Not all pedaling is created equal

It is funny how things just seem to dawn on you. I’ve always known that road cycling is a different sport and that the training tactics they use have a limited carryover to the trail but I was never able to really explain why. In reading Chris Carmichael’s new book I’ve got a better understanding of what exactly the roadies are trying to accomplish and why it doesn’t work as well for us.

It all revolved around this basic concept – not all pedaling efforts are created equal. This is very important since how we pedal a mountain bike on the trail is much different than how you pedal on the road. Yes, you are spinning your cranks around in a circle but your position and cadence play a big role in what is powering that spin.

– Standing vs. Seated Pedaling: When you stand to pedal your body is creating the movement in a very different way than when you sit down. Standing requires more core strength and hip drive while sitting down requires less core strength and more knee extension. As far as your body is concerned these are two entirely different movements.

The roadies can get away with sitting and spinning circles more than we can. Technical trails, going both up and down, require us to get our butt out of the seat and stand in order to have more control of the bike. In fact, standing to pedal up a technical climb will make you a better climber.

Besides letting you power up it quicker, standing also allows you to keep more weight on the front end of your bike, keeping it from wandering around as much. It will also put you in a better position to crank up slow technical sections where it is very tough to keep your momentum. The trade off is that you need a lot of core strength to be able to hold your weight back far enough to keep traction on the rear tire.

That is why most riders spin out when they stand up to pedal a steep climb – their lack of core strength puts them in a bad position on the bike. They then chalk it up to “standing to climb is bad” and sit back down, bouncing around while trying to keep their front end under control.

If you follow a roadie based program you are going to be spending a lot of time sitting down and training that type of pedaling effort. If you find that standing pedaling is where you need to get stronger then you have to spend your training time focusing on that. Getting stronger at seated pedaling will have minimal transfer to standing as they are two completely different movement patterns.

– Slow vs. Fast Cadence: This is something that came straight from Chris’s book – when your cadence is 90+ RPM then there is a greater cardiovascular demand but when your cadence drops into the 80 RPM and below range the muscular demand picks up. When was the last time you were able to average 90 RPM on a good trail ride?

This is something that few people are really picking up on. Our pedaling efforts simply require more muscular strength than the roadies. We have our pedal strokes interrupted far more than they do, which means we have to gain momentum again, and we have to slow down to deal with technical trail sections.

We can not sit down all the time and keep high cadences like roadies can. Since the way the body powers standing efforts and slower cadences is different we will benefit more from training with that in mind.

This is also why strength training is so important. Since core strength and leg strength play a big role in some of the most important types of pedaling we engage in, getting stronger will obviously help.

Look at your average trail ride – I’ll bet that there are some steep, technical climbs that you wish you could get better at. I’ll also bet that there are some sweet fast sections that are much more fun to stand and flow than to sit and get bucked around on. If you are like most riders these are the things that you want to improve on, not your ability to sit and spin up a fire road.

What you train is what you will get better at. Understanding that not all pedaling is created equal and how different positions and cadences affect how the body powers the movement will help you get a better idea of how to train for the unique demands of mountain biking.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Another nice one, James!

    Food for thought while I rock some single-legged dead lifts …

    Reply • November 30 at 7:54 pm
  2. Andre says:

    Its interesting to observe though, that some of the best road climbers, do a lot of standing as well. Watch Contadour and Armstrong.

    Perhap the sitting doctrine isn’t correct on the road either?

    Reply • December 1 at 3:17 pm
  3. SHANE says:

    Hey James,

    just on the roadie v’s mtb I always read with interest your comments and agree with the training methods you put forward, however after reading the article the other day I can’t help but feel that your bias towards road cycling as training may cloud what I think is a useful tool in helping the time restricted mtber get in quality training. I don’t feel that it is any less relevant than say resistance training. firstly I spend a lot of time especially in crit races out of the saddle powering out of corners accelerating up climbs and closing down attacks , breakaways etc. as for the power and cadence I don’t feel that there is any detrimental affect from road cycling I tend to ride the road bike like a mountain biker not a roadie. this type of racing I feel helps with the specific trail requirements of mtbing, the effort required to power out of a corner is similar in intensity to tackling obstacles on the trail. the differences in bikes holds no relevance as a trail bike, downhill bike, xc bike, ect all of which I ride are all set up differently and I have no trouble swapping between the different setups ( a good rider will ride any thing). lastly the road bike enables me to get quality structured sessions without the interruptions you encounter on the trail, as well as saving wear and tear on your bike and body as even though with your program you have better crash protection the risks of crashing on the trail are increased.

    Reply • December 1 at 7:28 pm
  4. Walt says:

    This goes with what I’ve been telling people for years. Roadies are more like marathon runners in terms of strength needed. Mt bikers need a lot more strength. The stronger you are, the less aeroric energy you need for the same effort. Interesting what you said about the core being so important in climbing. Lance actually is standing the whole time when he’s climbing those 6000″ passes in the Alps. But he’s on asphalt. So he has unlimited traction and it’s not the same as technical trail climbing. Wouldn’t you say that the turkish getup with heavy kettlebells is the best exercise for core strength that you can do? (I just did my first one with a 32kg kettlebell the other day and I’m hooked on that exercise)

    Reply • December 1 at 11:12 pm
  5. The Real Rob says:

    A good friend who is a top flight roadie (who loves a good century ride) came to Kauai a few years ago. To show his some trail I said “we’re going to do a 13 mile Powerline off road ride” and he replied “are we going to ride it a couple times? 13 miles isn’t very far”.

    Long story short, he was very happy to get back to the truck at mile 13. Likewise, I’m sure he’d crush me on a century (I have no desire to find out).

    Is one type of riding better than the other? No. Are the different? I’m sure Ed would say YES. Do the skills transfer between sports? I’m sure we’d both say “hardly at all”.

    Reply • December 3 at 7:19 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Ha ha…I remember that story. Yeah, Powerline Road is about as far removed from road riding as you can get. Ride it a couple of times…I’d pay money to see that!

      Reply • December 4 at 9:12 am

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