The MTB Performance Wheel

Every self respecting rider in the world knows that keeping the wheels on your bike round and true is important to keeping the ride safe and smooth. Neglect your wheels and it is just a matter of time until something bad happens. However, as a mountain biker there is another wheel that you need to keep an eye on in order to ride as fast and hard as you want.

This “3rd wheel” is your MTB Performance Wheel. The Performance Wheel is a concept used by many coaches to describe the idea of integrated training but no one has really introduced it to the mountain biking world yet. Considering that we know better than most how spoke tension can affect the performance of a wheel this description seems especially appropriate for us.

The MTB Performance Wheel shows us the different areas that can affect how we perform on the bike. Each spoke represents a component that we can manipulate in order to “tighten” that spoke. The rim represents our performance – the truer and rounder the rim is the better you perform on the trail. Here is a brief summary of each “spoke”:

Mobility – your ability to move smoothly and pain free through a good range of motion while easily getting into proper body position for exercises and bike skills.

Strength – your ability to generate tension in the right muscles in the right sequence to efficiently create strong, effective movement.

Power – your ability to quickly apply your strength while maintaining the proper position and muscle recruitment sequence.

Cardio/ Endurance – your ability to consistently display your strength, power and skills throughout the duration of your ride/ race.

Nutrition/ Supplements – the types and amounts of fuel that you put into your body to help drive your training and riding efforts.

Recovery – the forgotten side of the results equation (training + recovery = results) that usually holds us back from getting the best results possible.

Technical Skill – your ability to properly and effectively execute skills on your bike.

Mindset – your ability to focus on the right things at the right time while training and riding.

Bike & Equipment Set Up – having the right bike and the right equipment set up for the type of riding/ racing you do.

You can click on this link to download a PDF file of the MTB Performance Wheel

Looking at this list there are probably a few things that you never even considered when thinking about how to take your riding to the next level. There are also bound to be a few things that you know well and may be focusing on right now. For most riders, things like Bike & Equipment Set Up and Cardio/ Endurance are usually focal points, while things like Mobility and Mindset have never even entered their minds.

Here is the problem with this approach, though – simply tightening some spokes while ignoring others will never result in a round, true MTB Performance Wheel. The trick is to find the loosest spoke and start by tightening it up a bit. You then see how tightening that spoke affected the others, again finding the loosest spoke for you to work on. You can never get your Performance Wheel trued up if you don’t keep focusing on the loosest spoke and paying attention to how it affects everything else.

This is a very important concept to understand. One of the things that I try to stress with riders is that you can not compartmentalize your training. You have to recognize that each training component will have an effect on the others.

Let me give you a brief example of this – let’s say you have recognized that you need better endurance. While you feel strong early on, it just seems that whenever you need to hammer late in a race that you just don’t have it. Obviously you need to start working more on your cardio, right?

Maybe, but there is probably more to it than that. Now let’s say that after evaluating each of the spokes on your performance wheel you see that your mobility is terrible and is by far your “loosest spoke”. Sure, your cardio could use some work but since you can’t even touch your toes mobility deserves your attention right now.

After working on your mobility for a few weeks you start to notice that you feel more fluid on the bike and don’t seem to tire as quickly. Getting more mobile has allowed you to get into more efficient positions on your bike and has also lowered your muscle tension levels, both of which resulted in more efficient use of your energy. Without directly working on your “cardio” you still saw your endurance improve.

If you had taken the normal approach of going straight to an intense cardio program while ignoring the glaring weaknesses in mobility you would have missed out on truly maximizing your performance. Sure, you may have seen some gains from a cardio program but you would have eventually been limited by your mobility and possibly gotten hurt in the process. Without taking the “big picture” approach provided by the MTB Performance Wheel you will always be guessing at what will truly make you better instead of knowing exactly what you need to work on next.

I do want to quickly clarify something – I am not saying that you only need to work on one component at a time and ignore everything else. What I am saying is that you need to identify and concentrate your training on addressing your weakest area. This is the secret to consistent progress.

There is an ancient Chinese saying – “To be different from what you are you must first know what you are”. Using the MTB Performance Wheel will help you better understand what kind of rider you really are. Without this knowledge you can never maximize your training in the never ending quest to ride harder, faster and longer.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tony says:

    Coach…as always good article and appreciated. As a geezerly human riding a mountain bike I can tell you that “Mobility” or lack of it, due to a life time of lifting injuries and age related issues, can be a hard row to hoe but do-able with good info, like you provide, and the right “Mindset”.

    Reply • October 3 at 8:41 am
  2. Tony E says:

    A great article James and I could not agree more. When I started out I thought I would get better at riding if I kept on riding. That worked for a while as I was starting out as “the passenger” and simply setting the mind set to become “the pilot” pushed me forward in ability. However, I found the ceiling coming down and just riding was not enough.

    I now have a holistic approach to training MTB that has more than a few synergies with what you teach here. (This is my first post, but I’ve read many of your articles now.) My philosophy has been to never become “Fake Fit” and so spend time in the pool, in the gym with resistance and circuits (your push-up with the block and the 10kg sandbag is now a favourite of mine) as well as running the trails I also ride. Believe me, running a 5 mile stretch of single-track undoubtedly confirms the genius invention that is the bike!

    The result has been more strength, more mobility, more explosive potential in my muscles, greater endurance, quicker recovery, better peripheral vision… it goes on, but all adds up to one thing which is better riding.

    I love how much more fun 30 miles of off-road slog, thrash, shred and burn becomes when those tools – other than the bike – are primed for every single one of them.

    Reply • October 3 at 10:28 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Well said, there is a level of “fun” most rider’s don’t even know exists because their lack of some critical component keeps them from seeing it. Becoming a well rounded rider certainly is a journey but one that is well worth it.

      Reply • October 3 at 2:08 pm
  3. Judyll says:

    Hello, James — Should we add “Breathing” here ? I just discovered that doing rhythmic breathing = rhythmic muscle recruitment. For example while pedaling, recruit more muscles when exhaling and turning off some muscles while inhaling. For me, this patterns saves me some energy. Just my 2 cents.

    Reply • August 17 at 7:38 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, I think that breathing is super important and would probably call it the “hub” of the performance wheel. It has to underpin everything you do on the bike. Great observation.

      Reply • August 20 at 10:44 am

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James Wilson
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Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson