Some riders may wonder what on earth a book about getting into shape for fighting has to do with trail riding, to which I would reply “a lot”. In fact, I have often said that I am more interested in what MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) guys do to get into shape for a fight than what roadies do to prepare for the Tour. The trail requires an amazing amount of care and upper body strength, skill and the ability to apply those things in a powerful manner over and over during the course of a ride – in short, if you looked at things from an Energy Systems standpoint mountain bike training has a lot in common with fight training.

I was turned on to Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamison when talking with the cycling coach for the T Mobile road cycling team and Athletes Performance, Darcy Norman. I am constantly evaluating my coaching and programming skills and one of the areas I knew that I needed to improve in was long term cardio training plans and so I had sought Darcy out since he was one of the best in world at that. He mentioned that I should check the book out and I ordered as soon as I got off the phone with him.

Ultimate MMA Conditioning is one of the best training books I have read in a long time – it takes an amazingly complex subject and breaks it down in a way that is relatively easy to understand. I say “relatively” because you can only boil it down so much but when most training books in this area make good reading material when you need to fall asleep this one does a great job of keeping it as simple as possible and interesting. While there were countless lessons I learned from it, but there were 3 main things I wanted to share with you…

Energy Systems Development vs. Cardio Training – One of the big takeaways from the book for me was the use of the term Energy Systems Development (ESD) instead of the term “cardio”. I have never liked the term “cardio” – I have several blog posts pointing out how it is just one part of your ability to endure on the trail – but ESD really helped solidify in my mind what we are really after with a training program.

In a nutshell, your body has 3 ways to produce energy – Aerobic, Anaerobic Lactic and Anaerobic Alactic. Some of us may think about it in the old school terms of Aerobic, Glycolitic and Anaerobic but the take home message is that your body produces energy through an intricate interplay of those 3 energetic pathways and that understanding them and how they relate to different types of trail riding is the key to developing a successful training program.

In addition to producing energy 3 different ways your body also has to be able to utilize that energy. Production and utilization are not the same thing – just because your body can do one does not mean that it is as efficient with the other. This is why the term Energy Systems Development is so appropriate – the ultimate goal is not to simply develop your cardiovascular system (which is where the term “cardio” comes from) but to improve your body’s ability to efficiently produce and utilize energy through the 3 energetic pathways as they apply to the type of riding you do.

The Importance of Aerobic Training – In a world gone mad with “anaerobic intervals” and “Tabatas”, the call for more aerobic training may seem a bit counter to the current trends. In fact, in the training circles I run in that part of the book caused a lot of controversy, at least until you read the book and understand what he is really saying.

Joel rightfully points out that a true anaerobic effort is something that you can not come back and repeat in a few seconds or even minutes. An all out 100 meter sprint or 1 rep max on the deadlift are true anaerobic efforts – it can take days or weeks before you can repeat those efforts. What most people think of as anaerobic intervals are, in fact, aerobic intervals.

Joel lists several options for training the aerobic system and only one of them is the dreaded Long Slow Distance method, and even then he only strongly recommends it for people who have a resting heart rate above 60 bpm. While he may include it in the early part of someone’s program it seems to be more of an active recovery method than a hard core training method and he lists several interval and tempo training options to help train the aerobic system to do what we really want it to do – support the anaerobic energy systems.

So yes, you do need to do some aerobic training but no, you don’t need to log hours and hours on the road to accomplish it. In fact, too much of that particular method is still a bad idea as it does not work on the specific type of aerobic efforts we need on the trail.

Strength Training is ESD Training – One of the most interesting parts of the book is how Joel includes different types of strength training in his list of ESD training methods. Of course, once you break out of the mold of “strength training” and “cardio training” this makes sense since strength training also improves your ability to produce and utilize energy through both the Anaerobic Lactic and Anaerobic Alactic pathways.

This is why I warn against taking a random strength training program and “cardio” program and mashing them together – without accounting for how one impacts the other you may be interfering with the results from both. Understanding how everything integrates together is the best way to develop an overall training program.

As mountain bikers we don’t need strength for strength’s sake – we are not powerlifters after all – but we do need strength to support our energy systems demands on the trail. This is another reason that you can not simply pedal your way to being the best rider possible since strength training is needed for well rounded energy systems development.

In conclusion I highly recommend checking out Ultimate MMA Conditioning and Joel’s blog at In a sport that is crazy for cardio training, this book does a great job of de-mystifying the subject and giving concrete examples of different ways to train the energy systems as they relate to the different types of efforts used on the trail. Few books have impacted the way I write programs as much as this one has and if you are interested in learning more about ESD Training then is the perfect place to start.

-James Wilson-

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