says:

    I prefer to think of mountain biking as one element of a whole host of things that keep me in shape. I don’t necessarily think that mountain biking is bad or even “horrible” for you any more than eating chicken is horrible for you.

    In both cases, too much of one of those things and not much of anything else leads to problems. If you only ate chicken all the time and never ate a salad once in a while you would have some serious gastrointestinal issues. Yet we all need some lean protein in our regular diet. We all know the benefits of mountain biking, and James, you point out some negatives that can’t easily be argued with. If all I did was ride, I agree, I would be doing some damage, but I don’t. I snowboard, lift weights, hike, swim, and yes, even run every once in a while even though I hate it and would rather be on my bike because let’s face it man was meant to ROLL!

    Follow the Golden Mean, dude. I think Aristotle once said that but I could be mistaken.

    Reply • November 22 at 11:23 am
  10. Dave says:

    Good points James. I would like to suggest that for someone currently unfit, riding is a fantastic way to start the long road to achieve a healthier, happier state of being. The key point is that simply put, riding bikes is awesome fun. Many people hesitate to even seriously contemplate exercising because they have this idea that it is all pain and hard work. With riding and many other activities the fitness part is just an added bonus of heading out and having a good time. If someone just starting off chooses riding then they may well have just made a lifelong lifestyle change. When first starting out there is going to be plenty of walking and carrying the bike which can help provide some overall gains that are not just riding specific.

    I totally agree with you on the point that you can’t just ride but I think this applies more to those already experienced in riding looking for further gains rather than someone just starting out.

    Reply • November 22 at 12:05 pm
  11. Dave says:

    Hi James, I found your post very interesting, as I am the rider you are describing! I Have been mountain biking for 20 years, since I was 11 years old. I don’t enjoy and don’t do any other forms of exercise. I suffer from back pain, and winging scapulae, I believe these are both caused by my hate of all exercises that don’t involve bikes. What would you recommend I do to help balance out the effects of riding?

    Reply • November 22 at 1:44 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Get going on a program that addresses your weaknesses. While you might not see it now, doing that will help you enjoy riding more.

      Reply • November 22 at 11:54 pm
  12. Robert says:

    You’re making a good point here, at least that’s what I feel.
    I started riding (XC) for the fun of it, then started competing still just for the fun of it, but I feel that I’m not fit enough for that (cramping too much, bad technique and so on). So this winter I’m focusing on the most simple way of getting in shape, calisthenics. Btw, awesome reading “Convict Conditioning” despite the odd title – thank you!

    Reply • November 22 at 6:55 pm
  13. electric says:

    You can get pretty screwed up if you don’t keep the ground in sight.

    If your training eyes are on chasing a pro and not doing what is right for you then you are for sure in trouble.

    Mountain biking is fun, but it is no means a complete solution. That is why people find things like strength training (James) or Yoga(Leech) are really beneficial. It’s not just all a plot.

    Reply • November 22 at 8:29 pm
  14. Jon says:

    Good topic James. I immediately dismissed this post from the title intitially cause I pretty much have “just been riding more” and feel like I am in the best shape riding wise than I have been in quite sometime now. It wasn’t until I dove into the article that I realized the point you were getting at, which makes much sense and is very practical and useful to riders at any given level. I realized that the reason I feel I am the best shape, riding wise right now in sometime is that I am really enjoying my riding and having a lot of fun on every single ride and an increased perceived fitness level just happens to be a biproduct of the riding I am doing and really enjoying and making the most of it for any given ride whether it be a 45 min rally fest or a 2-3hr longer ride. Riding for fun and the benefits associated with that, instead of riding to just train, makes a lot sense and thanks for the reminder.

    Reply • November 22 at 9:42 pm
  15. Leo says:

    Only one word: brilliant.
    Thank you James.

    Reply • November 25 at 7:35 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks, glad you liked it.

      Reply • November 25 at 10:24 pm
  16. James Rochford says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I am just getting back into moutain biking here in San Diego and was planning on using it to get more fit. Glad i read this….. The good news is that I spend time in the gym each week and I felt very strong getting on my bike.
    I just feel to bulky and i wand to trim down and get at the right ridining weight… Thoughts??

    Reply • September 8 at 4:29 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The free workout you get with the Trail Rider Fundamentals mini-course is a good place to start and I have a couple of good workouts on this site as well. The DB Combos is a good program to build some strength and burn some fat.

      Reply • September 10 at 2:30 pm
  17. Jon Laterveer says:

    Great article, I wish I read it and followed your philosophies 2 years ago. I quit trail running, skiing, strength training except for chin ups and just biked on trails and road. I put in a very poor and in frequent 20 minute stretch routine from a magazine and thought I would get better. How could I fail, I was biking 10 hrs plus a week? Guess what I became a very broken, unhealthy functional mess and biking was no longer fun! I am sure glad I started your programs before it was to late! Thanks James.

    Reply • March 4 at 5:45 am
  18. RennyG says:

    I am suffering the consequences of exactly what you are talking about in the article. I had a “great” season in 2012, rode a ton, increased my skills level, did a couple of races and am now suffering serious overuse issues from years of too much biking and not enough balance of mobility and strength training. Let me be an example to the rest of you and tell you that 2 months of chronic discomfort which is WORSE at night is good reason to listen to James. Thanks James and I wish I had come across this website long ago when I first got into road riding. I have to be honest and say my massage therapist warned me about biking…..

    Reply • March 4 at 7:42 am
  19. Renee says:

    I love mountain bikes! True they build upper body strength. I am 51 years old and female and have been riding for 18 years. I can do pull ups and push ups no problem. The trill of a mountain bike is riding over bumps and over curbs. I have never crashed and ride in San Francisco. Btw the cops have bikes similiar to what I ride. Carrying the bike down to the train terminal builds the core muscles. I have always been agile and like loner sports like swimming laps. Swimming builds the neck in ways I don’t like. Mountain hiking makes strong arms and legs and an attractive figure – not skinny though!. The key is upper body and stting up to stretch. Believe it or not strong hands are essential. Not being overweight is really essential to gaining speed and agility when going up hills.

    Reply • May 26 at 8:11 pm
    • Renee says:

      I mean “biking” not “hiking.” I’m on a Kindle with auto spell check (sorry)

      Reply • May 26 at 8:28 pm
  20. Renee says:

    I think mountain bikes require a certain mindset and natural body type. I don’t think of them as “fitness.” It’s more of escape and how can I challenge myself in terms of coordination and agility.

    Reply • May 26 at 8:21 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I totally agree with you – mountain biking is an escape and way to use your fitness, not a way to “get fit”!

      Reply • May 27 at 8:24 am
  21. LV2 MTB says:

    Excellent post. For me, mountain biking is my motivation for the strength and flexibility work.

    Reply • December 29 at 7:24 pm
  22. Karsten says:

    Great article. What kind of work should you then do for conditioning ??

    Reply • May 25 at 9:05 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Riding your bike is great for conditioning, the point is that you have to account for the other things you need like mobility and strength as well. Every sport has things that create imbalances and these imbalances cause health problems. Part of the issue is that we use the terms “fitness” and “health” interchangeably when they aren’t. Check out this follow up article I wrote that clarifies come of my points.

      Reply • May 26 at 7:40 am
  23. Roger Godwin says:

    I started back mtb about three months ago. I vowed this time it would be for fun FIRST and then for healthier living. So my question is?? I ride three times a week, for a total of 25+ for the week. Will this along with some kettle bell strength training be a good mix??

    Reply • January 2 at 3:48 pm
  24. James Breeden says:

    Great comments. I have loved biking for years but it is way too specific for overall fitness. What really helps is a versatile resistance program and most important is certified hot yoga and nutrition with the right fluids.

    Reply • May 17 at 2:11 pm
  25. Jay says:

    I agree but I’m not sure any one activity gets a guy fit! I lift weights and ride. At the end of the day do the activity that you enjoy!

    Reply • September 11 at 3:39 am
  26. John says:

    Sorry your so wrong. I’m 49 years old and has lost 30 kilos in 5 months. Now weighing 76 kilos at 6 foot tall. My resting heart rate is 45 beats and blood pressure perfect. Also lost my gut, flat as a I feel awesome.. I do incorporate walking and some weight lifting just to hold on to mass.

    Reply • February 1 at 7:27 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve had good success with your weight loss program. However, I stand by my assertion that there is more to fitness than just being able to ride a bike and that without other things in the mix – like the stretching and strength training you do – you will end up with some sort of overuse injury or gaping hole in your overall fitness. Keep up the good work, it sounds like you are on the right path.

      Reply • February 2 at 11:26 am
  27. Brandon says:

    Utter bullshit I started mountain biking a year ago and I have a completely different incredible body now. Core arms legs mental health everything benefits from Mountain biking anyone who disagrees with that is trying to sell you a gym membership .
    you were born a gym rat you’ll die a gym rat and only your fleas will mourn you

    Reply • June 29 at 9:05 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am sorry that you completely missed the point of the post, no where in it am I trying to sell someone a gym membership. If you read it for what it says instead of what you assumed it said when you first saw it you would see that I love riding and feel it has tremendous benefits…but there are also things that you need for a healthy body that it doesn’t do for you. While I appreciate your enthusiasm for the sport, on a long enough timeline these things will catch up with you and cause problems which will start to limit your riding. Get back to me after a decade of just riding your bike and doing no mobility or strength training and tell me how “fit” you still feel. I’m just trying to share some hard learned lessons to help keep people on their bikes and off the injury list.

      Reply • June 30 at 8:44 am
      • Tim says:

        Good point here James, in just 5-years of being riding-focused (road, gravel, trail, snow)…I managed to let my mobility and general training slip. The result is my shoulder mobility and strength has suffered and I can no longer do a proper kettlebell windmill. Of course, your mileage my vary and in my case, I travel 1/2 the month (thanks for the dumbbell conditioning program) and realized I need to focus on mobility and strength more to regain lost ground. Again, n=1.

        Reply • March 29 at 7:25 am
  28. FredB says:

    I agree with you to a point James. But I think you are neglecting the motivational factor. Mountain Biking is fun and once you start doing it there’s this intense motivation to get better at it. It’s hard to beat the MTB benefit for Cardio fitness either. As far as weight loss, it’s probably the most fun effective thing you can do for that. Personally I lost 17 lbs and that made me even more motivated. The Cardio, weight loss and fun factors all feed into motivation. That’s probably why a lot of us are here at your site as well. We’ve come to realize that to get better, have more fun, we need to do something different than just riding, so I’m with you there 100%. I’m just saying that don’t discount the intense motivation that this sport/hobby generates in many of us. It’s real and a huge reason why we get on our bikes several times a week, buy the best equipment we can afford (sometimes we can’t, lol) and seek out knowledge from experts like yourself. And not all of us want to race or compete, although Strava has brought out some of that in me as well at age 69, lol. Oh love your pedals!

    Reply • March 29 at 8:28 am
  29. Nate C says:

    Thanks for posting this. My current plan integrates strength/mobility with weight training, and then some time on the bike for fun, and more time on the bike for cardio. Just to clarify, do you have a ratio in mind of bike to weight to mobility that you think would be harmful to exceed?

    Reply • March 29 at 3:00 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      To be honest I don’t, it really depends on your goals. If you are a serious racer then 70-80% of your time should be spent on riding or skills training. If you are just riding for fun then closer to a 50-50 mix would work well. But for some people they may need to go 80% strength and mobility and really cut back on the riding for a short period if they have major mobility and strength deficits.

      Reply • April 26 at 11:25 am

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