On this week’s show, we’re here with James Wilson, a world-class mountain bike trainer and we’ll be talking about how to move like a human, injury prevention, and how to dodge salesmen at the bike shop.
On this show the rebel mountain biking beast, James Wilson, you’ll learn:
- How to prevent injury during training and competition
- Why bikers should train without a bike
- How to exercise like a kid again
- The value of flat pedals for improving your pedal stroke and skills
- Why form matters more than speed
- And much more…
JAMES WILSON: THE REBEL MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAINER
James Wilson is the owner of MTB Strength Training Systems, a company dedicated to creating the best training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. Since 2005, he has worked with several World Cup teams and riders and contributed to 4 national championships. We’re here to debunk some myths about what effective training looks like, and maybe even give you an excuse to exercise like a kid again.
You’re a unique guest because of the way you’ve specialized your skills, but we see eye to eye on how we approach health.
What is your story? You fell over at a stop light clipped into the pedals your bike, right?
You’re touching on one of the more infamous things that I’m known for, which is my stance on the value of flat pedals versus clipless pedals. But before that?
I’m really an accidental mountain bike coach. I started working out in high school like most kids—I was skinny and I wanted girls to look at me. So I did bodybuilding and ran track. I got exposed to how strength training can be used to improve performance.
Looking back, I realize I had a little bit of an obsession with training. This was pre-internet. I had to actually go to the store and buy things. I read everything I could get my hands on.
Fast forward four years: I was in school to become an ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association) certified personal trainer. I bought a mountain bike and pedaled up a fire road and then rode down it. I thought—this is it! Cardio and adrenaline—this is the most fun sport there is. It’s the perfect combination between endurance and action.
When I started to do my research I realized there’s a bunch of crap out there. Three sets of ten on the leg press is not how you train. That’s not athlete training.
I’m a fan of Dan John and how he takes complex ideas and makes them really simple. Training is there to plug the gaps. Once you understand what human movements are and where the gaps are, you have to figure out—what parts of your body are not being worked in your sport?
“Should you be focusing all your training on endurance when doing an endurance sport? No, you’re getting that while you’re on the bike. Focus your training on what you’re NOT doing.”
The application of natural human movement is what I do with mountain biking—in and out of the gym.
DEBUNKING THE CLIPLESS PEDAL MYTH: RIDE LIKE A KID
People assume there’s an authoritative group out there that’s looked at all the info and come up with a decision, but that’s not really how it works.
It’s so interesting. I haven’t talked about this, but when I was growing up I trained cross country and did some races mountain biking… When I first started, it was on flats and you felt like a kid and you felt free. You felt like a human ON a machine instead of being attached to one. But when you walk into a bike store and upgrade your bike, the first thing you’re sold is clipless pedals. You have to learn how to use them… and you wonder if this is the right way to do it.
It was so refreshing to find your work—you give people permission to have fun and use flat pedals again.
Yes, the industry stance is that clipless are better than flats. It’s a black and white issue. Here’s the problem: What we think of as the modern bike is known as the safety bicycle.
Look at other sports like powerlifting, which has roots in strongman. Track. Wrestling. These sports have thousands of years of history. Our sport is really new.
The original pedal stroke theorists were doing the best they could with the info they had. They assumed pedaling was like running or walking—that you pushed through the ball of your foot. They noticed that when you strapped your foot to the pedal you can apply more force, and you go faster.
Their theory was that you can push and pull at the same time, and the extra pull was adding to the power. That’s the rabbit hole the cycling industry decided to go down, and you have to rewind far back to understand what I’m talking about.
The original pedal-stroke theorists were wrong. They made two critical mistakes:
ONE: Your foot acts differently if it makes contact with the ground. When you’re running or jumping, your foot makes contact with the ground and you push through the ball of your foot. If your foot doesn’t make contact with the ground, you’re pushing through the heel and applying force through the middle of the foot.
Watch a kid ride their bike, and you’ll see their foot automatically go midfoot to the pedal.
The whole pulling up on the backstroke thing drives me nuts. There’s not a lick of science to support it.
Every bit of science that actually exists on that stuff points in the opposite direction. You can find all that info in my Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto.
TWO: Lower body locomotion. Our body is made to create lower body locomotion with a strong push, and a pull up just to reset the leg to push again.
Your body is set up with passive mechanics—extension of the hip on one side causes an automatic inflection on the other.
You can ask the professionals, but they just know how they feel about their results. Short-term results show better times with clipless pedals. Based on that logic, clipless pedals are better than flats. So, people are sold on clipless pedals.
You walk into pretty much any sports shop and you’re sold something immediately.
I’ve been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the last three years. It’s kind of refreshing because technology has no place in it. You can spend a ton of money on a gi (uniform), but it’s not going to benefit you on the mat.
And form over strength…
“A lot of the approach to performance focuses on the exact thing used in that sport, rather than the whole body as a human.”
INJURY PREVENTION: HOW TO MOVE LIKE A HUMAN
Your approach is based on strength and functionality—why is this more important than the hyper-focused specialty approach?
There are two things that influenced me. One was Australian strength coach Ian King. He had a really good point, he asked, “What’s the point of a program for an athlete? Injury prevention or performance enhancement?” It needs to be injury prevention, because over the long run an athlete who is injury free is going to be able to practice, play, and train more consistently. Those things will add up to create a better athlete.
For so many people, the philosophy is “Train really hard until you get hurt.”
Two—the more I got into natural human movement and what a wonderful organism the human body is, I realized that nature really has figured all of this out already. If we just learn to work with it rather than impose our ideas on why something else should be better, that’s what will work. It’s like the whole barefoot running movement.
Keep the body moving well and be a good human, and then learn how to apply that stuff to the mountain biker.
You’re not a mountain biker. You’re a human being that rides a mountain bike. If you neglect that human part and focus on the mountain bike—yes in the short term that might work—but if we’re talking twelve years, this stuff catches up with you and there’s no avoiding it. Take measures in your training, like how you eat and how you live your life. If not, get ready for docs and surgeons.
Do you have any examples of this?
I think that anybody who works in this industry has told someone, “I wish you would have come to me before you got to this point.”
People come searching for answers when it’s almost too late. I rarely get someone who’s a blank slate.
But there’s one guy in particular that comes to mind. He was ready to quit riding because of how bad his body hurt. He was doing all bike specific stuff—no stretching, mobility, or strength training. His claim to fame was he rode all the major trails in Moab, Utah in 24 hours. That’s an insane feat. Really high level rider.
So, I got him on a quad and hip-flexor stretch and doing a foam roller. I also told him to do strength training but he didn’t want to.
I told him to switch to flats and stand up to climb more. The myth is that you want to stay seated and only stand when you have to.
On a bike, there’s high tension and low tension modes. Low RP high torque pedaling is such an important part of mountain biking. I don’t like the term cyclist. Just because two people are using a bike doesn’t mean they’re doing the same sport—cycling is synonymous with road riding. For them a low-tension spin may be preferable.
On the trail, you constantly have to switch gears and cadences. Most people don’t stand up right—you want to get your shoulders above your hips. Then when you stand on your bike it should feel like running.
You’re chasing your center of gravity, it’s right in front of you and you’re trying to catch it. Shoulders back, spine straight.
When you stand up, you get a full knee extension. When you’re sitting down, you don’t get that. The knee never gets co-contraction and stabilization. Sitting, you’re applying a ton of stress on your knee in an unstable position.
I try to encourage people to use standing pedaling in high tension mode. When things start to get down, don’t lock down in that adult fetal position. This will help you restore natural movement to the bike.
In less than a month, this client came back to me, and he said his pain was pretty much all gone. He just did some stretching and mobility and changed the way he was riding his bike from the industry standard.
The biggest lie the bike industry got us to believe is that pedaling a bike is different.
Just because you throw your leg over a bike doesn’t mean that all the rules of functional human movement go out the window.
Anti-Fragile is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I read it twice.
In the book he talked about the difference between a mechanical system and an organism. “If I was designing a machine to power this bike, what would I have it do?” That’s the question they’re asking, NOT, “The human body operates this way, and how do I apply that to a bike?” You’re usually taught you should force the body to do unnatural things based on a mechanical theory.
My approach makes it more natural, like when you were a kid—I don’t remember worrying about when I should stand and how I should pedal. It wasn’t until we became adults that we’re told how to ride a bike.
I’ve started a bike skills camp based on what I’m doing—I call it the Primal Bike Skills Camp because my theory is this: If you have those primal movement skills—push, pull, squat, hinge, loaded carry, and ground work—if you have those building blocks in place, it makes learning these higher level sports skills way more natural and way easier.
Increasing your tech skills is one of those top things for adult mountain bikers. They’re not battling knowing what to do, they’re battling their own body.
You can fix that off the bike. Then once you’re on the bike, you can fix it with a little bit of coaching and fundamental skills in place.
I have a 10 – 15 minute rule: If I’m trying to teach someone kettlebell swings and I’m sitting there for more than ten minutes coaching them and they’re not getting it, they’re probably not ready to do kettlebell swings. They don’t own a previous step in the pattern.
“The skills people need to know on the bike are extensions of the primal movements learned off the bike.”
Then, you’re riding the bike on feel rather than thought—you’re just riding and going with the flow. When you don’t have that, you’re trying to work on getting your body around dysfunction rather than going with the flow.
In my early twenties, I took some time off from running races and when I got back into it, I focused on form rather than results. I had no idea that my knee was all torqued and my foot was flopping around every time I put my foot down.
By focusing on form with running, when I got back on my bike, my biking form was so fluid and so natural—it just extended outwardly from the way I moved anyway.
Running is one of the best ways to clean up and refine your standing pedal stroke. Posture, sensation, movements are very similar. It’s natural human movement and lower body locomotion. You don’t want to be pushing through the ball of your foot when you pedal, but the movements are similar.
I call it Barefoot Pedaling: It’s not about riding barefoot—it’s just about restoring natural movement back to the activity.
Being able to ride your bike like you’re a kid again is what it’s all about.
WHERE TO FIND JAMES WILSON
You can find me on my website, www.BikeJames.com. On there you can find a free 30 day program to check out on how to combine movement and strength. You’ll learn how to understand a deadlift isn’t a deadlift, it’s a way to practice form on the bike. You can also find the Flat Pedal Manifesto and links to several studies.
You can also find me on Twitter @bikejames.
“I have an open challenge for anyone to give me information that contradicts the flat pedal theory—so if you have some science, send it my way.”
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