BMX: WHAT TYPE OF SPORT?
by M. Doug McGuff, M.D.
BMX is probably one of the most demanding and complicated sports in existence. As a result, it is very difficult to set up a proper training program. As we shall see later, training for one element of the sport can result in harming another element of your performance (training for the endurance to make it through 16 motos per day can also rob you of the power you need for a good gate start). Let us take a look at the general characteristics that can define any sport, and see how hard it is to chategorize BMX.
Most sports divide themselves cleanly into one type of sport or another. Examples of power sports include powerlifting, sprinting (200 meter dash and shorter), high jump, long jump, gymnastics, and velodrome sprint racing (pursuit). Examples of endurance sports are road cycling, running distances longer than the 440 yard. Extreme examples are marathon runners, cross country skiing, 24 hour cycling events, and eco-challenge races.
Other sports have some mixture of power and endurance demands. Being a running back in football is a good example. You have to have the strength and explosive power to move the ball against 300 pound linemen, yet have the endurance for repeated bouts of exertion over 4 quarters of play. Other good examples are hard to find. Rugby might qualify, Tennis has a mixture of power and endurance, but the power aspect is not that pronounced.
BMX is a good example of a mixed-type sport. For the most part, it is a power sport. The race is a sprint, generally lasting between 30 and 45 seconds, depending on the track. Pulling for jumps, pumping turns, rhythm and backside are all power-based activities. Those that succeed at BMX are generally naturally muscular. At most levels of competition, BMX would qualify as almost a pure power sport. Endurance is rarely a factor, as there are long bouts of recovery between events. If you qualify first moto at a local or regional race, you will wait one to several hours, then race your 30 second main and your done. As a rider becomes more advanced and races at a national level, his power will obviously become even more important, but endurance may also become a factor. If a rider is entered in his class, open, and cruiser and does not qualify until the second or third round, and then has quarters and semis, the moto count can rack up. Further, the rest afforded between bouts of activity gets much shorter. At the pro level, the problem is more complex. Power is obviously even more important, but endurance also becomes a necessity. A pro running class and open may have 32 or more races in a single weekend!
Initially, the solution to this problem seems simple enough: simply add some endurance training as you progress in your BMX career. There is a problem with this that most progressing BMX riders are not even aware of, until they find out the hard way. Conditioning for power and endurance are mutually exclusive activities. It is an either-or proposition; you cannot have it both ways. Think of your physical conditioning as a spectrum that runs from power on one end and endurance on another.
For any significant improvement in endurance you make, you will suffer a concomittant decrease in your power. So let's say that you are running out of steam by the time the mains roll around, and you decide to work on your endurance by going on one to two hour road rides a couple times a week. In doing this, you have trained your intermediate muscle fibers who were behaving more like fast twitch fibers to now behave like slow twitch fibers. Now, your power out of the gate is shot, and you don't have to worry about running out of steam in the mains because you didn't even get into your quarter-finals. This is why almost no NFL team does steady-state endurance work. There is a way around this delimma that they do use, and which will we discuss later. Right now, we need to make it clear to you why this delimma exists in the first place.
are made up of thousands of individual fibers that contract when a nerve
from our nervous system sends them a signal to do so. We have several
different types of muscle fibers, but for simplicity's sake, we will focus
on 3 general categories: slow twitch, intermediate twitch and fast twitch.
The names don't just refer to how quickly these fibers contract. Slow
twitch fibers have slow contraction velocity, fatigue slowly, and recover
quickly. Slow twitch fibers are arranged in relatively small groups (motor
units) that are activated by a single nerve. Therefore a nerve going to
a slow twitch motor unit will produce a small amount of force. Fast twitch
fibers have fast contraction velocity, fatigue quickly and recover slowly.
Fast twitch fibers are arranged in larger groupings (motor units). Therefore
a nerve going to a fast-twitch motor unit will produce a higher degree
of force. Intermediate fibers fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Slow and Fast twitch fibers are fixed in their characteristics, so they
cannot alter their behaviour based on training. Intermediate twitch fibers
can take either more fast or slow-twitch characteristics depending on
specific demands. Your own mixture of fiber type is determined by your
genetics and cannot be altered. Someone who is 70% fast twitch, 10 slow
twitch and 20% intermediate will do very well at BMX. Someone who has
10% fast, 70% slow and 20% intermediate will never do well at BMX racing
and will thus gravitate to some other activity. Many who still love riding
may gravitate toward freestyle or dirt jumping. This is why so many talented
dirt jumpers started in BMX racing and moved on. It is no fun to have
good riding skills and never win a race. This is also why dirt jumpers
never bother to enter the big downhill BMX events like the triple crown
of 2000 or The X-games in 2001. While they definitely have the skills,
they just don't have the genetic gifts to get out of the gate with the
likes of John Purse, Jamie Staff, or Christophe Leveque. With a bigger
assist from the downhill aspect, and a bigger emphasis on skills, you
do see riders who probably have a slower twitch profile doing better.
The Foster brothers are notable examples of riders who are probably a
little low on the fast twitch scale, who do less well on a standard track
than they do in downhill venues. Riders who have extemely high degrees
of fast twitch may also have trouble. They can kill it on the gate and
first straight. But, because fast twitch fatigues quickly and recovers
slowly they may have trouble as the day progresses. Also, because fast
twitch motor units are arranged in large groups, they produce movement
that is less fine-tuned. As such, finesse and riding skills are more difficult
to express. An example of a rider with very high fast twitch profile might
be Steve Veltman who has a reputation for extreme power, but who is also
known to get squirelly and crash a little more than his
There is another important factor still to consider. Even though this factor cannot be influenced by training, it is important for you to know that it exists. This factor is called neurological efficiency. Neurological efficiency is simply the percentage of a muscle's total mass that you can voluntarily contract at one time. Someone with high neurological efficiency might be able to contract 90% of his muscle's fibers simultaneously. Someone with average neurological efficiency can contract only 40% of their muscle at one time. Having a high neurological efficiency can offset a disadvantage one might have in their fiber type mix. That is, someone with 70% slow twitch may still be able to explode out of the gate quite impressively if they have a neurological efficiency of 90%. In fact many of the world's best athletes have this combination of slow twitch predominance with high neurological efficiency. They have the ability for great power and explosiveness, combined with amazing endurance...they just don't get tired. You may wonder why nature would want anyone to have 40% neurological efficiency. The answer is...self preservation. If you contract 90% or more of a muscle at once, the forces that are produced may be so high that the tendon pulls off the bone or the muscle tears. We all have inhibitory neural pathways that keep us from contracting all of our muscles at once, except in dire emergencies. Under extreme stress, these inhibitory pathways can be shut off allowing up to 100% of a muscle to contract at once. This is where the stories about 70 year old women lifting fallen cars of their husbands come from. In my experience, high neurological efficiency is usually present in someone that leans more toward a slow twitch predominance. A combination of high neurological efficiency with fast twitch will produce an amazing sprint athlete, but also a very injury prone athlete. It can also wreak havoc on equipment. I have seen Greg Hill snap a chromoly crank spindle, and Terry Tennette has been rumored to have pulled a rear hub casing off its flanges. These guys probably have a high percentage of fast twitch fibers combined with high neurological efficiency. The forces involved with activating a high percentage of a predominantly fast twitch muscle are dangerously high. This rare combination is necessary to be an olympic calibre sprinter, but is also why you see so many of these athletes tearing hamstrings, and rupturing tendons during competition. Most successful BMX athletes are either predominantly fast twitch with average neurological efficiency or average fiber type mix with high neurological efficiency. You cannot control your neurological efficiency, but you can, to a limited degree, affect whether your intermediate fibers behave more like fast or slow twitch. Most importantly, no matter your fiber type mix, you can increase the strength of all your muscle fibers. Muscles are the motor of your BMX bike, the more powerful they are, the faster you will go. All you can do is train as efficiently as possible. Your genetics cannot be altered, but they will determine whether your training takes you to a higher level or the highest levels. Let us now consider the skills involved in BMX.
Many sports are single skill activities; there is only one physical skill that is required to compete. Archery is a single skill sport. Sharpshooting is single skill. Bowling, the Javelin, Shotput, Pole-vaulting, and Long jump are all single skill sports. In addition to being single-skilled, the venue is also standardized. It is always a regulation sized target. The dimensions of the bowling lane and size of the pins never change. The playing field dimensions, weight of the implement, and other factors never change. These are single-skilled, standardized sports.
Many other sports are multi-skilled. Football is a good example: not only are there multiple positions, each position requires multiple skills. A player may need to know how to run the ball, block for his teammate, catch passes, throw passes, and tackle. Baseball is a multiskill sport for all positions. Most multi-skilled sports are still very standardized. You use a regulation size ball with a regulation weight, you play on a field of standardized dimensions. The hoop or goal post is always a standardized height and size.
The most complicated sports are multi-skilled and non-standardized. BMX is probably the most exteme example of this kind of activity. There are numerous skills involved in a non-standardized playing environment. More importantly, the skills are not confined to one general category. When it comes to skills, there are narrowly and widely focused skills. Narrow focused skills require shutting out all extranious stimuli and executing a very specific, ritualized task. Diving, sharpshooting, powerlifting, and skateboarding are all narrow focus skills. The gate start is a classic example of a narrow focus skill. It is also a single skill. The cadence is always standardized. For each rider, there is a ritual in terms of actions taken before, during and after execution of the skill. The rider must focus on specific cues in performing the skill while blocking out all extraneous information. Other sport skills are widely focused, meaning you have to have a broad awareness that takes in an ever-changing environment. Basketball is a good example. A basketball player has to use his peripheral vision and his hearing (and sometimes just a gut feeling) to know where all the other players are and how the game is unfolding. Widely focused skills don't just require good reaction-time; they require anticipation. Once the gate drops in BMX, the emphasis quickly changes to wide focus skills. You need to know where you are on the track, where the lines are, and what this means relative to your position and the position of the riders around you.
The most complicated sports are multi-skilled and non-standardized and involve switching quickly between narrow and wide focus. BMX qualifies as one of these sports that exist on the highest level of complexity. If chess is a complex game, imagine playing it in three dimensions and you would be approaching the complexity of BMX. In the midst of a race, you have to have the broad focus of a NASCAR driver, yet as you approach a big set of doubles, you have to switch to the narrow focus of an archer. If the race is really tight, or you are going through a tough rhythm section, you have to operate with a broad and narrow focus simultaneously. This degree of difficulty is found in very few sports. This is what makes BMX one of the toughest sports to be good at; no wonder there are so many dirt jumpers.
The key to handling the complexities of the sport is not only to be highly conditioned, but to have highly refined skills. Your skills have to be refined in a very specific way. Possessing refined narrow focus skills of starts, jumping, rhythm, turns etc is a good first step. Later, you have to apply these narrow focus skills in a broad focus context of racing or simulated racing. Skill conditioning requires an entirely different approach than physical conditioning and should never be intentionally combined. In our next chapter we will talk about the specifics of physical conditioning and skill conditioning, and how our approach to each will differ.
This article is an excerpt from BMX Training: A Scientific Approach. To order a copy of the complete book send $30.00 check or money order to P.O. Box 1882 Seneca, SC 29679. Credit card orders call (864)886-0200