The Importance of Strength and Mobility for Mountain Bikers

Jan. 7, 2016

Your performance on a mountain bike has four pillars of support: cardio, mobility, skills and strength. Most riders only worry about one or maybe two. Could you be a good rider with just one pillar? Maybe, but why limit yourself?

This week it’s been raining pretty solidly here in northern California, and honestly, I couldn’t care less. In years gone by, I'd have been donning rain gear and even spending time on the trainer in an attempt to maintain my aerobic engine, but now I understand that cardio is just one of the four pillars. I get plenty of time to improve my cardio on the trail, so in the rainy months, it makes sense to work on my strength and mobility.

James Wilson is a strength and skills coach whose programmes and teaching have been tremendously helpful to me over the past few years. James helped me understand that I wasn’t going to get any faster by doing more of the same and that road riding wasn’t going to make me a better mountain biker.

Light hands and heavy feet make for better mountain biking, and flat pedals have helped me learn this by providing instant feedback of my weight being somewhere other than on my feet. Flat pedals are also extremely comfortable and allow me to easily stick a foot out moto-style on tight switchbacks.

But what about pulling up on the backstroke?

As you’ll hear in this podcast, and as has been shown in the studies cited below, there is no advantage in pulling up on the backstroke, and so this is not a good reason to be using clipless pedals.

Not long after we recorded this interview, my new Catalyst pedals arrived and since then I've been enjoying wiggling my toes as I pedal comfortably in a midfoot position. The pedals are long enough to support my whole foot yet narrow enough to minimise rock strikes.

But yet I still race clipless! Am I suspending disbelief? Please let me know in the comments below.

Here’s the outline of this interview with James Wilson:

0:00:00    I've had fantastic results following James's training programmes.

0:00:52    James has been developing a pedal for about a year.

0:01:28    Do not listen to this podcast if you're easily offended by flat pedals on an MTB.

0:02:23    The controversial article I wrote.

0:03:10    I've ridden mountain bikes since I was a kid, but then I fell away from the sport.

0:03:43    When I moved to the US I got into road bikes.

0:04:05    I used to think weight was the most important thing.

0:04:45    Why is strength training important for mountain bikers?

0:05:05    James hates the word cyclist.

0:05:32    Mountain biking is not road biking.

0:06:25    Road biking doesn't necessarily transfer to MTB.

0:07:16    High-tension cardio on the trail.

0:08:02    The best MTB riders in the world pedal the least.

0:08:18    Aaron Gwin winning a World Cup race without a chain.

0:08:39    James's article on Pinkbike about what makes a great downhill racer.

0:09:12    Gray Cook: "The grip is the window to the core".

0:09:41    Functional core strength is extremely important.

0:10:07    Pedalling is not the only skill.

0:10:26    Mobility and strength are equally important.

0:10:40    Mobility first.

0:10:57    Can you do a bodyweight squat?

0:11:14    Is your squat "stress proof"?

0:11:50    You can make your gas tank bigger, or you can improve your miles per gallon.

0:12:15    Your body will cycle through muscle fibres.

0:12:41    More muscles fibre recruitment means more performance.

0:12:56    Most people take a unidirectional approach, i.e. cardio.

0:14:01    Strength training is the fast track.

0:14:21    Riding will make you stronger.

0:15:09    Training fills in gaps.

0:15:40    Riding already provides us with plenty of cardio.

0:16:22    When you look at it this way, strength training is obvious.

0:16:59    Lee McCormack on my podcast.

0:17:40    Your aerobic engine will only take you so far.

0:18:06    Lack of mobility can stop you from getting into a basic attack position.

0:18:37    Skills and mobility are connected.

0:18:53    You should be able to pick up a high-level skill in about 10 minutes, otherwise you're not ready.

0:19:15    The same is true of the kettlebell swing.

0:19:38    Running into the wall at James's skill camps.

0:20:32    Most skills problems boil down to lack of mobility and strength.

0:21:03    It should look effortless.

0:21:10    James's article on arete (Greek for excellence with style and grace).

0:21:44    Don't worry about speed, worry about style and grace.

0:22:12    You should be able to just tell when you see a good rider.

0:22:31    Strava times can be deceptive.

0:23:16    Smoother is also more consistent and free of injury.

0:23:45    The difference between a good rider and a good local rider.

0:24:34    If you have authentic skills, you will be able to apply them under any circumstances.

0:25:11    New riders don't know who to look up to.

0:25:38    Sometimes fast and good are concordant.

0:26:06    Consistency is key.

0:26:55    James has been through the learning process.

0:27:14    James's way is not the only way.

0:27:32    Some guys will be fast without skills.

0:28:13    Joe Friel talked about the importance of strength training on my podcast.

0:28:42    I hate going to the gym, can I still benefit?

0:29:10    You don't need to be able to go to the gym.

0:29:35    The term strength training has value, but is limiting.

0:30:01    You can train in a way without becoming bulky.

0:30:16    Push-pull, squat, hip hinge, loaded carry.

0:30:50    Loaded carry.

0:31:04    Gyms can produce zoo humans.

0:31:51    The transfer from stationary to moving (or functional).

0:32:21    Loaded carries: farmer's walk, rack walk, overhead, then mix it up.

0:33:10    Bearhug a sandbag.

0:33:28    Pushes and pulls with sleds.

0:33:44    The principle is being able to move under load.

0:34:10    This teaches high-tension cardio.

0:34:28    These are miracle exercies for MTB.

0:34:46    The upper back is the forgotten part of the core.

0:35:12    Rounded shoulders are not normal.

0:35:22    You can't breath properly with rounded shoulders.

0:35:49    Better breathing can equate to better performance.

0:36:21    Do loaded carries!

0:36:46    Dan John: “If it's important, do it every day”.

0:37:19    What are YOUR specific gaps.

0:37:35    The windmill and the stick windmill.

0:37:48    If you can't do these movements, good luck cornering on a MTB.

0:38:19    You can do these exercises without going to the gym.

0:38:33    Once you understand the principles, you can find a method.

0:38:55    Body weight is helpful, but can eventually be limiting.

0:39:10    James's article about the steel mace.

0:39:56    You don't need a bunch of fancy equipment.

0:40:16    Loaded carry with kids.

0:40:33    Zoo humans.

0:41:10    How about adults do you know that could hang from a tree for 30 seconds?

0:41:35    Not being able to throw.

0:41:57    Athletics is about being a zoo human, MTB is a neat trick.

0:42:20    If a rock falls on me...

0:42:52    If you can't deadlift your own body weight you're in trouble.

0:43:18    The loss of these innate abilities is sad.

0:43:55    We do loaded carries in the gym because we don't carry our kids any more.

0:44:20    Ditch your stroller!

0:44:45    Taking the escalator to the gym.

0:45:07    Find ways to challenge your innate human abilities.

0:45:31    Go play with your kids outside.

0:45:58    Go on a hike and get off the trail.

0:46:35    Squatting.

0:46:56    We're not MTBers, we're human beings that ride MTB.

0:47:18    Katy Bowman on my podcast.

0:47:39    Book: Move Your DNA.

0:47:52    Katy on the Joe Rogan podcast.

0:48:11    Having a couch in your living room

0:48:27    Book: Alignment Matters.

0:49:09    Flat pedals have taught me to be a better mountain biker.

0:49:41    Fallacy: riding a bike is different, throw out all the rules.

0:50:30    A lot of the equipment we know today originates from the safety cycle.

0:51:22    When people tell you need need clipless pedals, ask for the proof.

0:52:13    It's so hard to know where to start with people.

0:52:31    There is no science that supports pulling up on the backstroke.

0:52:50    Global Cycling Network video.

0:53:23    Even with crappy equipment, the test rider was still more efficient on flats!

0:54:09    The performance advantages attributed to clipless are not there.

0:54:50    We've been led to believe that clipless allow us to use our legs differently.

0:55:20    Pulling up on the backstroke is inefficient.

0:55:39    Effect of Pedaling Technique on Mechanical Effectiveness and Efficiency in Cyclists, Korf et al.

0:55:39    Effects of Pedal Type and Pull-Up Action during Cycling, Mornieux et al.

0:55:47    The Flat Pedal Manifesto.

0:56:09    When we say clipless pedals, we mean SPD.

0:56:54    How hard you can push with your quad vs how hard you can pull with your hamstring.

0:57:31    We're prewired, so we should pedal like we walk.

0:57:54    This sounds like reflexes in physiology!

0:58:20    You don't need to overpull, you just need to focus on pushing down hard.

0:58:46    Cycling leads the world in doping, and far behind in exercise science.

0:59:14    The running world has shown many times that interfering with the running stride makes matters worse.

1:00:12    Yet the cycling world is still trying to teach cyclists how to pedal.

1:00:36    The rules don't change because you're on a bike.

1:00:50    Pulling up doesn't work because you're trying to do something that unnatural.

1:01:37    James's flat pedals.

1:02:04    Suspending disbelief.

1:02:21    Pushing through the ball of the foot.

1:02:43    Why am I training my foot to do something different in the gym.

1:03:03    Greg Choat on midfoot pedalling.

1:03:18    Your foot acts differently depending on whether or not contact is lost.

1:03:43    In deadlifting and pedalling, the foot does not break contact.

1:04:13    Therefore, the midfoot pedalling position makes sense.

1:04:46    Study showing no difference in power or economy of midfoot position.

1:05:11    Tight calves.

1:05:25    With midfoot, the tension moves to the hips.

1:05:36    Study showing the hips are the main driver at all intensities.

1:06:08    An evidence driven approach to pedalling.

1:06:31    Midfoot requires stabilizing both ends of the arch.

1:06:55    The existing pedals do not support the foot properly.

1:07:16    Why can you deadlift without shoes but need stiff soled shoes on the bike?

1:08:00    Every pedal has been designed with the assumption of pedalling through the ball of the foot.

1:08:34    Standing on a pedal should be like standing on the ground.

1:09:13    James's pedals are for a midfoot position.

1:09:38    You can still shift your weight forward and back.

1:10:03    Numb toes is caused by shoving toes into the toe box.

1:10:59    Your feet stay on the pedals much easier with the midfoot position.

1:11:36    Freedom and comfort of flats.

1:11:59    Feet feel great with flats.

1:12:24    We now have a flat pedal without drawbacks.

1:12:42    Everything boils down to feet, hips and shoulders.

1:13:28    The Catalyst Pedal.

1:13:44    The Catalyst is 5" front to back, 1.5" longer.

1:14:20    Rock strikes with oversized flats.

1:15:00    The pedals are well tested.


1:16:05    This is the only pedal based on science.

1:16:33    30-day money back guarantee.

1:17:18    You must be willing to adopt the midfoot position.

1:17:46    My preferred position is midfoot.

1:18:50    If you're open minded and willing to try something different.


1:20:27    Free 30-day programmes.

1:20:47    The Ultimate MTB programme.

1:20:56    The No Gym No Problem programme.

1:21:22    Saving people from time on the trainer!

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