The Best Cardio Workout for Mountain Biking You’ve Never Done…

Cardio is one of those topics that I could write about every day and some people still couldn’t get enough. To say that mountain bikers are obsessed with cardio training would be an understatement and every rider I’ve ever talked to wants to know how to best improve it. From intervals to base miles the debate rages on over the best approach to allowing you to work harder and/ or longer when you ride.

There is just one small problem, though. The vast majority of riders – and coaches – are missing the most important part of the whole cardio training equation. Without it you are literally making it much harder on yourself to see improvements from your workouts and rides. But once you fix it, your cardio capacity will automatically increase and stay that way even if you never did another “cardio workout”.

So what is this vital ingredient that you need for an effective cardio training program?


I mean, think about it. Since your “cardio” all starts with being able to take in oxygen (you can’t work for very long without oxygen, just try riding while holding your breath) then it just makes sense to train it.

This isn’t something you want to leave to chance, either. For most of us the deep, relaxing breaths we took with our diaphragm as kids have turned into shallow, panic breathing from our chest. You can check yourself right not – take a deep breath and pay attention to your shoulders. If they come up at all towards your ears or you even feel the urge for them to come up towards your ears then you have some chest breathing issues.


So while yes, breathing is natural and something that you already do it is also something that can be – and often is – done wrong. When this happens you have 3 major things go wrong for you:

1 – Chest breathing triggers the Fight or Flight response in the body. This literally changes the hormonal environment in the body, getting it ready for a sprint to safety or fight to the death, not a long ride where you want to stay relaxed and focused. Using your diaphragm to drive your breathing will literally put you in a different frame of mind and get the body to relax.

2 – When you use your chest and upper body muscles to breathe then they are not able to help stabilize the upper body and react to the trail as efficiently. This means you won’t be relaxed or able to flow, which leads to you having work harder to make up for your inefficient technique. When you can drive your breathing from your diaphragm you can stop riding with a stiff upper body and let it relax and pilot your bike.

3 – Chest breathing doesn’t let you use your full lung capacity. A good, deep breathe will start low and fill the lungs all the way up into the chest. When you start at the chest the breath has nowhere to go and it tends to end in the chest. For a lot of riders, learning how to breathe from their diaphragm will add a significant amount to their lung capacity.

What this means is that if you are really interested in improving your cardio then you’d be smart to start using this simple “cardio workout” designed to get you breathing better and help tap into your full lung capacity. Until you can easily complete this workout then you are really just wasting time with other types of cardio training since you are just reinforcing bad breathing habits while doing them.


Breathing Workout

Crocodile Breathing

Start by lying on your stomach with your hands by your sides, thumbs turned away from you. Start by taking one hand off the ground and placing the back of it against your lower back. Breathing only through your nose, send your breath to where you feel the pressure on your lower back. You should feel your hand rise and at no point should your shoulders start to come towards your ears.

After you 5-10 breathes take your hand off your lower back and take 5 more breathes, looking to make it feel the same way but without the hand pressure there to help you.

Now, take the pointer and middle fingers of your hands and poke them slightly into your obliques (your “side abs” found between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hip bone). Your goal now is to push them out using your breath. You don’t want to poke yourself too hard, applying just enough pressure to help you get the feel for your belly expanding in all directions.

After you 5-10 breathes take your fingers out and take 5 more breathes, looking to make it feel the same way but without the finger pressure there to help you.

Breathing Ladders

I got this one from Steve Maxwell who learned it from the Russians. While this workout looks easy on the surface, I’ll bet than most of you will struggle to get all the way through it.

To do these start by walking at a moderate pace (you can also march in place if you need to). Once you have established a comfortable pace you start by timing your breathes based on your footsteps. Breathing only through your nose, start by breathing in for 1 step and out for 1 step.

After a few breathes increase it to breathing in for 2 steps and out for 2 steps. After a few more increase it to 3 steps, then to 4 and so on all the way up to 10 steps in and 10 steps out. Your goal is to build up to those 10 steps and for it to feel easy.

You have to be careful that you don’t start to speed up as your breathes become longer. You’re not trying to get through the workout as much as you want to give your body the chance to improve its basic breathing habits.

Watch this video to see this cardio workout in action…


While this workout may be hard at first, the good news is that won’t take a long time to improve. Your body knows how to do this, it just forgot. Once you start reintroducing it to these breathing habits it will only be a matter of a few weeks before you are seeing dramatic improvements.

One of the most important things you can do for you long term success is to recognize that without great – not just good but great – breathing habits you are handicapping yourself on the trail no matter how “fit” you are. This simple workout will help reset your breathing and improve your lung capacity, giving you an advantage over most other riders no matter how many more intervals they do.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that unless something is hard and leaves you whimpering in a pile of sweat it can’t be effective. Sometimes the fastest way to improvement is to start with something simple, like breathing better. Make sure you have this vital skill down before focusing too much more time and effort on “working hard” and you’ll be riding faster and longer before you know it.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

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.
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  1. Dan Holmes says:

    Hi James
    I’m a long time blog follower and have used your db combo programs with great success. This post is extremely important and as a long time meditator and yoga practioner (gotta keep my body supple for biking?) I know the importance of deep breathing.
    I thought I was breathing deeply most of the time but apparently there is always room for improvement. Yesterday I was on my xc skiis doing intervals l got when I was partaking in your Inner Circle program. These involved going all out for 65 seconds then resting to a 120 hbpm then going again. 2 sets of 10, 5 min rest in between sets.

    Well I’m suffering along and on the 17th repeat before I took off I decided to stand taller, read better form, breath deeper and relax. Within 10-15 seconds I felt my lower stomach drop and every stride got easier. In fact I went 10′ further than the previous repeats. What really blew me away was I was hardly gasping and not light headed when I turned around to go back down the hill, I felt energized.

    I didn’t get that feeling back for the last 3 but man I’m going to do your exercises because I have experienced the possibilities and thats exciting. Keep up the good work, I really appreciate it. Cheers

    Reply • March 3 at 9:59 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Awesome story, thanks for sharing! Breathing is a powerful tool that few of us really work on like we need to.

      Reply • March 3 at 10:15 am
  2. Neil says:

    I’m glad I saw this. I am a UMWP customer and know the first drill is crocodile breathing, but I have been skipping it. I guess you could say I thought it was silly and didn’t understand what it was trying to do. Well, now I know and will reincorporate it into my workout. Thanks!

    Reply • March 5 at 8:18 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, sometimes the simple stuff is what can help the most. Glad you see how the Crocodile Breathing helps you now.

      Reply • March 6 at 11:10 am

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