Sometimes the hardest part about training to ride faster, longer and with more confidence on the trail is knowing how to focus your time and effort. With rare exception, most of us have plenty of options when it comes to how to spend our training time. Trail rides, strength training, mobility drills, skills improvement and cardio training are things we can do…and that’s not even getting into all of the options that we have within each of those areas.

The truth is that most riders are drowning in all of the options available to them. They end up either 1) getting paralyzed by so many option and end up doing nothing or 2) wasting a lot of time on things that they hope will help but aren’t really sure.

prison-553836_1280This means that one of the most important things you can do is learn how to focus your time and efforts. And one of the best ways that I have seen to do this is to answer the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a question designed to force you to drill down to the most basic elements of what you need to focus on to be successful. First proposed by the one and only Dan John, it goes like this…

Pretend that you are a political prisoner for some reason and you are only allowed 15 minutes of exercise, 3 times a week. In this 45 minutes, what would you do if you were still going to train for your sport?

Now I’ll admit that when I first heard this question it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. How could you possibly boil down everything you needed into just 15 minutes?

Over time I realized that I lacked two things that would help me better understand this concept and the lessons it contains. The first was simply time and experience. When you first start riding it seems that anything you do helps and it takes a while for you to gain the experience needed to discern what is really helping and what is just taking up time and energy.


The second was an understanding of the 80/20 Rule. This is the concept that 80% of your possible results can come from just 20% of the things you can do. This means that if you can drill down to that 20% you can still see great results without spending a ton of time.

As I gained the experience and insights needed to better understand the question I started to realize how valuable it was. One of the biggest problems that I see with “mountain bike specific” programs is a disconnect between what we really need on the trail and what these programs are focusing on. By helping riders see this disconnect and refocus their training they are often able to see great progress without any more time spent training…and often less.

After going through a lot of struggles with my own riding and helping countless others overcome theirs I’ve noticed that there are usually 3 things that separate great riders from average riders…

1) Cornering. This is one of the most sought after skills for good reason. The better you can corner the more speed and momentum you can maintain through them. Add that up over the course of an entire ride and by the end the rider who can corner better will have gone faster and used less energy in the process. And since so few riders can do it consistently well, those that can have an almost unfair advantage.

2) Standing Pedaling. Faster riders stand up more to pedal. Average riders avoid standing pedaling like the plague. Riders who can stand up and lay down power at will have a decided advantage over those that can’t.

3) Skills While Fatigued. More than any thing else, the ability to maintain efficient movement as you fatigue is the most important factor in riding faster and longer. Instead of losing their form and burning more energy as they get tired, great riders look the same no matter how tired they are which helps them conserve their dwindling energy reserves.

With this in mind I would do this with my 15 minutes in the prison yard (don’t ask why I have access to equipment and a bike):

– Stick Windmill (Mobility and body position needed for Cornering)

– 3-5 Turkish Get Ups + Windmill on each side (Builds upper body strength needed to resist fatigue on the trail as well as working on the movement patterns needed for Standing Pedaling and Cornering)

– 20-50 KB Swings followed by a skills drill (Works on the ability to maintain skills while fatigued)

These are just some ideas and obviously we can expand on this concept and look at more ways to improve each of these factors but if all I had was 15 minutes, 3 times a week then this isn’t a bad way to spend your time. But if we did have some more time then here are some other things we could consider:

  • Cornering – Heavy dose of Stick Windmills and KB Windmills along with drills and focused practice on the trail. On a side note, the Windmill family also works on the hip hinge needed for a good basic Attack Position on the bike, which is something else that helps a lot on the trail.
  • Standing Pedaling – Mobility drills for the Squat Pattern along with Squat and Single Leg Squat Variations for strength. Include dedicated time on trail working on Standing Pedaling (my favorite is to lower my seat and leave it down for 15-30 minutes, forcing me to stand up and pedal more).
  • Skills while fatigued – While you can set up a lot of different drills, the best thing is to spend 1-2 rides each week focused on specific skills you need to improve. As you naturally fatigue during the ride it will get harder to maintain your form and focus, improving this skill in a more realistic setting…the trail.

And here in lies the problem for a lot of riders. While most riders would agree with most or all of this list, when you look at their programs you see very little dedicated to working on these things. Instead they have a ton of time taken up with other things, namely seated pedaling based cardio workouts or unfocused trail rides.

And this disconnect is what is really holding them back from seeing they results they deserve.

So answer the Prisoner’s Dilemma for yourself – maybe you feel that you struggle with other things on the trail than what I listed. But either way, whatever list you come up with compare it to your current approach to improving as a rider and see if there is a disconnect. Odds are there is and closing the gap on that disconnect is going to be the fastest way to improvement.

The hard part becomes staying focused on those things you identified in your answer. Sure, we need to work on other things as well but the trick is not to let those other things crowd out the most important things. Just re-answer this question from time to time and use those answers to help you keep your training focused in the right direction and you’ll make sure you see the best results possible in the least amount of time and effort.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *