Why you can’t create a mountain biker on the road or in the gym.

This weekend I got to see one of the original and strongest influences on my training programs present at a seminar. Ian King is an Australian physical preparation coach who has done as much to innovate modern training as anyone I know of.

Among other things, Ian is the man who introduced the training world to things like a 3 number tempo training system for rep speed, training movement patterns instead of body parts and control drills (known more commonly as Corrective Exercises today). These are all concepts used today by countless trainers and athletes who don’t even know where they originated from.

At the beginning of the weekend Ian lead off with an overview of where the training world is today. One of the points he made really hit home for me because it sums up the dilemma I face in helping mountain bikers get better at mountain biking.

He pointed out that back in the 60’s, 70’s and most of the 80’s the dominant trend in sport was to develop your technique and sport specific fitness by practicing your sport – a lot. While there was some physical prep work being done it wasn’t at the expense of technical training in the sport itself.

Obviously this approach had some drawbacks. Focusing too much on your sport doesn’t allow you to work on improving your General Physical Preparation. This is your basic strength, endurance and mobility levels that help elevate your performance and help insure against future injuries.

However, Ian pointed out that things have swung too far in the other direction. While some non-specific training is needed to improve and stay injury free, starting in the 90’s there has been a shift towards “building an athlete” through training and then hoping that it will transfer to the sport in question.

Today it is not uncommon for an athlete to spend more time doing non-specific training then actually practicing specific aspects of their sport. For us as mountain bikers this shows up in the mindset that tells us that riding a road bike  or attending a CrossFit class is “training for mountain biking”, often at the expense of more quality time on the mountain bike.

Riding a road bike or engaging in other non-specific training should never be done at the expense of working on training for mountain biking. Trail rides and skills drills should make up the bulk of your training time when possible.

And that, of course, leads us to another one of the things that Ian pointed out – all of this non-specific training is destroying more athletes than it is helping. Most riders would do better cutting out all of their extra non-specific cardio training and focusing exclusively on improving the quality of their mountain biking.

And, just for the record, non-specific training is anything that isn’t trail riding or skills drills/ practice.

The idea is to maximize your time focusing on your sport without going overboard with all of the extra stuff. Trail riding is the best and most specific type of cardio/ endurance training you can possibly do and should be the centerpiece of your program.

And since cardio/ endurance is already covered by simply practicing the sport itself, i.e. riding your mountain bike on the trail, you just need to add in some strength, mobility and speed training and you’re good to go.

Of course, it is easy to say but hard to do. The current trend of building a rider through a lot of cardio training off of the mountain bike is well ingrained and certainly the popular model.

But if you’ve found that this approach of spending additional hours on the road in order to become a better mountain biker doesn’t make sense or didn’t work for you, then try just spending that time on your mountain bike instead.

As Musashi told us in The Book of 5 Rings – Practice with the weapon you will use in battle. Just like it makes no sense for someone who fights with a sword to practice with a another type of weapon, if you are a mountain biker it makes no sense to spend a lot of time “practicing” with another weapon like the road bike or a training program that focuses too much on work capacity in the gym.

Obviously I’m a huge proponent of using non-specific training to help improve performance and prevent future injuries. There is also a time and a place to focus more on non-specific training.

But the balance between specific and non-specific training needs to be restored in a lot of riders programs. The focus on quality over quantity needs to be instilled as well.

Without it you end up with a lot of riders who are really good at “training” but struggling to see improvements where it counts the most – on the trail.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

The Ultimate MTB Workout Program

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  1. Mike says:

    This is great information James, thanks for sharing it. It’s just what I needed to hear. I have kind of slipped into using a 50/50 approach when it comes to working out and bike riding. Trying to get stronger at both individually, and not really doing a good job at connecting the two. As a result, I feel like I’m slowly losing ground in both areas. I guess the trick now is to figure out the balance.between the two. I’m just not sure what that looks like at this point.

    Reply • August 27 at 6:11 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The balance comes in the long run, not in the short term. In other words, you don’t want a 50/50 mix all of the time, you need an 80/20 mix in one direction or the other sometimes and sometimes you need a more moderate approach. During the riding season you need to focus on riding – your training will take a back seat and your gym numbers will suffer. But in the off season you need to reverse that and your riding will suffer but you’re basic fitness levels will improve rapidly. Over the course of a year you will see balance but you don’t need it on a daily or weekly basis.

      Reply • August 28 at 11:22 am
  2. Neil Barstow says:

    Hey James,
    Nice one: Practice with the weapon you will use in battle, great book that – “The Book of 5 Rings”.

    Reply • September 5 at 5:26 am

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