Don’t Fall for the Bike Mag Hype

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Warning – what follows is a rant that may appear to be a bit random in places. It may also offend a few people but if I’m not pissing somebody off every day then I am probably not trying hard enough.

I have to admit it – I’m getting more than a little frustrated at the MTB industry. MTB riders everywhere have been flat out lied to and deceived by the MTB industry, particularly with the help of the magazines. In short, these entities have managed to convince most everyone that the key to enjoying mountain biking is more about the bike they are riding and the components hung on that bike than about how tuned the engine driving the bike is. This approach is total bull shit that will do little to really help riders enjoy the trail more.

I recognize it because the same thing has happened to the general fitness industry. You can’t open a single fitness magazine without being accosted by ads and articles pimping supplements and new machines and gadgets. The same money driven attitude has spawned this “all sizzle, no steak” approach that we see in the MTB magazines. Trust me, advertising dollars drive the MTB world just like it does the fitness world. And what the advertising dollars want you to see and hear the magazines are more than happy to print.

True story – several years ago I knew the owner of a large bike company that was importing a unique new bike from the European market to the states. I saw him on the trail one day and he was pretty pissed after a meeting with the editor of one of the bigger MTB mags. He had wanted to see about getting the bike reviewed by the mag and was told that the write up “could” depend on how much advertising he was willing to buy, plain and simple.

Granted, some smaller bike builders manage to get their bikes reviewed without having to invest in a good deal of advertising but that is the exception, not the rule. It is no coincidence that companies like Cannondale and Trek have no problem getting every bike they bring to market in the mags – they also happen to buy 2 page advertising spreads every month as well.

Magazines would quickly go out of business without these advertising dollars so they feel compelled to oblige those that basically write their paychecks. Now, I’m not saying that there is a big conspiracy in which all of these people know that they are blowing smoke up your butt, they simply don’t know any better. Like my dad told me once – if you grow up in a whore house you just don’t know that whoring is wrong. They just know how business has been done in the past and to them it is just business as usual.

We all know of riders who rip it up on whatever bike they ride. I’ve personally known 2 guys who rode some pretty beat up bikes and absolutely embarrassed everyone else on the trail, no matter how new and advanced the bike everyone else was riding. To use a better known rider as an example, how did Fabien Barrel win 2 DH World Championships on a Kona Stab? Is the Stab the most technologically advanced bike in the world? Hell no, Fabien is just a great athlete and he trains his ass off.

Or how about my boy Rich Houseman? While Yeti obviously makes great bikes, was it the bike that allowed him to win his first Pro title last season? Nope, Rich has worked hard over the years to get where he his at and I guarantee you that he could throw a leg over any bike and be a threat on the track.

Top riders, both pros and bros, know the truth – give them a bike and they can tear it up because they have the most important asset a biker can have – superior physical skills. Training can give the average MTB rider better physical skills and while they may never get to the same point that a Fabien or Big House are, they can get closer than they will be by trying to figure out how to shave a pound off their bike or what shiny new part in the bike mags they must get next.

Seriously, what will make a bigger impact on your riding – adding 75 lbs. to your deadlift or adding a carbon fiber handlebar? Investing in a bike skills camp or investing in the new XTR build kit? Living in Fruita I have seen countless guys on the best bikes money can buy poking along the trail because they are physically weak and their skills suck. You simply can not appreciate the small performance increase these top tier bikes and parts offer unless you are physically in shape to do so.

Now, I do acknowledge that you do need a decent bike that is made for what you are doing. Obviously a Wal-Mart bike will not do and trying to downhill on a XC bike will get pretty scary, but once you have invested in a decent bike that is intended for the type of riding you are doing the best way to enjoy the trail more is to start worrying about increasing your physical skills and capacities.

However, the mags don’t get advertising dollars from training sources so they don’t want to “waste” space promoting something that does not pay them to do so. They are also afraid that they will lose readership if they do something different than the other mags, a lemming mentality that does little to advance our sport.

So, what does this all mean? First, check yourself and your priorities. Do you really want to be a better rider and enjoy riding more? If so, what are you doing to achieve that goal? If your answer is something like “saving for a new (fill in the blank)” then maybe you’re going about it the wrong way. If you are really serious about getting all that you can out of your saddle time then your answer must include investing in yourself through some sort of skills or physical training program, preferably both. If not, then being a better biker is not really a priority of yours, which is fine, just know that you’ll probably be riding at the same level this time next year, even with a shiny new crankset or handlebar.

Second, if you are serious about being a better rider then take some action. Invest in yourself and let your favorite bike mags know that you would like to see more coverage of skills and physical training. If they start to think that their readership wants to see this type of stuff then they will be much more likely to devote some of their space to it.

Anyways, so ends my rant. My singular mission at this point is to help re-shape the mentality of the MTB world and hopefully help my fellow riders better appreciate what investing in themselves will do for them. Hopefully some of you can help me do just that. 

-James Wilson-

Combo Lift Video Demo

Here is a video demo I shot of some different ways to use combination drills in your routine…

-James Wilson-

Are you “overskilled”?

I would have to say that 90% of the MTB riders and racers that I have met would be defined as “over skilled”. It sounds absurd since most feel that some aspect of their riding needs work, be it skill related such as gate starts or fitness related such as better power endurance (I define MTB specific fitness as a “skill”). However, when you really understand how the human body functions and best adapts to MTB specific skills and fitness you will see what I mean. First, though, I need to explain the OPP.

The Optimum Performance Pyramid (OPP) was first introduced to me by Gray Cook, a highly influential figure in strength training circles. It is probably the best explanation that I have come across describing how performance training should be viewed. Gray uses the OPP to explain the 3 distinct levels of performance training, their prioritization and how to best integrate them.

The first, and broadest, level is Functional Movement. Contrary to the current fitness trends, this does not mean standing on a wobbly doo-hicky, looking like you are trying out for the circus. Functional Movement simply refers to developing adequate mobility, body control and movement awareness in order to safely handle higher level movements.

Examples of exercises in this level would include single leg box squats, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlift, push ups and their variations, inverted rows and alternating DB shoulder press. Bodyweight and unilateral exercises make up the bulk of this type of training. However, bodyweight exercises are extremely humbling when challenging variations are used. Do not underestimate the power of this type of training.

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The Functional Movement level should also address any imbalances in the body, both mobility and strength wise, as they are a huge red flag for a potential injury. An athlete without a strong base built in this level of training will be far more prone to injuries, have a harder time mastering new skills and techniques and generally find that their training efforts yield few and inconsistent results.

The second level of the pyramid is Functional Strength. This level focuses on improving your raw strength and power. As I have touched on many times, increasing these areas will effectively add to your raw potential. Riders without adequate time spent on this level will also find that they have a harder time mastering new skills and will probably feel as if they have hit a plateau with their progression.

Examples of exercises in this level would include deadlift, front squat, bench press, military press, weighted pull ups/ chin ups, and DB rows. Compound, core exercises for the main movement patterns make up the bulk of this level.

The last, and smallest, level is Functional Skill. Unfortunately, this is where most training that MTB riders undertake would fall. This includes trail riding, DH runs, dirt jumping, 4X track time, gate starts, sprints, intervals and high level strength training methods such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifts. These methods will only yield the biggest “MTB specific” gains if they are used by someone who has spent time developing the base levels of the performance training pyramid. Believe it or not, over use of training methods in this level can actually slow down and stagnate skill development and fitness progression.

In fact, if you talked with any of the originators of a specialized training method I will guarantee you that they would tell you that they intended that method to be used by someone who had progressed into it. Every good strength coach understands the importance of laying a solid foundation and building on it in a progressive manner, but that approach is rarely reported on in the media or used by less skilled fitness professionals. What you find in the magazines and training boards is someone who reports on the specialized method independent of the progression intended to lead into it. Everyone wants to report on, learn and/ or use the “special” and “secret” training method of the champs, but failure to understand the progression into that method does a great disservice to the pioneers that gave us those methods.

Plyometrics have to be one of the best examples of this. Developed and refined by the old Soviet Union, plyometrics have developed an almost mystical status here in the United States. Almost every training conversation that I have with a rider eventually comes around to “what about plyometrics”, as if they hold the key to all riding goals. Riders who can barely pull off a bodyweight squat are jumping around cones and off of boxes in the quest for a MTB specific workout. However, the pioneers of the plyometric method would be greatly disturbed by this approach.

Some of the old Soviet training texts suggest that an athlete should have progressed (there’s that word again) to a double bodyweight squat before they were ready for depth jumps and other high level plyometrics. While I may not agree with that specific suggestion (more recent suggestions are around 1-1.5 times your bodyweight), it does underscore the fact that no one came into their training program and started off with plyometrics. In fact, it could be years before they would allow an athlete to use those higher level training methods if they felt adequate functional movement and strength had not been established. BTW, the Soviets kicked a lot off butt with this approach and this template has become the model for almost every high level strength and conditioning coach in the world.

So, as you can see from this point of view, most riders spend far too much time and focus on the Functional Skill level of the OPP. A lot of them may not have spent any time working on Functional Movement and/ or Functional Strength. This makes them over skilled, as their MTB specific skill and fitness progression is maxed out compared to the base that they have built. This means that a long term approach with an eye on safely progressing through the 3 levels of the OPP is needed for sustainable results. Without it, you are simply guessing at what will help you and hoping that it will. I don’t know about you, but that approach leaves too much to chance. If I’m going to invest time into training I want to be sure that it is going to pay off.

Note: do not confuse “over skilled” from a performance training point of view with having “adequate skill” from a pure performance point of view. Most of us will never be satisfied with our skill and fitness levels in every aspect of riding so we will always be looking to get a little better in some aspect on the bike. What I am saying is that at a certain point you must re-solidify the base of your OPP in order to continue to realize the gains offered by the higher level strategies.

-James Wilson-

21st Century Cardio Training – part 1

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In this podcast I cover my definitive look developing mountain bike specific cardio.

Cardio Training Part 1

Right click on the link above and select “Save as…” in order to download the MP3 file to your computer.

-James Wilson-

Going beyond a normal workout…

Are you “false fit”?

I wrote this for my regular fitness blog at www.coachjames.com but it is just as appropriate my fellow mountain bikers. We are extremely guilty of the “false fit” condition. Read to learn more…

Most exercise professionals would agree that there are many components to fitness. A well rounded approach to fitness that addresses all of them is usually the best way to achieve lasting gains and continual progress from a program. Being deficient in even one of these components leads to slow progress and results in a condition I call “false fit”.

“False fit” is when someone perceives themselves to be fit when there are glaring holes in one of the 5 Fitness Components. While each area can cover other, more specific concepts here is a list and brief description of 5 Fitness Components you need to work on:

1. Mobility – Your ability to move freely while maintaining good posture. Also includes elements of body control and body awareness.

2. Core Strength – Your ability to properly use your core to create a strong platform around which movement is created. Emphasis is on stabilizing the lower back and mobilizing the hips and shoulder blades.

 3. Power – Your ability to coordinate your muscles in order to create quick, dynamic movements. Life is dynamic and so everyone should have some sort of power training in their program, even if it is something as simple as slamming a medicine ball into the ground.

 4. Strength – I define this a little differently than most. I define strength as your ability to create proper movement and maintain that proper movement under load. Creating a movement through compensation, such as using your lower back during leg exercises, is not true strength no matter how much weight you move.

 5. Conditioning/ Endurance – Your ability to engage in your chosen activities without excessive fatigue. A good conditioning program will also act as a catalyst for fat loss. For most people proper conditioning should focus more on intervals than on traditional steady state aerobics.

Do you do yoga and/ or Pilates but do not work on power and conditioning?

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Do you run or bike but don’t work on mobility and strength?

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Do you “body build” but don’t work on mobility and conditioning?

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If you answered yes to any of those questions, or if you see something on the list above that you are not addressing, then you have developed the “false fit” condition. You are fit as it pertains to the particular activities and exercises you engage in but the truth is your fitness is limited. Get you outside of your comfort zone and your true fitness levels will get quickly exposed.

Our body wants to maintain a balance between the 5 Fitness Components. When we lose that balance we slow down our progress and set ourselves up for pain and injuries. Sometimes the answer to achieving the fitness levels that you want is not in looking for different twists on what you are already doing but in looking outside your box for new elements.

I tell people all the time that if you do not want to look and/ or perform like everyone else don’t train like everyone else. Most people are dissatisfied with their current fitness condition so don’t take the same approach they do. Make sure that you work on developing true, well rounded fitness and avoid the pain and frustration that goes with being “false fit”.

-James Wilson-

Aerobic Base Training is Dead – The Scientific Proof

Ever since I came out about a year ago and blasted some huge holes in the idea of aerobic base training for DH and 4X riders I’ve had a lot of people doubt my sanity. Aerobic base training has been a staple of training programs for decades and many an off season program for mountain bikers has included an extended period of time reeling off boring miles on a trainer. While some people embraced my concepts (and proceeded to achieve better “aerobic endurance” despite doing little to no aerobic training) many others have questioned why this concept is so different that the “scientific” one.

Well, one of the problems is that the sports sciences are more like sports training history. Let me explain – people in the strength training trenches figure out what works in the real world (which is MUCH different than a controlled lab setting) and then implement it. Sometimes what we do flies in the face of the traditional “science” of training. Sports scientists pick up on what we are doing, study it and then tell us why it works. This process usually takes about 10 years or more to go from the cutting edge in the trenches to being taught in the classroom.

So, this meant that there was not a ton of scientific studies to confirm what I knew – aerobic training is worthless. But, now there are two landmark studies that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that anaerobic interval training is vastly superior to the out dated models still being promoted by the mainstream fitness media.

The only reason that mountain bikers feel compelled to include aerobic training in their program, particularly an aerobic base period, is to increase their aerobic capacity. The scientifically accepted method to determine aerobic capacity is VO2Max (Maximum Volume of Oxygen Consumed), which is an indicator of how well your body can utilize oxygen. Aerobic training had been shown to increase your VO2Max, so therefore was considered necessary for overall cardiovascular development.

However, few people realize that the best way to raise your VO2Max, and therefore your aerobic capacity, is through interval training, not aerobic training! While this may not make a lot of sense, it is true. Several recent studies on anaerobic intervals produced some of the largest increases in VO2Max ever see, including studies done on aerobic training.

One study in particular was done on what is popularly known as the Tabata Protocol. This method calls for 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds rest and these mini-intervals are repeated 6-8 times per round. A workout may involve 1-3 rounds (complete recovery is allowed between rounds).  Researchers found massive increases in the subjects VO2Max in addition to the anticipated increases in anaerobic endurance markers. The increases in VO2Max were some of the largest ever seen in a study and proved that aerobic training is not the only (or the best) way to increase aerobic capacity.

Another landmark study that came out in the September 2006 Journal of Physiology studied the effects of 20 minutes of interval training (30 second sprints followed by 4 minutes of rest) vs. 90-120 minutes of traditional aerobic heart rate zone training. They found that the interval group which did only 1 hour of exercise per week had the same improvements in aerobic capacity as the aerobic group. Did I mention the aerobic group spent 4-6 hours per week exercising?

4 to 6 times as much exercise to get the same results in aerobic capacity? This isn’t even taking into account that the interval group improved their anaerobic capacity, something the aerobic group did not. This finding is astounding and shows just how much time you waste with aerobic training.

I’ve mentioned this before and here is the proof – anaerobic intervals will increase your aerobic capacity as well as your anaerobic capacity but aerobic training does not increase your anaerobic capacity. All of this means that if you have limited training time (and who doesn’t) you are wasting your time with aerobic training. Anaerobic intervals are the only way to maximize the effectiveness of limited training time.

Also, there is no evidence at all that you will burn out or get injured by training with intervals year round. This is simply a myth that has been told so many times that it has been taken as the truth. I challenge anyone to find me a single study that backs this claim.

What has been found is that going straight into hard training (either strength or intervals or aerobic) without a preparatory period will increase the likelihood of injury. So, like everything else, you must work into full blown hard core intervals and cycle their intensity and duration but there is no reason you can not do intervals year round.

Now, just to balance this out, there are 2 times when aerobic training has a place in your program. First, if you are so out of shape you can not tolerate even the easiest intervals then you should spend some time doing aerobic training to build your work capacity up a bit. But once you can do intervals you should make the switch.

Second, aerobic exercise is great for active recovery (something I have also mentioned before). Going out for a light 20 minute jog or ride will help to flush blood into the muscles and help you recover from your strength training and interval sessions faster. Outside of these 2 things, though, aerobic training is dead.

My mission in life is to drag our sport into the 21st century. Old and outdated training methods that waste your time and effort need to be confronted and dealt with. I know that taking on sacred cows like this will never make me popular with the mainstream bike industry but as one of the best strength coaches in the world Mike Boyle puts it – “I will never cease to be wrong, I may just cease to be popular”.

So, there you have it. It took me a few tries to get everything out there but I feel that I have proven that aerobic training, particularly aerobic base training for DH and 4X riders, is a waste of time and effort. You can get better results in aerobic capacity in less time while also increasing anaerobic capacity. This should be something that mountain bikers everywhere rejoice at because aerobic training is some of the most tedious and boring stuff around.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I did not plug my MTB DB Combos 12 Week Program which centers on the use of combination drills (a method of anaerobic intervals) to increase your overall cardio capacity better than anything else available to you as a mountain biker. You can check it out at www.dbcombos.com if you don’t have it already (and if you do then you know how right I am).

-James Wilson-