The 3 Levels of Mountain Bike Performance Training

I get asked all the time about how I would train for a specific type of riding or event. Of course, riders think it is as easy as telling them to do a specific exercise or cardio routine but there is really much more to it.

There are 3 Levels of Mountain Bike Performance Training that you need to think about and they must be addressed in order. Here is how I look at training a mountain biker:

1st Level: Human Being/ Athlete – Most riders forget that they are not really “mountain bikers” but are instead human beings that ride mountain bikes. The more athletic you are the higher your performance ceiling is. The less functional you are the more injuries you’ll incur. It still amazes me how many riders who can not touch their toes or do 5 perfect bodyweight full squats will talk about how their bike/ wheel size/ suspension/ etc. is holding them back. Make sure the pilot riding the bike is strong, mobile and functional before you start worrying about your equipment.

2nd Level: Mountain Biker – Mountain biking is a great sport because it demands so much of the trail rider. Steep climbs, technical descents, fast singletrack, jumps, drops and ledges are all part of what the trail can throw at you and keep you well rounded. A well rounded rider is a better rider and has more riding potential to apply to racing.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to be great at everything, just well-rounded. If all you do is pedal long miles then hit the pump track or dirt jumps. If all you do is shuttle DH runs or session the jumps then go for a long pedal with plenty of climbs. Get out of your comfort zone and you’ll be amazed at what you learn and how it will apply to what you prefer to ride.

3rd Level: Mountain Bike Racer – Racing is simply a specific application of your basic movement and riding skills. In fact, 90% of what I would do with a DH racer I would do with a 24 Hour Solo racer – the big difference is in the conditioning side of things. When doing your “cardio” you have to take a very specific look at exactly what you need to do in order to be successful and then plan accordingly.

For most riders it is the 1st level that needs the most work. If you have glaring postural and strength issues but just keep pedaling away in hopes of becoming a better rider then you are kidding yourself. You don’t need to take a skills clinic or buy a new bike yet – you have to fix how you move and how strong you are if you want to get the most out of those things.

If you have that 1st level covered then make sure that you are a well rounded rider. Take a skills clinic, start riding things outside your comfort zone and don’t shy away from challenges thrown at you by the trail.

If you have the first 2 levels covered then that is when you want to start dialing everything you can in towards the specific fitness and skills needed for your race. Cardio, strength and mobility levels should all be tailored towards these specific things and at the highest levels this will erode the base of the previous 2 levels. This makes a good training program with a heavy emphasis on the first 2 levels critical in the early stages of the off season.

So there you have it, my entire coaching philosophy. Like many things in life it is very simple to explain but infinitely complex to apply. It is also very tough to judge for yourself where you are – every rider thinks that they are better than they are, myself included. Hopefully this explanation will help you gain a better understanding of what you need to work on to get to the next level.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Simon says:

    Great stuff James. It takes a real coach to go beyond a series of drills and workouts and actually have a philosophy of coaching.

    Reply • January 20 at 8:15 am
  2. Jason says:

    “5 perfect bodyweight full squats” – Does this mean without weights (body weight alone) or body weight on the bar?

    Reply • January 20 at 10:28 am
    • bikejames says:

      Just bodyweight. A lot of tight riders will actually be able to come own deeper when they have some weight pressing down on them but that doesn’t mean they really own the movement. You don’t own it until you can do it with no weight and with weight and they look the exact same.

      Reply • January 20 at 11:47 am
  3. Clotch says:

    James, about the touching toes thing, I know you mention this a lot, but I’ve been doing you programs in one for or another for over a year now and they’ve really hellped me on the bike. However, even with regular stretching, I still can’t touch my toes. In fact I can’t ever remember a time when I was able to do it. Is it possible that some people just aren’t designed to touch their toes? Please say yes!

    Reply • January 21 at 7:37 am
    • bikejames says:

      You need to do some foam rolling and not concentrate on stretching the hamstrings but the quads and hip flexors. You should be able to touch the floor, you just need a different strategy.

      Reply • January 23 at 8:42 am
  4. Clotch says:

    I knew you’d say that! I will mend my ways…

    Reply • January 24 at 6:13 am
  5. eve says:

    THANK YOU!!!
    I meat my boyfriend 4 years ago. He is pretty much into more challenging sports and he is a good rider.
    Soon after we meat he decided to buy me a mountain bike to be able to ride with him. I managed to pick up pretty well as we were riding in places like Devon, Wales etc. Last year my boyfriend thought that I will be ready for some clipless pedals. I wasn’t to sure about the idea of my feet being “stuck” but I thought I will give it a try. The moment I started riding with them I lost my confidence and fell off the bike more than I ever have fallen since I’ve been riding without them. I slowed down a lot as i was trying to be in control…and the joy of riding started to diminish… After a few laughter riding disasters my dear boyfriend rewarded me with a decent flats!!!
    I am a qualified PT and I used to teach ski back home (Transilvanian mountains in Romania)so I have some knowledge about the sports and training. So I was trying to debate and argue this subject with my dear boyfriend and others
    as well. I am happy to have found your site!
    Thank you for sharing you knowledge!
    I am definitely Happy to ride without the damn clips!

    Reply • February 20 at 2:59 pm

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James Wilson
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Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson