Why I love to Train and Play but hate to Work Out…

I love to train and I love to play but I hate to workout. Confused by that statement? According to emails I get from riders trying to piece together a program to take their riding to the next level, if you are confused then you are not alone. However, knowing the difference and how to balance the 3 is the key to being able to see progress month after month and year after year without burning out.

First up is the word Training…

The definition of the word training is “deliberate practice in the attempt to acquire or refine a skill”. This means that you know exactly how what you are doing relates directly to the specific skills and/ or fitness you want to acquire or improve on the trail. Training has to be at the cornerstone of any training program but that is rarely the case, especially when it comes to trail riding.

For example, knowing how a deadlift relates to proper body position on the bike and the creation of a strong, powerful pedal stroke and then thinking about that as you are in the gym is training. Knowing how a windmill applies to the lateral hip movement you need to corner a bike is training. Spending time with some cones in a parking lot working on your basic handling skills is training. Simply going through the motions and trying to act it out is not enough – you have to know what you are supposed to be feeling.

I tell my clients that you can not look at the programs I create as a list of exercises to get through without any thought of the lessons behind each of those exercises. If you don’t walk out of the gym feeling that you learned something about how you move and how you can apply that to the bike then it wasn’t “training”. Just going for a ride with no idea of how to execute basic skills and a plan on how to practice them on the trail isn’t “training”.

At the heart of it is a desire to understand the “Spirit of the Thing Itself” (to quote Miyamoto Musashi from The Book of Five Rings) and, more importantly, a desire to understand how you suck and can tap into that spirit to get better. A humble attitude is needed to really train and, to be honest, is probably the biggest obstacle for most riders to overcome – knowing that you simply aren’t that good no matter how you stack up with the riders in your local riding group is tough for a lot of riders to accept.

Next I want to delve into Playing (I’ll get into Working Out in minute)…

Playing is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Training, when you don’t think about or worry about how what you are doing is going to help you improve. As you can see from the definition above, true training requires as much mental as physical effort and no one can do it all of the time without burning out, meaning that playing is also in integral part of a program.

For a mountain biker this means simply going out and having fun riding your bike, playing another sport or even goofing off with your family. Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of us have forgotten how to do this – we want everything to count towards our fitness goals.

I get questions all the time from well meaning riders who are trying to calculate how their morning bike ride to work or weekend hike with the family is going to count towards their fitness goals and how to fit it into their program. While I will admit that a pro rider who is “peaking” (an overused term that I really hate) for an event needs to make sure that they don’t overextend themselves in the days leading up to it the vast majority of us need to relax and just have – gasp – fun!

Remember that bike riding, and on a larger scale life, is supposed to be fun and that adults have the uncanny knack of taking the fun out of everything. Most of us can simply relax and enjoy most of our rides and extra-curricular activities without having to worry about how it will impact our training plan.

Don’t feel that every ride you go on has to take your overall training goals into account. Don’t pass up a chance to play with your family and friends because you are afraid that it will affect your “mileage” or “training hours”. If you can’t go on a ride with your wife because waiting for her at the top of a hill lets your heart rate drop and interferes with your “training” so you can finish 15th instead of 18th in Cat 2 in your local race series then you need to chill out. If you can’t go on a hike with your kids because it might kill your legs for your big “training” session at the gym the next day then you need to get a clue.

No one will be lying on their deathbed wishing that they had trained or worked more but countless people realize – too late unfortunately – that they did not have enough fun when they had the chance.

Now, I’ll dig into the worst of the 3 – Working Out…

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate what Jesus meant when he said “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out.”

Working Out is the lukewarm area of a program and the one that we should spend the least amount of time in but, unfortunately, where the vast majority of riders end up. They know they need to be doing something but they don’t really know what and so every time they hit the gym or the trail they are neither training (with a specific understanding of what they are working on and how it applies to the trail) nor are they playing (just having fun with no thoughts as to how it applies to the trail).

Most training rides are not really “training”, they are hammerfests with riders going as hard as they can for as long as they can with no real plan or idea of how their previous ride set them up for this ride or how this ride is going to set them up for the next one. Most gym time is not training, it is a list of exercises that was acquired from a magazine or off the internet that riders rush through in an attempt to build up their “cardio” or “fitness”. And don’t get me started on skills training – the epidemic of riders on $5000 bikes with $5 skills is out of control.

Being able to differentiate between Training, Playing and Working Out is vital to your ability to improve on a consistent basis while also staying mentally fresh and keeping your passion for mountain biking. Understand that being lukewarm in your approach is the worst thing you can do – you either need to be training or playing, which means having a plan that you have confidence in and execute with a purpose and also being able to chill out and have fun.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Nathan says:

    Amen…very well put!!!

    Reply • January 23 at 11:31 am
  2. Don says:

    + 1 know the amen and the article, I so often witness people blowing through rides, the group I ride with is all about fun, and for me is more about improving my technical skills and targeting specific skills based on knowing what type of trail we will be riding. Great job on the workout description and targeting your goals. Keep up the great work brother.

    Reply • January 24 at 7:56 am
  3. Don says:

    Totally agree. Since I’ve been using your training plans my workouts are specific and focused. I see how every exercise I do relates to what I do on the bike and I’ve embraced the concept of riding for fun instead of training.

    Reply • January 24 at 8:15 am
  4. Robert says:

    great article again!
    I know people who are exercising just to be in shape, not training for any specific sport. I mean they have a daily 15 min to 1h gym/home routine, with little variations to avoid boredom. That would qualify as “workout” in the good sense I believe, since there’s nothing specific to train for

    Reply • January 24 at 8:23 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If the fitness industry did a better job of educating people as to the importance of the quality of their movement then even those who just want to get in or stay in shape would understand that they should be “training” how they move, not just doing random stuff to avoid boredom. The reason a martial artists never gets bored practicing the basics is because they have been educated to understand how the perfection of movement leads to bigger and better things. Everyone has something specific to train for whether they know it or not – the game of “life”. You only get one body and knowing how to keep it going for the long haul should be one of the goals of training for everyone, however they get sold on superficial things.

      Glad you liked the article, I’m just trying to do my part to reverse some of the damage being done by the industry I work in…

      Reply • January 24 at 9:06 am
  5. MM says:

    Perfect! I agree 100% , I have just started training with some of your specific exercises for my lower back and hips and have already noticed I am pedaling with greater efficiency and comfort. My hips seem much more flexible and my climbs have been faster without the usual pain in my lower back. As a father of three I don’t get much time to “workout” but the training programs you offer are clear and practical for the little time I have and seem to offer the most bang for the buck. Thanks James you have already made my riding more fun!

    Reply • January 24 at 9:46 am
  6. John K. says:

    This might be one of the most profound articles I’ve read on this website (and the internet). I can think of 35 riders that need to read this.

    Most of us started mountain biking because it’s “fun”. But, as you say, we sure have a way of taking the fun out it.

    Reply • January 24 at 9:59 am
  7. Jet says:

    Hit the nail on the head here James! Having a coach is the best investment for your athletic goals. We have all become pros at justifying our own actions. You need a third party who will tell you when your crap stinks. Everybody’s crap stinks… FYI.

    You do a good job of punching people in the face and telling them us that our crap stinks.. or at least making us second guess our justification strattegies.

    We are all luke warm! Keep up the great teaching James!

    Reply • January 24 at 11:14 am
  8. Mikhail Sidorov says:

    Thanks For sharing these thoughts! You know what you talk about. It’s inspiring!

    Reply • January 24 at 11:34 am
  9. HundredDollar says:

    Thanks for this post. I think we all could use a little more play time. Most couples I know who ride end up not being able to go out and enjoy it together, and the part about not going out with your kids actually breaks me down a little because I know it is so true for many parents, especially guys.

    Reply • January 24 at 2:47 pm
  10. TW says:

    +1 to the Amen and the comment that this is the best article I’ve seen to date here (and there have been some really solid articles since I’ve been reading)

    I used to be this guy – not able to go out riding with my wife since I was always waiting for her. I finally got a clue.

    Keep up the good work James!

    Reply • January 24 at 5:08 pm
  11. RennyG says:

    I have to admit that I have found myself thinking “why am I not really sore today” when I have done a workout that is focused on training movement. It is that perverse mindset that if you are not creaking getting out of bed in the morning that you did not “workout” hard enough the day before. BUT when I see improvement on the trail I know that the “work” is getting me to where I want to go! So thanks James for “work” that makes sense, gets results, and does not have me feel like I am a decrepit old lady! Happy to say I suck less than last year!

    Reply • January 8 at 6:35 am

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