In my last blog post I talked about the importance of being able to deal with compromises, especially with your training program. One of the real dangers, however, is denying that something carries any compromises with it which leads to a fall sense of confidence in its effectiveness.

Finding the balance between the two is the key to an effective program, especially if you have a limited amount of time to train and need everything you do to be as effective as possible.

In our sport the best example of this is the use of road biking as a training tool. For a lot of riders the answer to “how do I get better at mountain biking” is to spend hours on a road bike. Because of the success seen with this approach by roadies the assumption is that the same approach will work for us.

Now, this isn’t to say that there is no value in riding a road bike for mountain bikers. But if you don’t understand General Physical Prep (GPP) vs. Specific Physical Prep (SPP) and how it fundamentally changes what riding a road bike does for us on the trail then you can waste a lot of time and effort.

After posting my article on How To Use Road Riding as a Mountain Biker I realized that one of the things that easily gets forgotten in the never ending debate for the “best” training method or program is whether the method being discussed is General Physical Prep or Specific Physical Prep in relation to your goals as a mountain bike rider. This is vitally important, though, because blind application of training methods from one sport to another can result in a misapplication of that method for another sport. In other words, what qualifies as “Specific” for one sport often qualifies as “General” for another.

Specific Physical Prep is also known as Sport Specific Training in some circles and refers to everything you do that mimics the specific demands of your sport, including playing the sport itself. For a mountain biker this includes everything done on your mountain bike since that is the only way you can truly mimic the demands of the sport. If you compete then this would narrow it even further to riding a bike very similar to the one you compete on. For us this type of training would most often be trail rides, cardio training on your mountain bike and skills drills.

General Physical Prep refers to everything you do that doesn’t relate directly to your sport. For a mountain biker this would include strength & power training in the gym, mobility work and cardio using some other method besides riding your mountain bike. While it would seem like Specific Physical Prep is the place to spend most of your time the truth is that it is built on the foundation of General Physical Prep, making it an important and often overlooked part of a riders program.

Understanding these differences means several things for us as mountain bikers…

1) If you aren’t on your mountain bike – specifically the bike you compete on – it can not qualify as Specific Physical Prep. This means that riding a road bike counts as “General” for a mountain biker, not as “Specific” as is often assumed when using it. This confusion stems directly from the fact that, for the roadie, riding a road bike counts as Specific while for a mountain biker it counts as General.

A roadie’s cardio program calls for them to spend a great deal of time on the bikes they ride/ compete on so that they are working on their Specific Physical Prep but when a mountain biker uses the same approach he is working on his General Physical Prep. This fundamentally changes the effects of riding a road bike and, if not understood and used properly, can result in a potential flaw in the overall approach to improving as a mountain biker.

2) If all you do is Specific Physical Prep you are slowing your own development since your General Physical Prep supports your Specific Physical Prep. This is where having a strength & power program geared towards the foundational movements needed to ride your bike more efficiently and a mobility program geared towards restoring the imbalances caused by repetitive movements on the bike would fall. The stronger and wider the General Physical Prep base the higher you can build the point of your Specific Physical Prep training and ultimately your performance on the trail.

3) While spending time on a road bike building your General Physical Prep isn’t bad, I’m not sure that it is the best use of that time. Since riding a road bike is too far removed from a mountain bike to count as Specific Physical Prep but it is close enough to carry a lot of the same potential overuse injuries I personally feel that trail running and swimming actually present better alternatives. These activities present the body with different movement challenges and actually present a greater cardio challenge since you are not as efficient with those movements.

This means that you don’t have to work as “hard” to see the same general cardio benefits and you won’t be piling onto the same general movement patterns used on your mountain bike. This is another reason I recommend that if you want to ride your bike then make it Specific Physical Prep and hop on your mountain bike, even if you are going to be riding on the road.

By understanding the differences between General Physical Prep and Specific Physical Prep you gain a better perspective on how to apply different training methods and programs. You can’t become a good mountain biker in the gym or on a road bike- you have to get out on the trail. However, you’ll never be as good as possible if you only trail ride and never incorporate other forms of training. Finding the balance between the two is the key to an effective program, especially if you have a limited amount of time to train and need everything you do to be as effective as possible.

-James Wilson-

5 thoughts on “General Physical Prep and Specific Physical Prep… or Why riding a road bike is fundamentally different for mountain bikers than roadies.

  1. Victoria Klinger says:

    Really well done and it has given me pause to really think about goals and Gen vs Spec, thanks, James!

    • bikejames says:

      If you are riding them on the trail then they would be a step better than road bikes because you are still getting the physical demands of the trail. However, it is still different from riding a regular MTB. At the end of the day the best thing you can do to help prepare you for your sport is to practice your sport and that requires the same equipment you use during your sport.

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