I think that one of the stupidest terms in the sports training world is “cyclist”.

I mean, while it makes sense from a broad business category for the beancounters at corporation it makes no sense from a training standpoint.

Unfortunately mountain biking gets lumped firmly into the general cycling category and often at a detriment to those of us who actually ride mountain bikes.

It is as silly to lump a BMX rider, a Tour de France rider and an Enduro mountain bike rider into the same broad category because they all ride a bicycle as it is to lump soccer, baseball and golf players into a broad “ball sports” category just because they all play a sport with a ball.

Each type of riding category is unique and from a movement, strength and energy systems standpoint are often very different sports. Actually, you’ve seen BMX racing break out of this mold as they have moved away from the general cycling advice and started to work more on the specifics of their sport.

But unfortunately mountain biking gets lumped firmly into the general cycling category and often at a detriment to those of us who actually ride mountain bikes.

The biggest problem with the term “cycling” is that it is usually just a code word for Road Cycling. There is this assumption that what works in the world of Road Cycling is going to work for all types of cyclists.

It drives me nuts when someone refers the this general term when discussing training strategies for specific types of riding because it is usually leads to a cardio intensive approach that often neglects the realities of anything but road riding.

Something you have to realize is that the context of what you are training for is everything. For example, it has been found in elite level runners that their pace dictates their efficiency. At the paces they run and race at the most they are much more efficient than the average runner – no surprise there.

But if you get them much removed from that pace they become much less efficient, often being no more efficient than an average runner. Think about taking Usain Bolt’s beautiful stride that is built for sprinting and asked him to run a marathon.

Suddenly someone who is more efficient than anyone else in the world at one pace will be no more efficient than anyone else at another.

And while those studies were done on runners, I’d have to assume the same thing happens when you pedal your bike. This means that the paces you train at are the paces you become most efficient at.

If you spend your time training to sit and spin a high RPM with very little tension at the pedals then guess what…that’s what you get better at.

And that may work for the road but when you hit the trail and find that you can’t spin a high RPM for very long and that you are forced to push a lower RPM with more tension at the pedals then guess what happens? You’ll quickly find yourself struggling because you are not used to those paces.

I’ve touched on this problem before in an article I wrote on Power vs. Torque and why the trail doesn’t lend itself well to the same type of pedal stroke you can use on the road and this is just one example of the problems you run into when lumping road and mountain biking into the broad “cycling” category.

The need for strength and technical skills are two more examples of huge differences between these two sports and are rarely addressed properly in a roadie influenced, cardio intensive program.

Back to my previous example, saying that you don’t need additional strength training or skills training for mountain biking because it isn’t needed in road cycling (something I’d still argue but I didn’t come to save the roadies from themselves) is like saying that because you don’t need to do a lot of agility drills with golfers then you don’t need them for “ball sports athletes”.

The “ball sports” don’t make this mistake because they look at the realities of their type of ball sport instead of being lazy and making broad assumptions across the board based on one type of ball sport.

What works for one type of cycling doesn’t really mean anything for another type, but this isn’t what we’re told. There are a lot of road cycling coaches who suffer from the halo effect, which is where you assume that competence in one domain will automatically carry over to another domain.

An example of this is a boxing coach who tries to become an MMA coach as well. If he just tried to carry over what he knew from boxing without integrating it into the different realities of MMA his fighters would get destroyed. Being great at one thing – in this case teaching people to box – obviously won’t translate over to everything that goes into training an MMA fighter, requiring them to learn and integrate new things into the overall program.

In our case, this halo effect is seen by assuming that knowing how to help a roadie improve will automatically translate over to helping a mountain biker improve. The trail is a completely different world than the road. Mobility, strength and skills training aren’t optional for the dynamic world of mountain biking and any program that doesn’t integrate them into the overall approach isn’t really a mountain bike specific program.

You also have a lot of mountain bike coaches who are heavily influenced by this paradigm and tend to train their athletes the same way. Because some coaches don’t take the time to break down the actual movement, strength and energy systems demands of riding on the trail (not in a lab or on the road) they become too content to cut and paste the same old road riding influenced crap and pass it off as a mountain bike training program.

At the heart of the problem is that we’ve let the roadies lead us to believe that their way is the best way to train all “cyclists”.  It has led to a watering down of our amazing sport as more and more riders hit the trail ill prepared to deal with the realities of trail riding. They don’t have the requisite mobility, strength and skills to efficiently move on their bikes and as a result waste a lot of energy and struggle with technical trails.

As a result they seek easier, more friendly trails – or just illegally sanitize existing trails. They also want easier racing venues that favor their roadie influenced fitness and skills, forcing event organizers to keep their tracks relatively easy and pedal friendly.

But I think that the time has come to stop the madness.

We are mountain bikers, not “cyclists”.

We ride trails, which is a completely different world than the road.

And we need to stop letting the roadies whisper in our ears that the path to success lies in endless amounts of riding and cardio sessions while we neglect things like mobility, strength and skills.

Like I mentioned earlier, context of what you are training for is everything and with that ridiculous term you have absolutely none. Make sure you are addressing the realities of trail riding and not falling for the halo effect of the term cyclist.

We can all get together for a beer as cyclists but lets stop pretending that we all need the same basic approach to improvement and look at training for the demands of our unique sport.

I know that this is just my opinion and I’m sure that you have some thoughts or opinions on this as well. I’d love to hear them, just post a comment below to share them.

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Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson
MTB Strength Training Systems

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