October
29

Fat person curling soup cans…

No matter what area of life we are talking about one of the worst mistakes someone can make is assuming that the first thing that brought them some success is the best way to do something. This mistake leads them to dismiss other, more productive ways to accomplish their goals. When I worked a lot in the fat loss industry I had an analogy to describe this all-too-common phenomenon – the fat person curling soup cans…

When you suck at something, almost anything you do will move you towards being better. Problems arise, though, when you start to get better and the old ways stop working.

If you took someone who is fat and out of shape, spending all day sitting behind a desk at work or on the couch at home, and have them start to walk around the block while curling soup cans they will start to lose weight and see results. However, this doesn’t mean that walking around the block curling soup cans is the best way to lose fat. If this person mistook the first thing that brought them success as the best way to do it they would eventually plateau, stop seeing results and eventually quit.

When you suck at something, almost anything you do will move you towards being better. Problems arise, though, when you start to get better and the old ways stop working. At this point the usual plan is to simply do more of what worked before, hoping that it will kick start the results again (using our fat person analogy, if walking around the block 4 times isn’t working anymore then let’s make it 6).

When looking at this problem from this perspective most people would agree that there are much better ways to accomplish this goal, such as better nutrition and training strategies. Refusing to look at other options because they had initial success with one way of doing things will lead to long term failure. But this is exactly what is happening in the mountain biking world every day.

Here are three examples of this mindset at work in our sport…

1) Just ride your bike more. This is the first and most obvious one – when you first started riding your bike you got much better and improved your trail fitness rapidly. Almost every time you went out for a ride you could ride a bit further or clear something you couldn’t ride before. This is obviously very intoxicating as you start to think that this progression will just keep happening until you are one of the best riders in your area.

However, as almost every rider finds out at some point, this approach stops working. You hit a wall and no matter how much more you ride you just can’t seem to bust through it. The problem is that riding simply allows you to apply and realize your athletic potential on the bike but it doesn’t appreciably improve that potential as you get better.

The true paradox of mountain bike riding is that at a certain point you have to get off the trail in order to continue to get better on your bike. You can not improve your mobility, strength and power on the trail and once you’ve tapped the potential of those things out you have to go back and increase them in order to see improvements on the trail. Instead of riding all the time you will improve fast with less time on the trail and more time in the gym.

2) Clipless pedals make you “faster”. While I admit that clipless pedals, in the right hands, can you make you faster I will say that most rider’s experience with them leads them to believe that they are the one and only way to ride. While I’ve written extensively about this subject in articles like Which Muscles are Really Used During the Pedal Stroke and Being Pro-Flats Doesn’t Make Me Anti-Clipless, at the heart of the issue is the apparent performance boost seen by new riders when switching to clipless pedals.

Since most riders have never had the chance to experience a good pair of flats and shoes (like 5-10 sticky rubber shoes) their first experiences on the trail with cheap flats and tennis shoes is usually pretty scary. Feet are flying off the pedals, they can’t pedal very well and maneuvering their bike on the trail is an act of faith more than skill. Then the well meaning local bike shop guy sells you some clipless pedals and a lot of those problems seem to go away.

Now your feet stay on your pedals (even if you don’t want them to and you tip over when stopping), your pedal stroke seems smoother and you can actually use your new pedals and shoes to pick up the rear end of the bike so you can bunny hop. All in all you’ve become a “better” rider, which means that clipless pedals must be the “best” way to go. However, this is not the case.

The truth is that for the vast majority of riders the clipless pedals didn’t enhance their performance but instead covered up the lack of pedal stroke and technical skills. Learning how to pedal and maneuver your bike on flats will actually make you a better rider in the long run, not to mention the improved longevity of your knees and hips. Clipless pedals can make you faster but only if you’ve built your technique on flats, meaning that they have a valuable place in every rider’s toolbox.

3) Riding a road bike for off-season training. Again, I’ve tried to explain in previous articles that I am not against getting out on the road for training but I do not get the use of a road bike for those workouts. I think that the real issue is, again, the initial results seen by a rider who undertakes a real workout plan more than there being magical properties to riding a road bike. Since road cycling has traditionally been far more structured in their training approach, most mountain bikers have their first taste of the power of structured training from a training plan for roadies.

If you get out for several hours a week and apply a training plan to your workouts you will see far better results than either doing nothing or just winging it on your own. However, much like the fat person curling soup cans, those same riders make the mistake of confusing the principle of having a structured training plan with the method of riding a road bike. You can tweak principles to better suit your needs and improve your results but when you get stuck on a specific method you get very limited with what you can do.

As you can see this mindset of “first thing that brings me results in THE WAY” is very prevalent in our sport. It is one of the first obstacles I have to overcome when explaining to mountain bikers that a strength and conditioning program designed with the unique demands of trail riding isn’t optional if you really want to be a better rider – they are the only way to see sustained improvement year after year. Don’t be like the fat person curling soup cans who sees some results and then refuses to expand their mindset when the results stop coming.

Seeking other ways to improve isn’t comfortable since you have to both question what you thought you knew and look at new ways of thinking about your problem but it is the only way to separate yourself from the masses of “average” and start to become good or even great. In fact, I’ve had to do this exact same thing several times over the years and when I look back at the training programs I wrote 10 years ago I can see several things that I could do better, which is why I am on a constant search for better ways to produce results in the least amount of time possible.

It is also the reason I created the Ultimate MTB Workout Program and why it has been revised 4 times – I wanted to give riders everywhere access to the best workouts programs I’ve created as a result of thousands of hours of study, hundreds of clients trained and my experience both as a mountain biker and a strength coach. It remains the best program on the planet for riders who want the absolute best training plan possible to help them ride faster, longer and with more confidence on the trail.

In fact, here is a testimonial I got from Jeff Lenosky, who is one of the more famous mountain bikers out there after having appeared in countless riding movies, who came to me earlier this year wanting me to help him improve his trail riding fitness so he could be more competitive in a local race series…

“Early this season I decided to get more serious about my training so I teamed up with MTB Strength Training Systems.  The results have been great, I’ve podiumed in Super D, Observed Trials, Speed Trials, Enduro and XC events this year and having a well rounded strong body has definitely helped make all this possible.”

On a side note, I qualified for the Cat 1 40+ XC Nationals next year!  Haha. I went to race a Super D and the next day was the first qualifier for next year and I got 2nd!”
~Jeff Lenosky

If there was ever a rider who could sit back and say “I want to just keep doing what I’ve been doing” it was Jeff…you don’t become world famous as a rider without something you’re doing working. But, like most great performers, he recognized the danger of the “fat person curling soup cans” mindset and sought help to continue improvement. If you want to avoid those pitfalls and jumpstart your growth as a rider again then be sure to check out The Ultimate MTB Workout Program and don’t get stuck in the frustrating cycle of just trying to do more of the same thing.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tony says:

    Coach…what a great article! Looking forward to some great winter training in my gym using your training tips. I will ride when possible but, I have put my soup cans away.

    Reply • October 29 at 6:19 am
    • James Wilson says:

      Glad you liked the article, it is one I’ve wanted to write for a while but just needed to find the time. Glad the tips are helping your riding.

      Reply • October 30 at 11:35 am
  2. Tim says:

    As a late starter at 57 years old, been riding now 16 months, I can say quite proudly I have dropped the soup cans. I started on SPD pedals and switched to flats after reading your material, I for one will never go back. Even though I am looked at like a weird old man using them on trails dominated by spandex and spd. No road machines for me….never. But I will say I am one of the wall hitters for conditioning. I started out only being able to do maybe one mile with 40 stops, to now my highest single ride is 16 miles. But I have found myself in a holding pattern. So I have purchased your no gym program and plan on stating it as soon as poor riding conditions slow down my trail time. With expectations of being a much improved rider this spring. Thanks for the great info on your site and I am certain I will be thanking you for improved performance this spring.

    Reply • October 30 at 7:04 am
    • James Wilson says:

      Glad to hear that you’ve been able to find your own path to enjoy riding more. I think you’ll enjoy the NGNP workout pogram, keep me posted on how you feel next spring after a winter of doing it.

      Reply • October 30 at 11:37 am
  3. Guthrie says:

    James, HAHA dude, “fat person walking around the block with a can of soup” That’s got to be my favorite example of the month and seriously made my day!

    I’ve actually been thinking about what else I can do to maintain a decent fitness level during the winter and get better for next year. Been racing this year and feel like I have improved a lot, but I’m kind of hitting a wall as the season is winding down up here in UT. I purchased and have done the body weight program which was great. Now, I recently started working out in the gym again and am trying to find a good mix between getting some muscle growth AKA “getting ripped” and mountain biking. Think your DB combo might be the ticket to mix in. Will this help me maintain/improve fitness AND aid in muscle growth or not really intended for that? I’m cool with whatever, just curious.

    P.S I went to GJ and Fruita this past weekend. I think I saw you at 18 road on Saturday late afternoon with a rad black dog…

    Reply • October 30 at 1:06 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The DB Combos Program would be a great one to improve fitness and give you some muscle growth but it certainly isn’t going to give the same results in that area as a program that focuses on muscle building. I think that the muscle growth you’ll get from the DB Combos Program is what you’re looking for, though, as it will be more functional that what you get from a bodybulding type workout.

      Yeah, that probably was me with the legendary trail mutt Aka. If you see me out there again please say hi, I love to meet people who’ve found my blog helpful.

      Reply • November 2 at 10:16 am
      • Guthrie says:

        Yeah man, I pet AKA for minute. Cool trail pup. We were parked right behind you guys.

        I am definitely looking for something for more functional fitness first then muscle building. I just ordered the DB combo and am looking through it now. Seems to be just what I wanted. I’m Excited to start it!

        Reply • November 2 at 2:25 pm
  4. Wacek says:

    Here’s my a bit deeper take on it. We like dogmas, we like strong ideas organizing our world, helping us get through our problems. We also like things that can do that for us. It is all fine and natural, every now and then we establish some kind of ideology within us, “that’s what’s right”. It seems to carry us on upward curve but we plateau eventually and our choice is either to harden up in that belief (flats for life?) and find arguments for it to build up an even stronger wall, or we can evaluate it with the use of other tools, theories by opening our minds and searching. We need to remember here that finding is reserved for seekers. Sitting and waiting is inefficient even if we catch somethign sometimes. The trouble is, while it is important to build strong walls (it’s our character) at the same time that wall requires to be climbed over to see more. Eventually some of us might get open minded enough by the practice of questioning himself that they will see holes in that wall, and if they get even smarter, instead of seeing it as a failure to be fixed, they will use it as a window of opportunity. Some forts need to be abandoned. Then comig back shortly to things, we love to give power to artifacts, like clipless pedals or dropper posts. We often see more in them that there really is, but I think the biggest trouble is that while we put so much trust in objects, we loose a great deal of it in ourselves.(look what happend to Sauron in LOTR! – JK! ;)) The truth is, it’s all in ourselves, bike is not important, everyone who rode down World Cup DH track on XC bike with confidence will tell you that. That idea, of not being able to achieve something by ourselves is a deep pit to get out of. And getting you of it requires clear mind, looking for right tools (kettlebell instead of SPD pedal or larger fork?), inevitably teachers like James. But it has to start within – I want to get the hell out of that pit, and I’m gonna do everything possible to succeed.

    It’s a good way to think: what possibly can make me faster? 1.fitness program? I’m doing it for a yearnow, where did it take me so far, and where will I be if I proceed the same way?
    2.Bike parts? I earn 10$ per hour, it takes me 250 work hours to earn a carbon frame, that is almost 2 months, 3/4 of it goes for bills and living, times 3 three then, 6 months – it took me six months to be 1s faster on 3 min track, a guy next door is beating me by 20sec and he has no CF frame… there are no bike parts that will earn you that time!
    3.Mind training? – what if my lack of concentration is holding me back? What if there is a way to focus better so I can make much better use of my assets? Waves are cool while on the sea to float on them, they take us to suprising places – what if I can steer the boat directly to those places I’ve read about and see more in the process? Then be able to withstand some storms not be washed on some shore with sign saying: Warning mines! Marketing department of THE Industry

    Reply • November 8 at 1:53 am

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