Don’t Fall for the Bike Mag Hype

bikemag

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-

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.

pistol20form

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-

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?

yoga

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

mountain_biking

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

bodybuilding_

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-

Back hurts after XC rides…

My buddy Lee McCormack (www.leelikesbikes.com) recently sent me this question…

James!OK dude. I’ve been doing longer rides lately, and it’s starting to feel
good. My climbing legs are coming back, and I’m comfortable for 2+ hour
rides.

The weak link is actually appearing on the DH. I’m training and riding the
way I always do, but my mid-back is starting to get tired. More
specifically, the erector muscles along the right side of my spine.

I can think of two influencing factors:

1) Bike setup. For many years, I’ve rocked 50mm stems. My new Stumpy has the
stock XC setup, with a 90mm stem. I’m trying the stock setup for testing
purposes, since that’s what most people roll.

2) The lack of a right clavicle. As you know, I have a non-union, and the
only thing holding my arm on is muscle. I definitely get tired in the
chest/shoulder/upper back area faster than I think I should. I’ll be getting
the shoulder fixed pretty soon.
http://www.leelikesbikes.com/the-shoulder-chronicles-ignorance-was-bliss.htm
l

What do you think, my brother? I’m really interested in the James Wilson
perspective.

– Lee McCormack –

Here is the first thing I always think when someone tells me that something hurts as a result of exercise – bad movement causes pain. Bad movement also robs you of performance so the trick is to hunt down the bad movement and fix it.

Typically, if someone is getting pain in the erector muscles as a result of riding they will have a mobility deficit in the hips and/ or upper back and the body is coaxing excessive movement out of the lumbar spine. It sounds to me that you have upper back mobility issues as a result of your shoulder traumas.

You should be able to hold your arms straight over your head (elbows locked out and in line with your ears when viewed from the side) while keeping your head and lower back in a neutral position. If you can’t then you need to work on increasing your upper back, and specifically scapular, mobility.

Our body is designed to be a series of mobile and stable joints. In this case we want mobile hips, a stable lumbar spine and a mobile thoracic spine (upper back). You have to restore balance to the system first before you can really hope to address the real causes of the back pain.

As far as it hurting more on the right side, there are few things that could cause that. My guess would be that it is extra movement on that side. Since our left side lower body works with the right side upper body that would make sense if you are weaker with the left leg and you are compensating with the right lower back.

Here is my advice – don’t do any two legged strength training exercises for the time being. Do everything one leg at a time and get your left leg’s movement patterns cleaned up. Cue in on the lumbar movement and stop it by squeezing the glute even harder when it happens.

Also, get super aggressive with your body work. Get a tennis ball and put it between your back and the wall and dig in. The main areas to concentrate on are the right trap and lat but you should dig in all over the place and get the tension levels back there under control. It will hurt like hell but it has to be done. 

Long, repetitive efforts like XC riding will expose small “chinks” in your movement patterns and cause pain. That is why strength training and mobility work is so important – they are the only chance you get to fix those “chinks”.

Bad movement causes pain – find the bad movement and fix the pain. Pretty simple theory but one I have found to work pretty well.

Hope this helps, let me know if I can answer any more questions for you…

 

The MTB Performance Wheel

Do you want to know how to tell what you need to get better as a rider? If not you may be wasting your training time. Here is my introduction of the MTB Performance Wheel and how you can use it to better focus your training…

MTB Strength Coach Podcast – The MTB Performance Wheel

(Right click on the link above and select “Save as…” to download the MP3 file to your computer)

-James Wilson-