The Unhealthy Side of Mountain Biking

As you probably know, I love mountain biking but mountain biking isn’t all good, it can be bad for you. I am not talking about crashing (which is definitely bad for you) but simply riding mountain bikes. Mountain biking, like many sports, can be PART of a very healthy lifestyle. I stress the word “part” because mountain biking should not be your only form of exercise and you need to take care of its ill effects.

This is multiplied if you spend the bulk of your now riding time sitting down! Sitting with poor posture can really exacerbate and even cause major back trouble.

The idea for this article came when I saw two very fit looking road cyclists get off their bike and then hobble to the door. They could barely walk! They were hunched over, stiff and very wobbly! Luckily, because mountain bikers stand, absorb shock and are more dynamic than road cyclists (who often stay in the same hunched over position for hours) mountain biking isn’t as bad a road cycling but it still can lead to imbalances in our body. Few sports work all muscles, ligaments, and tendons equally which is one of the reasons “cross-training” is popular in most sports.

If you like to mountain bike as much as I do don’t forget to mix things up every week! The best thing I have discovered to help me stay fit, healthy and balanced is yoga. A structured weight training program with mobility exercises and self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) is also a great compliment to my mountain biking. Weight training and yoga are also great mental breaks from mountain biking (which due to the concentration needed to ride single track is very mentally stressful).

Why strength training for mountain biking?

  • Mountain biking requires a stable core and a strong lower back, yet riding really doesn’t build a stable core and a strong lower back. It takes work to build a stable core and a strong lower back and achieving both will give you more power on your bike, as well as more control and greatly decrease your chance of injury!
  • Mountain biking is asymmetrical exercise when standing and coasting all riders have a foot that they prefer to put forward and a preferred trailing foot. This works each leg’s muscles quite differently and twists your hips. A good exercise like Bulgarian Split Squats which works each leg separately can help rebalance and realign you!
  • Consult a qualified trainer to help with finding the correct exercises and executing them correctly, incorrect form while lifting weights can cause more harm than good.

Why self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) for mountain bikers?

  • Mountain biking can really tighten us up! Short tight hamstrings, tight IT bands, tight hips, tight chest, neck, and back are all symptoms of mountain biking, no matter how fit you are. Foam and lacrosse ball rolling are great forms of self-massage and can really loosen you up! I would have had to of stopped riding years ago if I had not discovered the benefits of rolling.
  • Once you buy the roller and the lacrosse ball it is free! It just takes time and some uncomfortable work but it pays off my opening you up for peak performance (or, often in my case, simply allows me to ride!).
  • Not familiar with self-massage/myofascial release foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball, do a quick google search, there are probably 100 books on the subject as well as hundreds of youtube videos and free articles on the how and why of it. Or talk with your trainer, physical therapist or yoga instructor.

Why yoga for mountain bikers?

  • Yoga helps your posture, your breathing, your mobility, your focus and helps calm you.
  • Yoga really helps with your body awareness, proprioception, and balance which many of my students struggle with as did I as pro snowboarder and in my early days as a professional mountain biker.
  • As a mountain biker, who also lifts weights I get plenty of “yang” my favorite form of yoga is called “yin” yoga and it really opens up your body my holding poses for one to five minutes at a time.
  • Yoga done poorly can really mess you up, especially if you like to “push” things. Take classes from qualified instructors and make sure you aren’t “cheating”. The goal isn’t to force yourself into a position, the goal is to gently open up your body.

I find the more yoga I do the better I ride (because I breathe better, have better focus and have greater effective strength and flexibility) and the more I enjoy and look forward to riding (my back doesn’t hurt, the day off from riding made me miss riding). The same goes for strength training and self-massage. With warm weather on the way and great trails beckoning you to ride, it is hard to take a break and do something else, but if you force yourself to be more balanced in how you exercise and recover you will have more fun on the trail in the long run.

In short, balance your riding with other athletic pursuits to be healthier, happier, faster and have more fun!

Yoga, self-massage/myofascial release, and weight training are my favorite forms of exercise to balance with my riding, what others forms of exercise do you do to compliment your riding? What do you like about it and how does help you? Please comment below.

As always, feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.

If you are as obsessed with mountain biking as I am please read/re-read this article:

Fear when mountain biking is good!

Mountain Bikers, How to Brake More Effectively, Video Tutorial

Using your front brake effectively is one of the most important skills on a mountain bike. Proper use of the front brake gives you much more control making you safer, faster and more confident. Now, when braking to cut speed (the main reason we use our front brake) you also want to use that weak rear brake to assist that powerful front brake. Watch my video tutorial and then read below for more detail on this important mtb skill.

An important piece I left out of the video is that you always want to cut speed in a straight line! Using that front brake and cutting speed in a corner is a recipe for disaster!

Your body position while braking is crucial and this often taught wrong (I taught it incorrectly from the start of BetterRide in the spring of 1999 until the fall of 2005)! What I taught and what I recently read from one of the best downhill racers in the world is, as you are braking get your weight back. This is terrible advice for a number of reasons (that I will address in a moment), so why did one of the best downhill racers in the world recommend this position? Because it feels like you are getting back when you are braking hard, what he is actually doing is bracing really hard so he doesn’t get tossed forward.

Granted, I used to get my weight back while braking and because it was such an ingrained habit! I still start to scout back sometimes when braking hard. It is also human instinct to move away from danger so it feels good to scoot back (until you crash :)).

There are a few reasons pushing your weight back while braking is bad (or pretty much any time except when manuling) :

  • It puts you in an off-balance and non-neutral position that I call the flying catapult! As your arms straighten and your butt goes back you end up at the end of your range of motion, with no “sag” in your body’s suspension. In this position, if your front wheel were to suddenly descend (drop or roll) more than a foot you will get yanked forward and downward causing your weight to get tossed forward. If you have ever had an endo where it felt like your bike catapulted you into the ground, it did (catapult you into the ground). Please check out this blog article on the importance of neutral, centered position on your bike: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/
  • It greatly decreases your control and increases your braking distance (by taking weight off of the front wheel, not allowing you to use as much of that powerful front brake. This is easy to test (though a bit scary), simply to do the braking drill in my video on a dirt road or looser surface with your weight back. Instead of quickly coming to a stop, your front wheel will skid! See 6 second video below.
  • Usually, you are braking for a trail feature, most often on the straightaway into a corner, do you want to enter a corner with your weight back (no weight on the front wheel?). If the top downhill racer who recently said that you should shift your weight back while braking actually did that you would see him scoot back as he was braking for the corner, then, all in one motion, let go of the brakes, shift his weight forward and initiate the turn!
  • For more on this please read this article: http://betterride.net/blog/2014/braking-on-your-mountain-bike/

Speaking of the importance of using your front brake and braking in a straight line before a corner, a few years ago Cody Kelly (https://www.alchemy.bike/cody) was really excited to tell me that he is wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear brake pads! After hearing this I bowed to him and he said, “why are you bowing to me, you taught me to do that”. I replied that I may have taught him that (he took 5 or 6 of my camps) but I have 20 years of bad habits to overcome so I don’t exactly do that. In other words, I wasn’t practicing enough! The idea of wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear pads did inspire to practice more and while I don’t have Cody’s ratio for the last two years I have been wearing out one set of front pads before wearing out my rear pads!

Are you wearing out your front brake pads before your rear pads? Feel free to comment and/or ask any questions below.

Please share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.

 

 

MTB, How to Optimally Set Your Suspension & Tire Pressure (beyond sag & what friends do)

You understand how to set your suspension sag (if not go to your bike brand’s website, they will tell you for your specific model), you know what the rebound adjustment does (again go to your bike brand’s website or your suspension brand’s website for more on this if you don’t know what it does) but you want to get your bike dialed in exactly for you, your speed, your trails, the way you ride them. I’m here to help!

This article is on how to optimally set your suspension and tire pressure for descending at your best, so you have as much control as possible descending at the speeds you like to ride. It should also set it up well for technical climbing too on most bikes too (especially with the use of the adjustable “platform” or “threshold damping control” (the green lever on a DVO Topaz, see photo, the lever is blue on many other shocks) with three settings, descend, all-mountain and climb).

DVO Topaz

I was practicing for the first South African National Downhill race (on my 130mm travel trail bike, this article is not just for downhillers!) the other day and I had a great time getting my bike dialed in. I thought I would share this process with you and how your suspension and tire pressure (and even tire type) can vary greatly depending on your goal.

Where I live when I’m in South Africa I don’t have the best trails for descending nearby and have a lot of steep fire roads to climb. So I bought a 29r wheelset with lighter tire casing to use here (instead of my usually 27.5 plus tires with “enduro sidewalls” (sidewalls that are a little thicker, stronger and cut resistant than normal trail tires but not as heavy or stronger as downhill tires)). The 29er set up with light, narrower tires is a little sketchy on the descents (which actually makes mellow descents more fun as they now require more skill) but much more enjoyable on the long and steep climbs.

After watching a GoPro video of the track it looked smooth and flat, the perfect track for my lighter 29r tires even though their cornering is poor. That’s why I hate GoPro footage! Turns out the track was much steeper in places, the corners were sharper than they looked in the video and loose as heck, after one run I switched to my 27.5 plus tires! It took a few runs to get used to those tires, their low pressure and added weight again (I usually run them at 13 psi in the front and 16-18 psi in the rear) but I was instantly impressed with how more traction they had for braking and cornering.

After that, I noticed that the softer tire pressure made the bike “bounce” a bit off some bumps so I slowed my rebound 2 clicks front and rear and it felt much better. I spent the rest of that afternoon just learning the track and picking lines.

The second day was fun but nearly all business as my speed on the track really picked up and every single run the bike did something I didn’t like and it needed some fine-tuning. The first run I dinged my front wheel and the tires felt a little squirmy in the berms so upped the pressure to 15 psi in the front and 18 psi in the rear (remember these are plus size tires on a track with only two small rock sections, at a rockier place like Bootleg Canyon I would up the pressure a bit).

Upping my tire pressure encouraged me to push a little harder and this time it was my rear suspension that felt a little soft (when pushing into the corners it would compress too much causing the rear of my bike to squat and then rebound), making cornering a bit unpredictable. First, instead of increasing my rear shock pressure I switched the “pedal platform” from “descend” to “trail”. This enabled me to keep the low pressure I was running (about 33% sag instead of 25%) for the steeps but firm it up a bit in the corners.

Whenever you adjust the rear suspension it affects the front suspension too. By stiffening my rear suspension I was riding a hair higher in the travel and more centered over my bottom bracket. This slightly steepened the head angle of my bike and put more weight than previously on the front of my bike. Now my front fork that was too soft, it was diving at the bottom of a steep g-out and in some corners. So I upped the high-speed compression damping by six clicks and took another run. That wasn’t enough, my fork was still diving so I increased the air pressure from 110 to 120 and backed off those six clicks on the high-speed compression knob.

That felt much better but my speed had increased a little more and now the rear suspension was a little too soft, so I upped the pressure by 5% (200 psi to 210 psi, one click slower on the rebound to keep the rebound the same as before the pressure increase) and it felt much better! I did one run with the damper switch on “trail” and one on run on “descend”. With the extra air pressure descend felt better. Finally dialed and ready for the race.

Here is a summary of what I did, why I did it and how you should do this.

  • I was fortunate to have a perfect two-minute test track with a paved shuttle! This enabled me to ride the same trail 10 times and make adjustments to my bike after every lap in only hours. A one to two-minute test tracks is awesome for testing bike setup! You can use longer trails and make adjustments on the trail but the trail may change (go from rough to smooth, fast to slow, etc) so you aren’t sure if your setup is better or the trail just smoothed out. By using the same trail you are hitting the same bumps and corners at the same speed when comparing adjustments.
  • I would do this on what you feel is your “typical” trail, similar to what you ride most of the time. Then set it, write it down and don’t spend too much time worrying about it unless your speed changes greatly or you are riding a trail with a big difference in speed and/or surface). For most of us, it isn’t our suspension that holds us back, it is our skill!
  • An example of speed and terrain differences is Porcupine Rim in Moab. On that trail, there are spots where you are hauling tail through rock fields, much higher speeds than most other trails in Moab. I always want to increase my tire pressure by 10-15% for that trail and usually stiffen my fork a bit too. Last spring I was so excited for my first Porcupine lap that I forgot to add that tire pressure and destroyed my rear rim and tire!
  • Write everything down in your journal. What the current settings are, how they felt, what you changed and why (was bottoming out so I increased rear shock pressure from 200 psi to 210 psi) then how the new setting felt. You might be surprised how often you return to these notes.
  • Adjust one thing at a time, if you adjust two things at once and it feels better you don’t know which change made it feel better. The only exception is with rebound if I increase the air pressure in my shock I need to slow the rebound a click or two so it stays the same speed.
  • Warm up before doing any testing! Our main suspension is our body and when we are cold it doesn’t move as quickly or as fluidly. If you start cold as you warm up every adjustment will feel better as your body is working better!
  • Once you find perfect, write it down including conditions (fast, dry trail with lots of braking bumps and loose corners). That way you know where to start if the conditions change, your speed changes or you lose air pressure and/or accidentally change your rebound or compression adjustment. In general, the faster you go the more you want to stiffen up the suspension and tire pressure (as you hit things harder the faster you go) and the slower you go (or trail forces you to go, you want to soften your suspension and tires pressure (as you hit things softer and put less force on the tires in corners).
  • After setting sag and/or initial air pressure in your suspension you are in the ballpark of where your air pressure should be but it may still need a 5-15% change in pressure to get it dialed. What you are shooting for is getting full travel (bottoming out) at two to three times on a rough two-minute descent. If you aren’t getting full travel you aren’t using all of the suspension available to you if you are bottoming out harshly, or more than three times in a short downhill you need to increase the pressure.
  • Always set sag/air pressure first, as changing air pressure greatly affects your rebound speed.
  • Many forks and more expensive rear shocks also have low-speed and high-speed compression damping. The speed, in this case, is the speed the shock is moving. This usually has to do with the size of what you are hitting, small bumps like gravel work the slow speed damping. If you notice your bike feels like it isn’t hooking up as well as it could be, try decreasing the low-speed damping (or decreasing the air pressure). If your suspension feels too linear (like the last bit of travel moves as easily as the first bit of travel) or is bottoming out try increasing the high-speed compression
  • Coil springs are becoming more popular on trail bikes and have always been very popular on downhill bikes. Getting the right weight spring is very important. If you need more than three full turns of preload on the spring you need to go up in spring weight. Increasing preload will also speed up your rebound speed.
  • Rebound speed is largely personal preference.  A great starting point is to have the shock and fork rebound at about the speed your arms and legs would move to return to the “ready” position. from there if after the shock you have absorbed it feels like the bike wants to push back against you like a pogo stick try slowing the rebound. If it feels like the suspension gets harsher with each successive bump try speeding up the rebound (this will allow your suspension to return to it’s “ready” position before the next hit. To make you bike feel predictable it is nice to have the same rebound speed front and rear.
  • As for tire pressure, in general, you want to run as low a pressure as you can without, burping the tires, dinging your rims, having your tire squirm in the corners or flatting. Lower pressure gives you better traction and better small bump compliance.

Lastly, spend some time on this! Bikes, suspension, and tires are amazing these days, but I have felt some riders suspensions setup that were terrible. I had a student who hated is new, $5,000 bike. I rode and realized why the rear suspension was way to stiff for him and the front shock too soft. By simply spending a few minutes setting the correct air pressure and adjusting his rebound he went from hating the bike to saying it was the best bike he had ever ridden!

Feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it. Post any suspension or tire pressure comments below.

MTB Foot Position, Video Tutorial

Mountain bike foot placement is a skill that will make you smoother and give you better balance. Check out my video below and then read my deeper break down of this important skill.

I can’t stress enough how important this is! Greg Minnaar and Aaron Gwin have their cleats mounted like mine (well, I copied them actually) for the optimum combination of power, balance, and smoothness on the bike. Please do the jumping drill and realize how bad it is to ride flat footed! Again, I like both pedal types for more on flat pedals vs. clips read this: https://wp.me/p49ApH-1ci

I took a balance class from Jim Klopman and Janet Miller (authors of a great book on balance, Balance is Power and owners of SlackBow, a balance training facility in Park City, UT) and I learned a lot (like my balance is decent but can get much. much better with practice, more on that in a future blog article) and a few things that I knew were reinforced. Both Jim and Janet really stressed that a big component of balance is being on the ball of your foot. I specifically asked if that was important on your bike’s pedals and they said something to the effect of, “if you want to be in balance it does!”

Famous motocross coach Gary Baily stresses being on the balls of your feet to be smooth on a dirt bike with 12″ of suspension travel! The jumping drill sums it up well. I have tested this on my bike many times and honestly, you lose ALL of your smoothness when you are standing on your arch. At places as rough as Bootleg Canyon or South Mountain, it makes riding downhill on rough trails nearly impossible.

Some riders tend to ride with their toes angled out a bit and others with their toes in. I think this is more about how your body is built and doesn’t affect performance.

When coasting you want the pedals relatively level and in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position. Often, on flat pedals, riders will drop the heel of their front foot a bit and raise the heel of their trailing foot creating a “cradle” to help keep their feet from sliding on the pedals. Of course, some good, 5.10 shoes and a good pair of flat pedals like the Canfield Brothers Crampons really help! Many, many great riders have told me that they drop their heels, other than dropping the heal on their front foot sometimes I rarely see them doing this, I think it feels that way to them (and we certainly don’t want our front heel up!)

Spend some time on mellow descents, or better yet, paved mellow descents focusing on keeping your weight on the balls of your feet! Your body, rims, and shocks will thank you!

Now, go out and practice! Let us know how this has affected your riding by posting below. Feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.