How to improve performance by NOT pedaling more…

One of the earliest and strongest influences in my strength coaching career is Australian strength coach Ian King. Ian was light years ahead of his time and a lot of the “functional training” concepts we take for granted today were first introduced by him. His views on the role of a performance training for an athlete were among the most revolutionary concepts I learned from him and they are something few coaches today really get or understand how to implement.

Knowing the Pedaling Cadence/ Power Quadrant/ Heart Rate Zone you use the most while you ride is good for a lot of reasons but it shouldn’t be the priority of your training program.

Ian had two ideas in particular that go against the grain of popular performance training ideology:

1 – The role of a training program is to #1 Prevent Injuries and then #2 Enhance Performance. You can not flip the two and prioritize performance enhancement because you increase the chance to injury from either training too hard or overuse injuries inherent to all sports. This isn’t to say that you don’t try as hard as you can to improve performance with the training program, simply that you always have to remember that if you’re hurt on the couch at home it don’t matter how “fit” you are.

2 – Tying in to the first idea, you want to train the opposite of what you do in your sport with your training program. At first this makes no sense – why wouldn’t you want to focus on the things you do the most in your sport? The reason is twofold, the first of which ties into the injury prevention issue raised above. Simply put, any sport will cause imbalances in the body and so you have to purposefully train those other things in order to maintain a fundamental level of balance. This is why you can’t just do more and more of your sport – you will break down if you don’t take some measures to keep things balanced out.

The second reason, and the real point of this article, is that you don’t need to keep doing more of what you already do the most of during your sport. Simply playing your sport acts as conditioning and the exposure to that will take care of conditioning what you do the most of. However, there are things you do during your sport that you don’t do enough of during your sport to condition enough to improve. In other words, sometimes the things you do the least during your sport are the things you need to focus on during your training in order to see overall improvement.

Tying this into mountain biking we can see this in the usual recommendation to focus your training on pedaling more. Often times when riders want to take on a training program they want something that increases their saddle time through structured workouts that they can use in addition to their usual trail rides. They figure that since they spend a lot of time pedaling while trail riding then they need to find ways to pedal more to get better at trail riding.

What’s more, they will also figure that since they spend most of their time using a certain type of Pedaling Cadence/ Power Quadrant/ Heart Rate Zone then that is where the focus of that increased saddle time should go. It makes perfect sense on the surface – find out what you do the most of when you ride and then focus the bulk of your training time on improving it.

However, I contend that there is a better way based on the principles I mentioned earlier. The priority needs to be in this order:

1 – Mobility and Strength Training to counteract overuse injuries

2 – Strength Training, Energy Systems Development and Skills Training to improve things like standing pedaling, low RPM/ high tension grind pedaling, technical skills and strength/ power endurance.

3 – Energy Systems Development to improve seated pedaling and high RPM/ low tension spin pedaling.

This approach assumes that you are trail riding a couple of times a week and are getting a good cardio workout when you do. If you find that you can’t ride at least 3 times a week then you may need to supplement this with some focused time on a trainer or spin bike to make up for it, perhaps with an eye on the Pedaling Cadence/ Power Quadrant/ Heart Rate Zone you use the most while riding. However, I don’t consider this “training” as much as simply riding your bike in some way.

So, according to the priority list I put out above if you had an extra hour each week to train you wouldn’t want to put in more time in the saddle doing an interval workout, you would want to do some mobility and strength training exercises focused on restoring balance. Some good hip stretches and deadlifts would be an example of exercises you could do a couple times a week.

If you had 3-5 hours a week you would want to add in 2-4 training sessions focused on improving your standing pedaling through mobility and strength training, low RPM/ high tension grind pedaling through strength training and ESD workouts, technical skills drills and strength/ power endurance through combo drills. In other words, work on all the things you need to be a great trail rider but simply don’t get to do enough on a ride to significantly improve.

Only if you had more than 6 hours week to train would you want to start looking at adding more cardio training that focused on the things you tend to do the most on the trail – seated pedaling and higher RPM/ low tension spinning. You have to make sure that your program is addressing the other things you need to be a great trail rider before you worry about adding more to this category.

However, this is the exact opposite approach used by most riders. This is also one of the reasons riders who use my programs are shocked at how much improvement they make on the trail with so little training time. If you get the prioritization wrong and keep pouring time and energy into the wrong area you won’t get nearly as good of a return on your investment.

Another way to look at it is this way – the only way to strengthen a chain is to improve the weak link. While most people will agree with that they miss the other part of the story, which is that once you improve the weak link the entire chain is stronger without even working on any other links. The same thing happens with a training program and if you address the true weak links in your game – which are rarely the things you do the most of during your sport – then your whole sport specific fitness level goes up.

The point is to be careful about how you construct your training program and what you do with the data you – or someone else – has collected regarding mountain biking. Knowing the Pedaling Cadence/ Power Quadrant/ Heart Rate Zone you use the most while you ride is good for a lot of reasons but it shouldn’t be the priority of your training program.

The great paradox of training is that eventually you have to get away from your sport (or mimicking your sport in training) to get better at your sport. By implementing the principles I’ve talked about here in your own training program you can improve your performance with less effort while also decreasing the risk of injury. Training the opposite of what we actually do the most on the trail may seem counter-intuitive but once you see how well it works you’ll never look at your training program the same again.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Wade says:

    What is the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

    (And it can be applied to many aspects of your life – are you doing the same thing and expecting different results this year/time – thinking about goals for 2013.)

    Good article.

    Reply • January 2 at 7:40 am
  2. Cliff says:

    The concept of training for injury protection and balanced fitness is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned and been practicing since I began reading this blog site a few years ago. A couple of crashes that might have taken me off the bike for weeks or months a few years ago didn’t take me out more recently because I’ve spent time becoming more functionally strong and stable in the core and shoulders. I credit you, James, with that enlightenment, and I think this post summarizes the perspective I’ve come to understand as the underpinning of your training and coaching philosophy quite well. I’m into my early 60s now and I’m very motivated about the reality that training to stay balanced and functionally strong (versus gym strong) is the key to my continuing fun mountain biking. Thanks for all of that.

    Reply • January 2 at 11:04 am
  3. Michael says:

    Being almost 47 yrs old I understand the importance of training to prevent injury, so this makes sense to me. What I’m trying to understand is how can you work on strength training, say do some dead lifts or lunges, then go out and ride the next day? My legs would be too tired. How do you balance this and/or work up to this?

    Reply • January 3 at 6:12 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you don’t do a lot of volume (sets and reps) then you won’t get too sore. You also have to be careful with building up to heavier weights and higher volume workouts. But in general if you did 2 sets of 5 reps on the deadlift with a weight you could get for 8 reps you won’t be very sore. You can then build up from there but you have to change your mindset about training – you are practicing your movement and trying to stay fresh enough to ride hard, not figure out how much you can survive in the weight room.

      Reply • January 4 at 12:39 pm

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