The 3 Levels of MTB Performance Training: Why training is not a math equation…

I get asked all the time about how someone should train for a specific type of riding or event. I get the feeling that these riders think it is as easy as telling them to do a specific exercise or cardio routine based on their type of riding, almost like a math equation:

X number of intervals + Y type of strength training routine = Improvement as a mountain biker, particularly in the type of riding you do (DH/ XC/ 24 Hour/ Super D/ Enduro/ etc.)

Ah, if only it were that easy. Unfortunately there is much more to the problem of improving as a mountain biker. There are 3 Levels of Mountain Bike Performance Training and they must be addressed in a specific order. Mix up the order or try to skip a level and you end up with sub-par results and overuse injuries.

The 3 Levels of Mountain Bike Performance Training

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. This is also the level where training does start to resemble a math equation more but you can’t skip straight to this level of training and expect to get the best results.

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. Mike says:

    Thanks James,

    This affirms my own self assessment. As I followed your advice to switch to flat pedals, I unwittingly embarked on a journey that took me back to the basics. Riding with flats and trying to hold good posture indeed exposed my weaknesses ~ which to my embarrassment, were many. As a result I find myself squarely at level 1. I’m having to fix the rider. I’m strengthening my core, working on my hip hinge, and ridding myself of low back pain. Your follow along workouts, your exercises for low back pain, and your many other videos and articles have taught me a lot. Not so long ago I believed my equipment was holding me back, but I have come to realize that I’m the problem. I finally came to the realization about a month ago; that I need to become more mobile and functional off the bike, before I can really make any advancements in my bike handling skills. To hear you basically say the same thing is a reward in itself. It proves my mentality has changed, and it lets me know that I’m on the right track. You’re rubbing off on me James! I can’t thank you enough!

    Reply • January 23 at 3:43 pm
  2. Burgess says:

    Hi James,
    I actually have a question: I’ve always had issues with lower back strength and neck muscle strength (especially after a long day with a full face helmet on). Any advice/workouts you can recommend to help with this?

    Reply • January 24 at 3:47 pm
  3. Adam says:

    When you say 5 body weight squats are you talking my own body weight or squats with a barbell loaded my with my same body weight?

    Reply • January 8 at 10:07 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Just your bodyweight, no barbell or any external load. But they need to be really close to perfect with the thigh getting to or breaking parallel with ground. Most cyclists I’ve met can’t pull off that simple feat but are still worried about higher level training methods, which is getting things backwards.

      Reply • January 8 at 10:40 am

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James Wilson
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James Wilson