Top 3 reasons to leave the skinny tires to the roadies! part 1


Since it seems that every traditional training concept I challenge, sometimes I feel that people must think I say stuff just to be different. While a lot of riders are starting to see the light when it comes to things such as avoiding machines like the leg press and incorporating more interval work into their cardio programs, there is one thing that I feel I have not done a very good job explaining my opposition to.

Of course, I am referring to using a road bike for off-season training. While the biggest problem is that road bike riding tends to be used in an attempt to build the mythical aerobic base we have been told we need to succeed, there is much more to the story than just that. Even if you buy into my concepts of “intensity over volume” and avoid excessive base mileage, you would still do well to avoid road bikes during your training.

I do need to make a quick point here – there is a difference between riding for fun and “training”. If you enjoy riding a road bike and want to do it then fine, under most circumstances I would not discourage you to have fun. However, you do need to recognize the difference between fun and training and use sound strategies when deciding how to spend your precious training time.

Now, onto part 1 of The Top 3 Reasons to leave the skinny tire riding to the roadies:

1) It creates a competing neural blueprint – This is an interesting concept that is rarely discussed, especially in mountain bike training. In order to simplify it let me give you this analogy.

You’re brain is like the processer in your computer. It basically tells everything what to do and how to do it. Your muscles are like the hardware in your computer. They do the actual work but need the brain to tell them what to do and how to do it. Your nervous system is like the software your computer uses to bridge the gap between your processer and hardware. How well your processer can make use of your hardware depends in large part on the quality of the software you have installed.


This analogy explains how your body works. Every time you create a movement your brain is using the nervous system to tell your muscles how hard to contract, what order to contract in and how long to contract for. Your nervous system starts to create a “software” program for that movement so that it becomes more instinctual. The more you repeat a movement the better your brain and nervous system learns that movement and the more refined and ingrained the “software program” for that movement pattern becomes.

Because a road bike puts you in a different position and it tends to be far lighter than your mountain bike your nervous system will actually creates a different “software” program for your brain to use in creating that movement. While they look similar, from your brain and nervous systems perspective riding a mountain bike and riding a road bike are two different tasks.

Any time spent training on a road bike is not spent ingraining and refining the movement patterns needed for riding a mountain bike. In fact, since they are similar you may be creating a competing software program – one that is close to but not exactly like the one you need on your mountain bike.

Some top strength coaches in other sports think that this may lead to inefficient movement over the long run as your body tries to figure out which of the two similar movement patterns to use at any given time. This is why you don’t find a lot of baseball pitchers throwing heavy baseballs or golfer swinging lighter clubs in the off season than what they compete with. These other coaches recognize the impact of the nervous system on training and either have their athletes doing the exact same thing they do in their sport or engaging in cross training.

Since mountain biking and road riding are not so far apart you can not consider road riding to be cross training, which also leads me to my second point…

2) It increases the likelihood of overuse injuries – to be continued….

-James Wilson-

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  1. Roger says:

    James-this is a great way of explaining how the nervous system functions-just like a computer. Great stuff.

    I’ve been watching the tour of California so it’s inspired me to spin really smooth and efficiently on the trainer lately (i am using a mountain bike for this)-As well as spinning I am doing hard as possible intervals to mimic off road racing.

    I would be on the trail but it’s to snowy to ride so going on the trainer is the only way to “bike”-do you think this is OK to do since I have a race coming up in 5 weeks?

    Reply • February 23 at 2:09 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I actually think that doing all of your interval work on a trainer is a good idea if you really want to control as many variables as possible and create as progressive a program as possible. When you go outside you have to contend with weather and trail conditions that can influence how fast we are able to go and this makes it hard to really tell how you are improving.

      Getting out and riding is super important but doing intervals on a trainer is a great way to go.

      James Wilson

      Reply • February 25 at 2:02 pm
  2. Ben says:

    James–thanks for the great articles on your site. I enjoy your new perspective on traditional paradigms. I do wonder what you think about “roadies” like Lance and Levi who can come in and win the Leadville 100. Perhaps that course is not as much true “mountain” biking or someone like JHK or Todd Wells would win? Or are they just so strong that those differences don’t make a difference at that point?

    Reply • January 26 at 8:28 pm
    • bikejames says:

      It is just me being divisive but I say that if you can ride 100 miles of it, it ain’t mountain biking. I’m not saying that those guys aren’t good mountain bikers and great cyclists but I don’t think that the Leadville course is a destination for mountain bikers looking for fun, sweet singletrack.

      Reply • January 27 at 12:30 pm
  3. Toke Henriksen says:

    Hi There,
    I am currently a student of Sports Medicine at Copenhagen University.
    The points you are making here are (in my opinion) very correct, and very underestimated.

    Although I must add, that I do make use of indoor spinning during the off season, combined with crosstraining, and regular xc rides.
    I ‘just’ make a great deal of not getting ‘lazy’ on the spinning cycle, by standing up alot, driving the power down right, and basically setting up the bike as close to my xc bike setup as possible.
    I feel that this allow me to hit some really hard cardio intervals, that I would struggle to hit safely in the forrest. (especially, during the off season).
    By the way – I can recommend investing in some proper winter riding gear, and get out there – even in the off season – It might be a challenge, but it almost always turns out to a blast anyway. 😀

    Thanks for all the invaluable posts, I’m advocating them as much as I can to the mountain bike community here in Denmark (Scandinavia).
    Cheers – Toke

    Reply • October 4 at 2:12 am
  4. dan says:

    Hi James,

    that’s some interesting reading and does make a lot of sense, my question is what about fitting road tires and riding my MTB on the road? will that be the same thing? i know when you are mountain biking you have the whole balance thing to go over obstacles and there is a lot more core muscle involved but it’s not always that i have the time to ride on the trails, normally during the week i go for a spin on my bike with road tires to keep the cardio going with the DB training i got from you.

    so what do you think? Is the problem riding on road or just using a road bike?


    Reply • August 22 at 2:45 am
    • James Wilson says:

      Riding on the road and riding a road bike are not the same thing – I recommend using your MTB with slicks or something if you want to get out for a workout on the road. It is the positioning of the road bike that makes it less than optimal for us.

      Reply • August 22 at 11:55 am

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