What the Underpants Gnomes can tell you about endurance training.

I recently posted a video on Facebook from Pavel Tsatsouline (the guy who re-introduced kettlebells to the fitness world in the late ‘90’s) and in it he talked about the role of strength for endurance athletes. In it he talked about two studies from Norway where some endurance athletes (elite cyclists and marathon runners) saw an improvement in their race times after using a strength training program that had them do 4 sets of 4 reps on the squat.

In theory, theory is just like reality but in reality it isn’t.

The point he was making was that getting stronger can improve your performance in an endurance sport and not just the light weight/ high rep nonsense usually prescribed to endurance athletes to target their “slow twitch muscle fibers”.

It sparked a discussion with one rider who said that that there was no way that strength training could improve endurance. He said out that strength training and endurance training produced opposite results and that strength training could actually hinder an elite endurance athlete.

After a few exchanges between me and few other rider who had experienced the power of getting stronger themselves I realized the mistake that this rider making in his logic.

He was talking about laboratory measures of improvement, not improvement of performance in an actual sport.

This is a classic mistake made by the “science guys” – the lab is not where things actually count.

In the book The Sports Gene David Epstein points out that laboratory markers of fitness like VO2Max and  Lactate Threshold do not automatically equate to sports performance. The sports world is full of overachieving athletes who succeed despite being “genetically inferior” (at least as far as we can measure in a lab right now) and genetically gifted athletes who squander it all away.

So when Pavel or I say that strength training will improve your performance in an endurance sport like mountain biking we aren’t saying that strength  training will lead to a measurable improvement in lab markers like VO2Max or mitochondrial density. That is the direct cause and effect trap that can severely limit your perspective on the human body.

We’re simply saying that if you get stronger you will see an improvement in your ability to ride faster and/ or longer. Your actual performance where it really counts will improve even if you can’t point to a direct cause-and-effect relationship to something you can measure in a lab.

The clock doesn’t lie but lab numbers can.

The real truth is that no one really knows exactly how things cause improvements in performance. Our understanding of the human body is constantly changing the narrative we tell people about how things work.

The best example of this is Lactic Acid. Not to long ago it was the metabolic boogeyman that we need to control and banish. Entire training programs and supplements were created under the premise that lactic acid caused muscle fatigue, muscle failure and too some extent muscle soreness.

Now we understand that none of this is true. Lactic Acid is actually good and something that your body needs and uses for high intensity work.

My point is that you have to be able to separate science from real life. While science can give us some insights into the real world of performance training, it isn’t the same thing.

In theory, theory is just like reality but in reality it isn’t.

It reminds me of the South Park where the Underpants Gnomes were stealing poor Tweak’s underpants. When asked why they were doing it they said that they needed them as part of their plan.

UGnomeIf you don’t know, the plan turned out to be…

Phase 1 – Collect Underpants

Phase 2 – ???

Phase 3 – Profit

No one knew what Step 2 was but they knew that if they did Step 1 they would somehow get to Step 3. The exact mechanism isn’t important and absence of evidence for why the whole thing works that way isn’t evidence of absence.

The human body is a complex organism that can’t be broken down into neat little boxes like “strength” and “endurance”. One effects the other even if we don’t really know what Step 2 is.

The take home point is that for the vast majority of riders out there the fastest way to see an improvement in your actual on trail performance is to get stronger. You still need to ride but until you can do some basic things like a 1.5 X Bodyweight Deadlift and a 24 kg Turkish Get Up on both sides (with relative ease) then that is your weak link, not some metabolic lab markers of cardio fitness.

Honestly, when you understand that those metabolic markers stop improving in elite endurance athletes (no one’s VO2Max improves indefinitely) and yet their performance continues to improve you realize that there is something else that really drives endurance performance. That something else is movement efficiency.

And a good mobility and strength training program like the Ultimate MTB Workout Program v5 can improve movement efficiency faster than anything else.

Anyways, that’s starting to get off into another subject that I’ll save for another post. In the meantime just be like the Underpants Gnomes and do Step 1 (get stronger) knowing that it will lead to Step 3 (riding faster and longer) even if you can’t explain exactly what Step 2 is.

Or you can just steal some underpants and see if it leads to profit…if it does let me know.

That’s it for now, if you have any questions or comments about this subject or how underpants have anything to do with this please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you liked this article please click one of the social media buttons below to help spread the word.

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. Mike says:

    I love reading your articles, I’ve used your time crunched program, and I am grateful for your tips on lower back pain -that frog stretch is now part of my warm up routine. BUT, I can’t agree that “for the vast majority of riders out there the fastest way to see an improvement in your actual on trail performance is to get stronger.”

    The vast majority of trail riders are recreational riders who cough up a lung when pedaling up hill. They need a routine of consistent riding to improve aerobic fitness.

    Flexibility always helps. And practicing poor movement patterns isn’t good. But, consistent riding and aerobic fitness mean more to the average rider than a Turkish Get Up from what I see.

    I may be biased by riding the CO front range trails where you get a punch-in-the-gut type climb right out of the parking lot. Maybe I’d agree if I lived in Indiana or Ohio where the puking comes from too many apres ride beers, not the vertical.

    Reply • April 21 at 12:30 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The symptom (coughing up a lung) isn’t always caused by the most obvious thing. If you lack the strength and mobility to ride efficiently then hacking up a lung comes from wasting a lot of energy. Just adding a bigger gas tank without fixing the energy leaks isn’t fixing the real problem.

      You need a balance of cardio and strength training and I’m not saying that just strength training by itself is going to make you better. There is an assumption that you are riding several times a week already and what I am talking about is what you do in addition to your sport.

      Since riding counts as the best cardio training you can do then if you are riding you have a big part of that covered. If you are going to look at weak links in your program it then becomes a matter of moving well and getting stronger. That, added with smart use of you trail rides, will deliver much better results than mindless use of trail rides and endless extra cardio training.

      We have a lot of gut buster climbs right out of the parking lot here on the Western Slope so I don’t think that has anything to do with this approach. I’m sure you’ve found getting stronger has helped your climbing and that is pretty much all I’m saying – ride your bike and get stronger and the rest (Phase 2) will often take care of itself.

      Reply • April 21 at 3:49 pm
    • Howard says:

      Hi Mike,
      I have to agree with James based on my recent experience. I have been using his techniques in my strength workouts for a few months by including deadlifts in particular. I have now also started working through the Ultimate MTB program. I am only at about 70% BW on my deadlifts (2 sets of 12) but I have seen noticeable improvement in my out of the saddle pedalling. I have been smoking my riding buddies up the climbs on my single speed. Now heres the thing, I am not breathing as hard at the top as when I was a weaker rider using more of my strength just to turn the pedals.

      Reply • April 28 at 5:36 am
  2. JonasM says:

    I totally agree on you point about theory and reality. But being a PhD researcher myself I would also say that the ability to distinguish is some of the differences between good and bad “science guys”. In some sports there might be a close correlation between performance in competition vs. VO2Max and 20 min turbo trainer/treadmill tests in the lab. But some of the “science guys” forget that e.g. mountainbiking performance is a cocktail of riding technique, power bursts, instant recovery, balance, equipment, etc. and that it is questionable how well this cocktail is reflected by a monotonic 20 min test. To me the best lab test it so move the lab out on the trail and measure the real performance. That is how I “measure” my fitness.

    Reply • April 22 at 5:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I totally agree and thanks for being a voice of reason on the side of the “science guys”. The labs can give us some ideas but the trail is the true test of performance. As one of my favorite “science guys” Gray Cook puts it – isolated normalcy has little realistic implications. Being able to see the big picture as well as the individual parts should be the goal of any coach.

      Reply • April 22 at 8:45 am
  3. James says:

    Hi James,

    you mention a “24 kg Turkish Get Up”. I didn’t know what it looked like so I checked your video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vhJza-2xiI. In the video you suggest 25lbs as a good starting point. Lifting 24kg one handed above my head seems pretty far out of reach (whereas I can wrap my head around a 1.5x body weight dead lift, not that I’ve tried it yet). Did you mean 24 kilograms or 24 pounds in this blog entry?

    Reply • May 4 at 6:40 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I meant a 24 kg. Remember that standards aren’t meant to be easy and sometime they may take years to achieve. The real point is having some reference point for how strong you need to be and to to be working towards achieving it or maintaining it.

      If 25 pounds is tough for you right now – which is common for most riders – then just think how solid you will be when you can do twice that with ease. Don’t rush the journey but get started on it by making sure you have the TGU in your workouts.

      Reply • May 5 at 11:18 am
  4. Karl says:

    Could you provide a link to the video with Pavel?

    Reply • August 7 at 8:04 am
  5. Margie says:

    What weights would you recommend for women for the dead lift and get up?

    Reply • August 7 at 4:49 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I like to see a 1-1.5 X BW deadlift and a 16-20 KG TGU. If they can do that then strength in those lifts isn’t their issue.

      Reply • August 10 at 1:35 pm

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