Strategies to feeling more comfortable riding switch foot

One of the local riders I train, Cat 1 4X National Champ Eric Landis, sent me an e-mail the other day suggesting I write some stuff on riding switch foot. It’s funny because that is something I have been thinking about lately and had been developing some training strategies for so here we go…

We all have a foot that feels most comfortable in the front when riding your mountain bike. When you first jumped on a bike there was just one that naturally went forward and you probably ride that way for the vast majority of your time on the bike when you are not pedaling. Problems come up pretty quick, though, if you find yourself with your feet switched, or switch foot, in a hairy situation and you can not get them back.

In The Book of Five Rings, Musashi talks about being “neither right of left footed”. As a samurai, he recognized that you can not always predict which foot will be forward in a fight and so you better train in a way that helps you avoid the feeling of flailing with your non-dominant foot forward. If a training book from ancient Japan recognized the importance of this, so should we.

Besides helping you navigate technical trail sections with your feet switched, getting comfortable in switch foot can help your endurance. I’m sure you’ve noticed that your lead leg tends to get tired after standing on it for a while and if you can get comfortable with your other foot forward you can easily give it a rest. The trick is being comfortable enough that your speed and skills don’t drop off immensely when you switch feet.

Here are a couple of training tips I have for helping you avoid this problem…

#1) Get strong on your split squats. A split stance consists of having your feet split apart with one about 2 feet in front of the other. This position  mimics the stance we use on our bikes and it is a very important position for us to get strong on.

Split Squat_1 Split Squat_2

It is a basic lower body exercise and one that too many people rush past in order to get to “more advanced” exercises. You will probably find that you are stronger and more balanced with one foot forward (I’ll bet it is the same foot you naturally ride with forward) and you will have to work at getting the other side up to par. In this case, make sure that you do your weaker side first and let it dictate to load for the other side; otherwise you will just reinforce the imbalance.

#2) Use a split stance for overhead presses and standing rows. You can do more from the split stance than just split squats. By practicing upper body movements from this stance you force the core to stabilize for a wider variety of movements. This will really help you hammer out your stability imbalances in the switch foot position.

I recommend doing your overhead presses and standing rows one arm at a time. When you do this you want your working arm to be on the same side as the leg that is behind you. Again, you will probably find that you are stronger with your dominant foot forward and so you will want to do the weaker side first.

#3) Ride switch foot on the trail. While practicing these exercises can help you feel more balanced and stable in switch foot, all the split stance stuff in the world won’t work if you don’t force yourself to use it on the trail. I personally make a very conscious effort to ride switch foot anytime the trail is relatively easy. I also make an effort to do some small jumps and drops switch foot whenever I can.

It won’t happen naturally, you will have to force yourself to ride that way. That is the difference between “training” and just riding. By consciously working on something while riding you get more out of your ride and help enhance your trail skills in the long run.

I can tell you from experience that this will save your butt one day. I’ve found myself unintentionally in switch foot in some hairy situations and the fact that I have forced myself to get comfortable that way was the difference between riding it out and getting smashed. Incorporating split stance exercises into your routine will help you feel more comfortable in switch foot and “be neither right or left footed”.

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  1. Ryan says:

    Very interesting, I identified this weakness early this season when cornering with high speeds. I first realized there was a problem when I could drift around a sandy corner when turning left but felt like there was way too much speed when turning right in a similar corner. At first I thought I just had that left turn on the trail dialed and needed more work for the other area. So on the next ride I started to focus on the turns and found that with almost every left turn I could pin and for every right turn not only did I feel like I was going to fast but I also felt unbalanced. This was obvious when there was an “S” or zigzag on the trail. This intrigued the engineer in me to figure out what was going on. After some trial and error what I found was; in a turn, when the outside foot was forward or down I felt secure and could carry a lot more speed through a turn. This comes naturally to some extent when you need that inside foot to stabilize but that is not always needed when carving fast flowing turns. After figuring this out I started to “notice” other times I felt unbalanced and usually it was linked with which foot was forward. This brought out the stubborn “I want to do it both ways” in me and so I started riding intentionally both ways. I have been focusing on this most of this season and I can see a difference in my riding. Before when a technical section would come I would glide in a relaxed “normal foot forward” mode, now I pedal all the way up to and almost always right over/across the section. And once you are comfortable with either foot forward and if it has been a long ride, some of the time that off/other foot/leg has more power left to get over the bigger stuff that you may “feel” you are too tired to get over. This has also saved me when dropping off stuff. Maybe it was the extra push to get to the lip, or the tree that you had to shift weight to avoid it doesn’t matter why, being able to do everything with either foot forward is well worth the work needed to make it happen.
    Good stuff Coach!

    Reply • December 9 at 9:04 am
  2. Nick Bedford says:

    I think this is another area singlespeeding is useful as ‘training’ (and not just a way of life, right…) — I find I have to keep turning the pedals over to keep momentum which automatically results in arriving at obstacles ‘wrong footed’ which in my case is left foot forward. Just as Ryan says, this eventually means one ends up just riding up and over stuff and sometimes feeling quite unbalanced during the move. Couldn’t agree more about just riding as much as possible ‘switch’ altho it sometimes catches you out, painfully… 🙂

    Reply • December 9 at 4:18 pm
  3. TO says:

    This is all well and good, but don’t call yourself a mountain biker until you can ride switch handed!

    Reply • December 10 at 8:09 am
  4. Rodney says:

    I think being able to do a wheelie drop with either leg is really important to save you in unexpected hairy situations.
    James, it seems to be that the best exercise to address a strength imbalance would be the single-leg deadlift which you already advocate.
    Also, I guess practising around a pumptrack with the ‘wrong’ foot forward would be the ultimate exercise to get you comfortable with either foot.

    Reply • December 11 at 12:31 am

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