Last week I sent out an email linking to an article I had written about why I thought that mountain biking can be a terrible way to “get in shape”. I got a lot of great feedback on the article and it sparked some good discussion on Facebook.
Everyone who read the article seemed to agree that it is better to recognize the gaps that just riding your bike leaves in your fitness base and that those gaps can come back to haunt you both on and off the bike. But it also brought to light how much confusion there is about the terms “fitness” and “health”.
Most of the confusion comes from how we use the terms Fitness and Health interchangeably. We think that just because you have the fitness to ride a bike that you must also be healthy. However, these two terms mean very different things and the fact that most of us don’t know the difference leads to a lot of problems.
This issue first came to my attention by none other than Dan John. In his book Intervention, he makes a point about this mindset and I’ve heard him talk about it at every presentation of his that I’ve seen. He seems to think that this point is pretty important. Here is how he explained the difference…
Fitness is simply the ability to do a task. Mountain bikers are fit for mountain biking, runners are fit for running, climbers are fit for climbing and so on and so on. Being fit for one thing doesn’t mean you will be fit for another (as evidenced by years of mountain biking fitness not translating over very well to the mats when I started BJJ) and it often requires that you take a few physical qualities to an extreme level.
Health is your ability to easily function on a daily basis without pain or disease. It is measured in things like blood tests and a lack of “bad health”. It is also the ability to perform basic movements and tasks like easily getting up and down off the ground, touching your toes or hanging from a bar for 30 seconds. True health requires that you have a well rounded approach to things.
The problem is that most of us have been taught to look at everything through the lens of “fitness” and few recognize the “health” side of things as well. We glorify the top runners, cyclists, CrossFit competitors or athletes in any sport and call them the “fittest” people on earth. What we don’t see are the “health” problems they have as they suffer from joint pain, muscle strains and metabolic pressures that push the body to – and past – their limits.
And this leads to a lot of people who don’t recognize the dangers in destroying their body in training today instead of protecting it for future use. They equate the “fittest” person in a sport with someone who is also “healthy” and then follow the wrong path based on that mistake.
Now please don’t miss my point – I am not saying there isn’t something admirable about the sacrifices that top athletes make to achieve the levels of performance that they do. This isn’t about them, its about everyone else that doesn’t pay their bills based on their performance or have a chance to represent their country in some way.
For the rest of us, once you reach a certain age and your chances at athletic glory have past – for most this is around 22 years old – it is important to keep your goals in perspective. You only get one body and making sure that you can still play hard at 50+ years old is important. It may not be worth suffering from joint pain or other problems and having to sit on the sidelines as you get older because you thought that being fit enough to ride a bike real fast was the same thing as being healthy.
Now look, the point of this is not to discourage anyone from riding mountain bikes or trying to take their riding to the next level. In fact, it is just the opposite.
I want to make sure that people enjoy riding and can do it as long as they want to. A big part of getting better is logging a lot of trail time and it is hard to ride if you are hurt. I also hate hearing that someone quit riding because they kept getting hurt or have an overuse injury that got so bad they had to have surgery.
Having your body break down and start to dictate how long and fast you can ride really sucks.
My goal is to help people avoid the pitfalls that come with developing a few fitness qualities to a high level while ignoring others. Most of the riders I work with come to me “broken” in some way because they ignored their overall health for too long. After learning this lesson the hard way I often hear them tell me that they wish they had known all of this before they got hurt.
You get plenty of great things from mountain biking but there are things that you don’t get, like mobility and strength. There are also some hidden dangers that most people never even consider.
1 – You don’t get the same transverse plane movement on the bike that you get from walking or running. This swaying motion in the upper body is important for core function and overall movement health. Since you are holding onto the handlebars your upper body doesn’t sway. Unless you do some things to combat that, spending hours and hours on a bike can actually start to cause some core strength issues that will affect you off the bike.
2 – Another issue with just riding is the big toe. Your big toe needs to be able to extend to 65 degrees, otherwise it start to throw off everything else in the kinetic chain up the leg. If you spend all of your time on a bike then your big toe will start to lose mobility and this will start to cause problems when you run, walk, throw, hit or just about any other movement that requires you to drive off the big toe.
3 – There aren’t a lot of true contra-lateral movements on the bike where your opposite side lower body and upper body have to work together. In fact, you get a lot of same side movements which is the opposite of how your body is wired. If you are not diong things to address your fundamental core strength and movement with some contra-lateral movements then you can mess up your coordination and balance.
Again, unless you understand the difference between Health and Fitness you might not appreciate why you need to keep these things in mind. Sure, getting an extra ride in each week would be more fun but at some point you have to act like an adult and do what you need to do.
How would your waistline look if you took that same attitude of “I only want to eat what’s fun” with your diet? Probably not so good. Oh wait, that is a problem with a lot of people today. But that is getting off subject…
Anyways, this brings me to my last point. You don’t have to spend a lot of time to plug some of the gaps that riding leaves. Spending 15 minutes a day doing some mobility work and/ or getting some Turkish Get Ups, Swings and Goblet Squats 2-3 times a week can work wonders. Making small changes that you can sustain and build upon are the key to success and make time much less of an issue.
So remember that you need to keep the dual lenses of Health and Fitness in mind when setting your goals. Focusing on getting a KOM on Strava may not be the best choice if you have low back or knee pain already. Sometimes measuring the success of a program based on how you have less pain, can move better or can function better in your work or daily life can mean more.
Funny thing is, though, a lot of times focusing on Health goals also improves your mountain bike Fitness as well, which means you also become a faster rider.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems