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Run, Bike, Row, or Swim: What's the Best Choice for MX?

by Coach Seiji


One of the most common questions posed by motocross athletes is, "What is the best form of cardiovascular exercise for me?" How effective a mode of cardiovascular exercise is for any rider partially depends on how enjoyable it is for them; just plain personal preference. Another aspect to consider is how a certain mode of exercise may irritate and injury. In addition to these factors, the listing below of my personal pros and cons of popular modes of exercise will help in the decision making process for those new to training.

Coach Seiji was a pro cyclist in a former life. Naturally his first choice of cardio is cycling. Here, Andrew Short completes a Lactate Threshold test.
Road Cycling
The most popular mode of cardio training by far for serious competitors.

Pros: Non-impact, can be done almost anywhere, high enjoyment factor for most, easily controllable intensity level (via heart rate or power), can become a lifetime activity, can be done in a group (has a social aspect).

Cons: High cost of entry, volume/duration needs to be higher than other forms of cardio, possibility of injury due to crashing, difficult to travel with equipment required, cold weather/rain can interfere.

Mountain Biking
Almost a natural cross-training choice for motocross riders.

Pros: Non-impact, very high enjoyment factor for most, can become a lifetime activity, can be done in a group, relatively easy to control intensity (but not nearly as easy as road cycling).

Cons: High cost of entry, accessibility to riding areas difficult for some, possibility of injury due to crashing (although lower speed on usually softer surfaces compared to road cycling but they occur more often), hard to travel with equipment required, volume/duration needs to be higher than other modes of aerobic activity, cold weather/rain can interfere.

That's Coach Seiji showing off his new MTB
The ultimate in convenience; head out the door and you are already training.

Pros: Very low cost of entry, can literally be done anywhere at any time, easy to control intensity, can be done over a wide range of temperatures and conditions, can be done in a group, duration/volume can be lower than other modes of cardio, easy to travel with required gear

Cons: High-impact, boring to some, high rates of overuse injury

The most therapeutic of training modes.

Pros: low equipment cost, zero impact, full body usage, can become a lifetime activity, relatively easy to control intensity, promotes good upper body range of motion, duration/volume is low compared to other modes of cardio exercise, only mode listed that involves movement in a different plane (twisting), easy to travel with required gear.

Cons: must have access to lap pool which can be impossible/expensive to some, boring to some, additional time needed due for driving time to/from pool.

In motocross, the Concept2 rower is so popular that it might very well be the only piece of fitness equipment to ever sit in Daytona's famed victory lane.
Consistently gaining followers in the moto-world.

Pros: zero impact, full body usage, can become a lifetime activity, rowing machines are in most gyms these days.

Cons: high cost of entry (if you want your own machine), boring to some if done on machine (vs. real rowing on the water).

Of all the pros and cons to each listed activity, the two factors that mean the most to me as a motocross trainer are:

  1. Low impact activity: motocross is very high impact, about the most impact you can take doing a sport. Gravity is the enemy and the motor and suspension make it possible for you to be exposed to forces much higher than in other activities. Ideally the cardiovascular portion of your training would allow you to recover from your bouts with multiple gravities aboard your motorcycle. Some modes like swimming and cycling are done in less than one gravity so they are therapeutic to the joints that are stressed beyond normal during motocross. MX is high impact enough, why add to it? I believe that utilizing cardio that minimizes your already high impact load will allow recovery from riding at a much higher rate and can prolong the years that you can ride pain free.

  2. Enjoyment: Much of the cardio training is done alone and it's probably second to motocross riding in terms of weekly volume. To ensure long term motivation, your cardio training has to be enjoyable to you on some level. Some athletes find swimming relaxing (no noise, fluid movement, floating in water) while other find it utterly boring for the same reasons. Maybe mountain biking will be exciting; maybe road cycling in a big group will do it because of the social aspect. Whatever it is, it has to be fun or relaxing (or both) for your motivation to remain high for a long time.

I think it is best in the long term to utilize at least two forms of cardio on a regular basis. It's much healthier for your body to move in different ways, use different ranges of motion and just be exposed to different stimuli. It's also just more engaging mentally to be involved in different activities. This all leads to greater motivation for a longer period of time.

I also believe for long term success of your training program you should strive to become good at your chosen disciplines of cardio; if road cycling is one of the modes you use, then strive to learn the skills, tactics, etc. to become a good, competitive cyclist. This will add dimension to the things that you are interested in, it can add more long term motivation and can lead to a healthy, lifestyle for the years beyond motocross. It's not just a training mode, it's another challenge for you to accept and conquer!

Hopefully this primer on some of the popular cardiovascular cross training modes helps you decide what direction to pursue as you expand your motocross training. The benefits reach well beyond making you faster and last longer on the track; aerobic exercise promotes improved general health, has been proven to enhance mental function and can lead to a lifetime of health and fitness.

About the Author: Seiji Ishii is the head coach of provides online coaching and personal training services to motorsports athletes. Coach Seiji has worked with both pros and elite amateurs including: Heath Voss, Ryan Clark, Austin Stroupe, PJ Larsen, Hunter Hewitt, Drew Yenerich, Rusty Potter, Jason Anderson, and Andrew Short. Learn more at or contact Coach Seiji directly.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    253 February 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Good article. I lived in Johnson City Tn near Muddy Creek for several years. I would hit the road 4-5 days a week and it was very common to see Mike Brown 3 riding. He got good enough at riding that I think he could have started racing for money.

  2. Gravatar
    Dillon Swaim February 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Can you post some swimming workouts?

  3. Gravatar
    ACBR February 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Great article! What about playing tennis or soccer? I've been playin it with a heart rate monitor and it's has been good for me. I also go cycling and running other days.

  4. Gravatar
    atvmx99 February 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Dillon, What is your experience of swimming? I might be able to help you out if no one else can. I have been swimming for 12 years and now in college. Swimming can aggravate shoulders if not done correctly over a long period of time. That's what I am dealing with right now in my swimming career.

  5. Gravatar
    m c February 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    How about.....NONE! High intensity circuit training incorporating weights and balance/stability exercises is much more practical for mx.

  6. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer February 10, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    MC - We do that too. This particular article was just dealing with the question, which is better for MX: Running, biking, rowing, or swimming since that question gets asked so much.

  7. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji February 10, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Tennis, soccer, circuit training are all great, it just depends on how much time you have for training each week and how often you ride. For instance, if you are lucky enough to be riding full time and you moto 4 days per week, the impact or relative high intensity of tennis, soccer and circuit training could cause insufficient recovery from the moto days. This could lead to mediocre moto days. If you are riding say, only on weekends, then those activites would be just fine and time efficient to boot. Circuit training is indeed one of the most efficient uses of time for those time crunched. It's just a lot of intensity for those lucky enough to be doing moto say 3 or 4 days a week, just depends on the individual.

    An exellent swimming reference for those who don't have a background in it is The Essential Swimmer by Steve Tarpinian. Swimming is super technique oriented and the correct form will make it much more enjoyable and safer.

    Again, I like to mix forms of cardio to keep motivation up and help prevent overuse injuries.

  8. Gravatar
    743 February 11, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Since I live in the North where it snows I Nordic ski in the winter months. I prefer to skate ski because it is faster than Classic and uses more balance. I look forward to ski season since it is a break form cycling and utilizes the upper body as well.

  9. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji February 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    When I was working at the University of Texas Human Performance Lab back in 80's ot 90's, the highest ever recorded VO2 Max was from a Norwegian Nordic skiier. It was crazy, something in the high 90's. He was unique in that he lived in the mountains of Norway and didn't eat anything he didn't kill, fish, grow or collect himself. He was one of my favorite athletes to follow as far as his daily life because for him, his "trianing" was to go hunt, get food, etc. He used to be called the "Herminator" I think. Anyhow, cross country skiing is great for the same reasons as cycling: zero impact, easy to control intensity, etc. for those snow bound. Sounds fun too.

  10. Gravatar
    Brad Mansinne February 15, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Coach, How do you feel about the eliptical for a good workout? I live in Indiana and during the winter we are limited to what pur local gym has to offer. I do try to mix it up with eliptical,treadmill,stair stepper and rowing.

  11. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji February 16, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    The elliptical is fine if it keeps you motivated! The positives are that it is impact free and it is very widely available. The negatives are that it isn't specific to anyhing other than being on an elliptical; it isn't as efficient at helping your springtime cycling as say, using a spin bike, etc. Another "negative" that it shares with cycling and swimming is that it is out of gravity somewhat. This means you aren't axially loading your bones so it doesn't aid in building bone density as much as walking, running, etc. but the fact that it's impact free is somewhat dependent on the fact that it's partially out of gravity. I always take the impact free over axial bone loading in this sport becuase you get plenty of that on the bike and during strength training and I feel that more than makes up for any loss of that during cardio, especially recovery based cardio.

  12. Gravatar
    Magnus November 08, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    i like cross country skiing. a bit more one the arms and mid the cycling. And gives some good balance too.

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