Tension Based Cardio Training

In this edition of the MTB Strength Coach Podcast I cover my new cardio training concept and how to use it to instantly gain a blueprint for improving any area of mountain biking. By understanding how to evaluate your needs from by looking at how you use tension on the trail you unlock the secret to guaranteed improvement. In this podcast you’ll learn why Tension Based Cardio Training is the most effective way to improve your trail riding plus I’ll share three examples – a trail rider, an XC racer and a DH racer – and show you how this concept can be applied to each one.

You can download/ listen to the podcast by clicking on the link below. You can also read my notes from this podcast below.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Podcast Notes

What is the ultimate goal of training?

-Is it to improve your strength/ cardio/ fitness or is it to improve your ability to perform certain life and sport tasks as needed?

– We know that lab or gym fitness doesn’t necessarily lead to improved performance but we still approach training that way – increase your measurements of strength (weight lifted, reps performed, etc.) and or measurements of cardio fitness (VO2Max, Lactate Threshold, etc.) and you’ll increase your performance on the trail.

– What gets glossed over is that what we are really training is tension and our ability to create it and sustain it.

What does this mean for training?

– We have to realize that improvements in strength and cardio fitness are symptoms hope that improvements in how we measure strength and cardio fitness are a symptom of an improved ability to control tension.

– Tension control refers to 3 things: your ability to create tension in a specific pattern, your ability to produce/ withstand a high level of tension in those patterns and the ability to fuel that tension appropriately.

– You must be able to easily create the movements you need in your sport and life. Improving your ability to move depends more on your ability to reduce tension in some areas and improve reflexive tension in others than your ability to consciously apply tension (i.e. get stronger). However, more efficient movement can show up as an increase in strength and cardio.

– Your ability to produce/ withstand an adequate level of tension in the appropriate movements determines your strength and power on the trail. This is different than “strength training” since it doesn’t look at increases in weight or reps but an increased control of tension within a movement. Progressive overload misunderstood training principle. KBs use big weight increase = survive to dominate

– Cardio system fuels tension production and responds very specifically to types of movements and, just as importantly, types of tension in the body.


– Trail Rider who wants to be able to stand up and climb faster. This requires good single leg squat strength and produces a low RPM/ higher tension effort. This rider needs to focus on single leg squats (improving mobility or strength as needed) and also use cardio methods that require higher levels of muscular tension like combo drills.

– XC racer who wants to finish races stronger. Most XC races require a lot of seated pedaling but a lot of time can be made or lost on climbs and descents. Strong seated climbing and more confident descending both require strong and mobile hips. They also produce higher tension levels and so kettlebell swings would be a good tool to add in.

– DH racer who wants to finish races stronger. Most DH races require little pedaling and instead require a lot of skill to remain efficient with the execution of technical skills. Executing skills like cornering, jumping and manualing while riding a 40 pound DH bike requires a high tension production ability and most riders would benefit from simply improving that. Improve the ability to create movement and the ability to produce/ withstand force in those movements to improve efficiency before worrying about improving cardio – what are you going to fuel, your complete inability to get into position and be strong from there?


– We aren’t training to improve strength and cardio, we are training to improve our ability to control, produce and fuel tension. Terms like strength training and cardio training are ultimately misleading because they put the focus on a symptom of improved performance, not the cause.

– Look at the tension demands of your sport and the specific things you struggle with and you’ll have a blueprint for improvement. Training is a mystery, not a problem with a simple equation for an answer.

-James Wilson-

The Ultimate MTB Workout Program

The Ultimate MTB Workout ProgramThis workout program is designed with one simple purpose – to be the best mountain bike training program on the planet. When you are ready to take your training program to the highest level possible then you can’t do better than this workout program. Based on my years of working with some of the best riders on the planet, this truly is the Ultimate MTB Workout Program.
Learn More

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. Rafael says:

    Good stuff as usual.

    Reply • July 18 at 10:10 am
  2. Curtis says:

    James, thanks for the article. Your examples at the end of the article (regarding the different fitness demands for a trail rider, xc racer, and DH racer) raise a question I have regarding your strength training programs. Do your programs account for these differences? In other words, are there different recommended workouts depending on what the person is trying to focus on? I’ve been trying to pick one of your programs (DB combos, KB, bodyweight) and am a bit confused as to what would be best for an xc racer. I’ve traditionally done mostly high intensity riding (trail and road) to train but you’ve convinced me that strength training has to be a component of any program and I want to pick the right one. Thanks.

    Reply • July 18 at 12:30 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The vast majority of riders need to work on the same basic things – core strength, hip mobility, high tension cardio and overall tension production and control. Since the tension stuff I talk about in this podcast are things most riders have never thought about or addressed they are the real weak link and will make the biggest impact on your riding no matter what your riding discipline.

      With that said I do have a 24 week Specialized Energy Systems Development Workouts that are essentially cardio training plans for different riding types. They are meant to be done in addition to the strength training workouts are you can buy it as an optional add on to any program after buying it.

      Any of the strength training programs address the basic needs of every mountain biker while the Specialized ESD Workouts address the specific conditioning needs of racers. Hope that helps…

      Reply • July 18 at 5:16 pm
  3. Jon Laterveer says:

    Great podcast, I have put your theory to practice in my 24 hr race and it is bang on! For me “tension training” has helped solve my training mystery. For endurance events you need time on the bike to practice fueling tension. Even with 24 hr races you need high tension cardio, a technical trail demands it and you can’t get around that. Efficiently of movement plays a huge role in enduring long rides.

    Reply • July 20 at 7:52 pm

Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Follow MTB Strength Training Systems:
James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson