Mountain Bike Training Myths

Mountain bike training has a lot of “trail myths” surrounding it. When someone decides that they want to get better on the trail they are usually told things like “work on your cardio”, “ride your bike more” and “get a bike fit”…but there is more to each of those pieces of advice.

– “Work on your cardio”: While cardio is important, the real key to riding faster and longer is to achieve better efficiency on the trail. Cardio is like the size of your gas tank and your efficiency is like the mile-per-gallon. You can get more by working on both than simply shoving a bigger gas tank in.

Efficiency comes from working on mobility and strength in the gym and on your skills off the trail. Increased mobility and strength will result in less wasted energy on the bike as your body is better able to achieve and maintain optimal alignment and movement. Increased technical skills will result in less wasted speed and momentum on the trail which means less overall “effort” to achieve the same speed.

Add it all up and you are able to go faster while pedaling less, which means better use of the cardio capacity you already have. For most riders starting out with a mountain bike training program, this is the first place to start. Increased “cardio” is nice but if you’re wasting a ton of energy on the trail it is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it- it will never get full until you plug the leak!

– “Ride you bike more”: When new riders first start every time they go out for a ride they feel like they are improving. However, this honeymoon period soon ends and riders are left trying to figure out how to continue improving. The advice from most veteran riders is that since riding helped in the beginning, then riding more must be the answer, right?

Not so fast, my friend. Riding your bike is the best way to learn how to apply your current fitness and skill levels to the trail. After a year or so of riding most people have maxed out their current fitness and skill levels, which is why they stop improving. While riding more can improve those things, you eventually run into the ugly truth – you hit the point of diminishing returns and an extra couple hours of riding each week doesn’t really improve your overall performance.

Strength and conditioning is one of the most efficient uses of your mountain bike training time and can dramatically raise your performance potential. When done right, it can improve fitness and skill levels as you develop better body awareness, strength, power and mobility. That way, when you hit the trail you are learning to apply those new levels, resulting in an increase in performance without a large increase in riding time.

– “Get a bike fit”: Bike fits are great – if you’re a roadie. On the trail they are very limited when the perfect world of the roadie meets the chaos of the trail. Mountain biking carries a very high technical skill element and you want your bike set up to best fit this need, not to work around your mobility and movement deficits.

Most bike fits looks to change how the bike is set up around you regardless of how those changes affect the balance and handling on the trail. Some of the most common bike fit “fixes”, such as changing stem length, will negatively affect your ability to corner and handle your bike. Mountain bikers need to pick the weapon that will give them the best balance and position and then work on fitting their body into that set up. It is rarely the fit that is holding a rider back; it is more often the tight and weak rider that is holding the bike back.

While working on your cardio, riding more and getting a bike fit can be helpful and result in some progress, they are not the most efficient and effective ways to transform your trail riding. The foundational movement and strength levels of the rider determine their true potential and by working on these things you can ride faster, longer and with more confidence no matter what bike you’re riding or trail you’re on. Strength and mobility training deserves an important spot in your mountain bike training program if you really want to stop riding at the same level year after year.

-James Wilson-

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  1. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    Once you are over 30, is it even possible to increase your cardio? (Serious question – I’m 41)

    It seems like I can’t increase my cardio, but it would make sense that if I get stronger and build stamina (not easy for me), that my cardio won’t be as taxed. Basically what you said about being more efficient.

    Reply • December 9 at 11:33 am
    • bikejames says:

      The truth is that “cardio capacity”, measured as VO2Max, is really limited as a predictor for performance. Mike Boyle has a great example of two hockey players he tested in pre-season one year. The first guy measured average on the VO2Max test but killed the shuttle run test, which is more specific to hockey. The second player scored great on the VO2Max test but only average on the shuttle run. According to the “numbers” player #2 is in better shape but try telling that to player #1 who killed the actual conditioning test.

      It is just one part of the puzzle and an overrated one at that.

      Reply • December 9 at 11:41 am
  2. Anne says:

    I disagree on bike fits. I had to get a mountain bike fit, not a road bike fit to keep riding. Otherwise, my back would have kept me out of riding. Getting a road fit for a mountain bike isn’t right at all.

    Last year when I found myself in my fittest shape in a long time it was all due to weight training. Working on your cardio usually doesn’t work, especially since most folks mindlessly work on the machines for 20-60 minutes. If I get the urge to do cardio, it’s usually in intervals. I prefer weight training to cardio because it’s much more varied and truthfully fun.

    Question for you: during the “offseason,” I up my weight training and lessen my bike riding, but even change out to ride a bike that’s a 1×9 XC bike instead of my all-mountain 2×9 to give my body something different. The problem I run into in the summer is I switch to all biking and forget to concentrate on weight training. Do you have your programs structured in a way to go season and off-season for those of us who want to keep weight training year-round?

    Also, thanks for your suggestion on running flats. I’ve sold my clipless pedals and am on flats now and haven’t looked back 🙂

    Reply • December 18 at 5:45 pm
    • bikejames says:

      You need to just cut back your overall volume but you need to keep strength training. If you stop you’ll lose strength quickly and so you have to fit it in, it just becomes a question of how to do it. 2 days of week of moderate strength training during your heaviest riding times of the season is enough to keep things from eroding too quickly.

      Reply • December 20 at 3:05 pm
  3. Brent says:

    What should my weight training intensity in the off season go to from say once a week during season racing?

    Reply • December 28 at 3:00 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Intensity relates to how close to your max you are working. For example, a workout that had you doing sets of 3 reps is more “intense” than a workout that has you doing 6 reps. On the cardio side, sprints are more intense than base miles.

      Days per week falls into the volume side of the equation and has to be balanced with the intensity side. In the off season you are not riding as much, which tends to add a lot to the volume side of things, and so you can lift more frequently. I recommend a 3 day strength training schedule in the off season and a 2 day during the riding season.

      Reply • December 29 at 11:35 am
  4. JJ says:

    what exersize can i do in the gym for pre season and how many sets and reps should I do…….

    Reply • February 22 at 1:16 am
    • bikejames says:

      I’d suggest signing up for the blog and starting out with the No Gym, No Problem Bodyweight Workout that you get when you sign up.

      After doing it for a month or so I’d suggest upgrading to the DB Combos Program or the Ultimate MTB Workout Program.

      Reply • February 22 at 7:39 am

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James Wilson
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James Wilson