When I first started riding it didn’t take me long to realize that my technical skills on the bike were going to be an important part of being a mountain biker. While fitness obviously plays a big role, there were certain things I couldn’t just “fitness” my way through.

Of course, my experience was definitely influenced by where I started mountain biking. I was working at a trainer certification company in Santa Barbara and got my first mountain bike to ride to work. I didn’t realize that there were some of the best trails in Southern California in the hills behind town but it didn’t take long to find them.

The trails there usually consisted of a long climb – usually on a fire road – to the top of a trail and then coming down a technically challenging piece of singletrack. I remember thinking that any ride I didn’t crash 2-3 times on was an exceptionally good ride for me. I wasn’t a natural but luckily I had a riding partner who looked like one.

Looking back on it now I realize that Jeff had put in a lot of time and effort to get as good as he was but to me he just seemed to be supernaturally fast and made it look effortless. And while he had good fitness, the thing I noticed was that he was really smooth through the rock gardens and often took lines that I didn’t even realize were there. He could also corner faster than I could and could jump and hit drops with confidence, things I struggled with.

I knew that if I wanted to get faster and ride more like Jeff that I needed to put in the time and effort to improve my skills. Because of my background in track and with strength coaching for athletes I knew that there was a relationship between fitness and skills and that started me on a quest to better understand how to use strength and mobility training to improve my riding skills.

Along the way I was introduced to a way of thinking about skill improvement that best explains how I approached the problem for myself and for my clients. I first learned about it from Gray Cook and his company, Functional Movement Systems. Gray was one of the first people to bring a systematic way to integrate mobility, strength and skill training and took his lessons and applied those concepts to mountain biking.

One of the core teachings that influenced my training philosophy is this – when faced with a need to improve your technical skills, you must first know if it is a movement or a skill problem. In other words, is the problem that you don’t know what to do or is it that you can’t do the movements required in the first place.

This is a central question to help solve the problem of how to best improve because it informs where you focus needs to be. If you have a movement problem and are ignoring it while trying to improve your technical skills you might see some short term improvement but you will hit a wall and most likely start to develop bad habits.

A good example of this is being able to apply good body position to the situation on the bike. The specific body positions you use may change but it should be driven by moving at the hips instead of the lower back. Whether you are in a standing sprint position or a deep Attack Position or somewhere in between, a hallmark of good body position is that you are bending at the hips.

Taking a step back, this is driven by a basic movement skill called the Hip Hinge. It is the basic movement pattern behind much of your body position on the bike and is also the movement pattern behind such exercises as the Deadlift and the Swing. 

Taking one more step back you can see that the Hip Hinge also has some basic mobility requirements, like being able to touch your toes. Being able to move freely through the hips enough to touch your toes without excessively bending your knees is a prerequisite to being able to do a loaded Hip Hinge exercise safely in the gym.

So as you can see there are three layers to this “skills improvement” question. First you have to know where you fall and then how to best address it. Here is a basic example to show you how this concept would apply to your Body Position on the bike.

Starting from the most basic level, if you struggle to touch your toes then this has to be your priority. Trying to get stronger in the gym or improve your skills on the bike is going to be a struggle that will most likely result in overuse injuries. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ride your bike or work on your skills, just that you need to know what is really holding you back so you can prioritize ways to improve your mobility.

If you can touch your toes but struggle to do a 1.5 times bodyweight deadlift then you might lack the basic strength needed to hold your position under stress on the bike. Being able to do it when there isn’t any stress is one thing and strength is a good way to “stress proof” your movements.

And finally, if you can touch your toes and do a 1.5 times bodyweight deadlift then your problem is more of a skill thing than anything else. The good news here is that because you have the requisite mobility and strength you’ll pick up the skill part of it faster and be able to better apply it to the trail.

The problem is that you have to balance these three things at all times. Ignoring one or more of them in favor of exclusive focus on one of them is almost never a good idea and definitely not something you want to do for long periods of time. You always need to be working on your mobility, strength and skills, it is just how much of each you are doing based on your needs at that time.

The mistake that I see a lot of riders make is that they get married to their idea of what it takes to improve and they are afraid to try another approach. You have riders who have their fitness routines dialed in but won’t take time to work on their skills and you have riders who focus so much on their riding and skills training that they neglect their fitness. In each case you have someone who is more interested in doing what they want to do instead of what will really make them better.

This also happens during the riding season when riders start to neglect their basic strength and mobility training. Time and energy are short and we do this to ride our bikes, not to train to ride our bikes, so this is understandable. But you’re still going to do much better with a simple mobility and strength training program – the Atomic Strength Training Program being my personal favorite – than ignoring them completely. 

Once I started to approach my skills training with this approach I got much better. More importantly, I was able to use the same approach to help my clients as well. There is a time that working out isn’t the most important thing to do…but you never want to completely ignore it. Learning to balance strength, mobility and skills training as you answer the “is it a skill or a movement problem” question will help you improve as well.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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