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

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.

– 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-

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  1. MIke says:

    Finding the balance between mountain biking and other forms of training has been a personal struggle of mine for the past 25 years. Even with all of the great information that you have been been providing, it’s easy for me to get caught up with thinking I need to be doing every exercise that you teach. At 52 years old, I know I’m never going to become a great mountain biker. I ride because I want to have fun, and I can’t have fun unless I’m fit enough to ride.

    I only have a 2 hour window of time ~ 5 days a week to train. If I workout for an hour before a ride, I’m weak on the trail. If I workout after an hour long ride, I’m too tired to get through my routine and my form goes to hell. I’ve thought about narrowing the focus of my workouts to doing a handful of basic exercises, but I feel like I’d be neglecting something. I’ve also thought about working out and riding on different days, but that would put me on the trail only 2 or three days a week and limit my workouts to the same frequency.

    Any suggestions?

    Reply • September 24 at 1:48 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’m going to post an article on the MTB version of this but check out Dan John’s 1 Lift a Day program, it is a good way to narrow your focus to the most important stuff when you’re really crunched for training time.

      Reply • September 25 at 3:31 pm
  2. Joshua says:

    Hey, that was a really helpful post! I think this helps me explain why it bothers me when people say they have been training by riding a fixed gear or singlespeed bike. Sure it is different, but not different enough. Thanks for the amazingly clear distinction.

    Reply • September 24 at 7:46 pm
  3. james k says:

    i actually stopped trail running down to the injuries i kept getting, dislocated cuboid, runners knee etc, all of which made riding my mtb painful. seeing as i can’t swim very well and don’t enjoy it as a result i started using my road bike mainly for hour long hill sprint sessions with the odd long ride, and I’ve found that my endurance and power have gained hugely from it.

    this year i competed in the megavalanche and found that i felt great peddling at altitude making up lots of places where everyone else was blowing up, i felt the only places i lost time were in the really techy sections where I’m not used to hitting them at such high speed, and lack of forearm and hand strength after an hour of descending (any suggestions?)

    surely if used correctly, i.e mixing the pacing, and intensity, you can use a road bike effectively, especially if there are no trails locally? you always see footage of some of the top WCDH riders on road bikes, surely they use trainers much like yourself to get results who must have steered them towards road bikes?

    don’t get me wrong, my mtb is my first love, but i feel the road bike can be a great tool if used correctly.

    or have i missed the point? is that what your getting at?

    Reply • September 25 at 5:53 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The only point is that you can do the same things on a mountain bike similar to what you ride on the trail and get better specific benefits. And while the media loves to show the DH rider pounding out the miles on a road bike I can assure you that it is a small part of their overall program versus being the centerpiece of it like most riders use it. If you want to ride a road bike and want to know how to best use it that is fine but that is not the same thing as wanting to know the best way to train for mountain biking.

      Reply • September 25 at 3:36 pm
  4. Mark says:

    Hi James,

    Was wondering if you know of any research to support your thoughts that road biking is not close enough to mountain biking to be specific?

    I’d like to agree, and am certainly frustrated with the all fitness/no skills riders I chase around XC courses, but for a serious rider who is not lacking in technical skills it seems the road can be a great benefit.

    From the XC national champ/coach who spends 2/3 of his training time on a road bike, to the top enduro athlete who surprised me to say he trains mostly on a fixed gear, to another top enduro racer, who mtbs all winter, and then spends most of his spring and summer maintenance training on a road bike. None are closet roadies, and all place well in real, technical xc and enduro races (US national enduro series, Trans-provence, Downieville etc).

    They have to a T said that while you can replicate hill repeats on a mtb, the ability to go for 3+hr tempo rides makes all the difference in race day fitness.


    Reply • October 3 at 10:09 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It all goes back to my original point – it isn’t what you are doing on the road, but what you are doing it on. While I would argue that the need for such a volume based approach isn’t necessary, the point isn’t that they are riding road bikes but that they are training hard. I would argue that they can do the exact same workouts on their mountain bikes with slicks and get better overall results where it matter most – on their mountain bikes.

      While I’m not aware of any studies on the subject I guess I don’t need one to tell me something that I know logically to be true…riding a road bike is not as specific as riding a mountain bike. I don’t think that you can even argue that point. While road riding has a place in a rider’s program (I use it in mine) those workouts don’t need to be on road bikes. Do the tempo rides, just do them on the bike you race on.

      And I don’t know why everyone buys into the concept of riding a road bike to train for mountain biking but you don’t see roadies spending significant time on anything but road bikes – if the logic being used held true then they would benefit greatly from doing our sport for extended periods. What you are seeing is a blind application of road bike programs to mountain biking, not a program that has been built conceptually from the bottom.

      Reply • October 3 at 2:06 pm

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