Motocross is one of, if not the, most physically demanding sports on the planet and the athletes at the pro level train at the highest levels. There are a lot of trainers and programs with different thoughts on what works best. Over the last few years, Alex Martin and John Wessling have been building Troll Training into a program used by not only the top riders in the sport but vets and weekend warriors. I've been using Troll Training for a few months now and have seen the improvements in my fitness and day to day wellbeing. I called up John to learn about his background in fitness and get to know him a bit.
For the full interview, check out the Vital MX podcast right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.
Jamie Guida – Vital MX: What's up, John?
John Wessling: What's up, Jamie? Not much. Just hanging out here in beautiful Park City, Utah, and chatting with you. So, all is good.
Vital MX: I look at your Instagram; all your photos are so beautiful. That's such a beautiful part of the country.
John: Yeah, it is. Every time I ride my mountain bike, I take pictures. It's the only place I've ever ridden a mountain bike that I can get emotional riding, especially in the fall when it's golden trees and everything's beautiful. It's pretty wild.
Vital MX: You're not only part owner and trainer at Troll Training, but you're a pro mountain bike racer. You race bikes, you coach cross-country skiing, and many other things. You've got a laundry list of things you've done, and I want to get into all that. First, where did you grow up, and what's your background in sports in general?
John: I grew up all over. I was born in Tennessee. I was raised in Kansas, England, and attended high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I went to college in northern Minnesota, way up north, in a city called Duluth. It's about three hours south of the Canadian border. So, I've been all over my whole life. It's funny; my parents just moved for the hundredth time. The older I get, the more I realize where I got it. It took me a long time, but I see why I can't stay put anywhere. I grew up playing all sorts of sports. My dad was a football player, and my mom played basketball and volleyball. I have an older sister and a younger brother; we were all very active. I played everything. Basketball, hockey, soccer, ran cross-country, raced motocross, and skateboarded. I pretty much checked all the sports lists, that's for sure. As far as moto goes, I was a weekend warrior. I was not riding in the winter. When I moved to Minnesota, we rode Millville in just about every local series race they had. That's kind of where my moto passion background comes from. Then when I was in my early teens, I took a lot of liking to running. At the time, I was racing 250 B, 14 to 24 B, and 450 B or something like that. My dad would only let me race three classes if I ran a certain amount of mileage during the week because I had to be fit enough to race three classes on the weekends. So, it was super fun. That's what started my whole endurance sport endeavor that I'm indebted to now and can't seem to get rid of. I love it. From there, I started cross-country skiing in college; the rest is history, as they say. I started mountain bike racing after that.
Vital MX: You mentioned your parents, and I know your parents, Karnie and Dave. They both race the Moto Masters Vet series here in Texas and do a lot of vintage racing. I've hung out at their camp because their place is generally the social hangout at these events.
John: Yeah, they're in their 60s, and I don't know how they do it. My younger brother and I raced growing up, and the same with my mom and my dad. It's incredible that they still race. I'm always mind-blown when they say, "Oh, yeah, we're heading to this race," or wherever they go that weekend. So, it's super cool. They're super fans of the sport, just like I am, so it's been really fun to always fill them in on all the stuff that we always wanted to know growing up about certain riders. Why they're doing well or why they're doing bad. I think it's given them a lot of perspective because you start to realize at the very top, it's very small percentages on why people are doing bad or good. Usually, it comes down to just being comfortable on the bike or bike setup or a rider having a crash on Tuesday that nobody's talking about. I love relaying the information to them. We always shoot the shit on the couch.
Vital MX: You're one of those weird guys that likes running. I don't get it. I do not enjoy it.
John: Yeah, it takes a special breed to enjoy the stuff that makes you good on the dirt bike that most people say isn't fun. That's what I enjoy. It's some sort of sickness to enjoy suffering. For me, it's always been a mode of being able to move your body with the least amount of stuff you have to have. Even bicycling, I always have a flat repair, special shoes, a kit, and all that stuff. I've always loved running because you just throw on a pair of shoes and shorts, and you're out the door. You can't get a flat tire, or you're not going to do anything crazy running.
Vital MX: When did you learn what the body needs to be at its best? Did you start researching dietary stuff? Was it before you went to college?
John: I wanted to be good at moto from the time I was 15 or 16. I was a decent local rider and could win the B class and all of that. I said, "Man, this would be fun to take a little more seriously." So, I did start diving in, and my high school cross-country ski coach, John Sanborn, told me, "If you could just get in better shape, it's going to help you for motocross." He was good at the time for me because we were a perfect match. We were about the same speed and about the same fitness level. He always pushed me to my absolute maximum in practice for cross-country skiing. I would always ask him a gazillion questions because he was quite a bit older than me and had way more experience. I really wanted to learn. From there, it snowballed. Even in high school, there was a kid named Dalton Carlson that I grew up with. He rode for Rock River for a while, but even in high school, I was like, "Hey, man, this is what we do in cross-country skiing. You should be doing this," talking about intervals or whatever it was. I kind of always wanted to help people get fitter. I always knew moto lacked it because I would hear from Alex Martin, Jeremy Martin, and Ryan Dungey. There were tons of good local guys when I was growing up, and you would always hear snippets through the grapevine of what people were doing for training. I would think, "That just does not seem right." This was a long time ago. This is like 2008 or 2009. It's come a long way since then, and a lot's changed.
Vital MX: Let's talk about your education and what you learned in college.
John: The biggest thing as far as education goes that I got was from my college coach, Chad Salmela, who, in my eyes, is one of the best endurance coaches. Especially for somebody like me, I had to build a base to compete with the guys I was training with. Like with moto, I started cross-country skiing so late. It just takes so long to learn all the little things to be good at anything when you start late. I had to start with the basics and build off of that. My college coach taught me everything, and this is where I got my education by seeing the proof in the pudding of putting in the volume, strength, and everything that goes with it and the discipline it took. We'd be on van rides all over the country, and I would ask him a gazillion questions. I'm sure I was a massive thorn in his side every car ride, but that was what I learned. By doing it and seeing my teammates, which at the time were just my college teammates, but now some of them are Olympians and phenomenal athletes. So, I got an up close and personal view of what it took to be a great athlete. I had some very gifted teammates. You know, they had a very high VO2 (Maximal Oxygen Consumption) max. Then I had some teammates with a low VO2 max, so you have to train differently depending on where you're on the gift spectrum. I learned a lot from that. One of my teammates, Paul Schommer, an Olympic biathlete, he and I trained so differently, but in many races, we'd always end up roughly in the same place. It was like, "Oh man, there are a thousand ways to skin a cat." We were proof of that. So, I keep saying my education was from doing it, learning from my coaches, and diving as deep as possible into the sport. Once I went to college, I never raced motocross again. Honestly, I never really rode a dirt bike again. That was kind of the end of that, and it was full-on. In the summers, five and six days a week, I do two a days. I was also a high school cross-country ski coach in the summers. That's how I'd make my money, and then I was able to train for my job. I always tell people my life hasn't changed that much since college regarding what I'm doing, for better or worse.
Vital MX: You're getting to do what your passion is.
John: I'm super fortunate in that sense. It's lifelong learning. The longer you do it, whether it's yourself or coaching people, it's very easy to see all the little mistakes you made when you started from a different viewpoint. I'm always learning. It's never-ending, but having that foundation and having phenomenal coaches growing up was important. I had a cross-country ski coach named Piotr Biernacki, who was huge in my development as a skier. He taught me so many things. You have all these key people that when you look back, you're like, "That's why I'm where I'm at." It's a lot of luck. It's not necessarily that you went to college, got this degree, and you're set. All those little things add up and give you the perspective you need at that time.
Vital MX: You coached cross-country skiing at the NCAA level and even went to the Olympics. Was that in an athlete's role or coaching? You also coached cycling at UCLA. So, you've coached athletes at many high levels.
John: I'm definitely not an Olympian as much as I would like to be. I feel like good athletes across the board have always surrounded me through multiple sports. Even growing up skateboarding, I had some really good local guys who went on to be professionals. I was never the best at anything I did, and I think that's why I always had the drive and the tools in the toolbox, so to speak, to get better because I was never the best guy. I'm so happy that was the case and I wasn't the high school hero.
Vital MX: Let's talk about coaching moto. You worked with Geico Honda and riders, including Malcolm Stewart, Mitch Evans, Chance Hymas, the Martin Brothers, and numerous others. How did you get your start working with motocross riders and helping them improve their fitness?
John: As I said, I started in high school helping out some local guys, even guys that still race, like Zack Williams, a local Minnesota privateer. It started after college when I was at my parent's house. I lived there for a month, waiting for my lease to start for my apartment. This was in Minneapolis, and I was on Strava, and Christian Craig kept doing bike rides right past my house. I'm like, "What the hell?" He didn't know who I was then, but I knew who he was. I hit him up and said, "Hey, let's go road bike." Literally, that's what started this whole thing. I never really set out to be a motocross coach. I was a cross-country ski coach at the time and started training Christian. This was in 2014 after college. Then in about March or April of 2015, I started training a group of guys, and one of them happened to be Chase Sexton. He was 14 or 15 at the time. So, it was Christian, Chase, and some local guys, Jake Loberg and Clay Chapiewski, and we had a really good group, and it was pretty badass. It was miserable for them, I think. At the time, for me, it was just training. I didn't mind it, but you know, we'd go on 35-degree road bike rides at 7 a.m., and I would show them how to train properly. In 2015, Christian said, "I'm going to try to make a comeback. I'd like you to quit your job and do this." I laughed at him because I was like, "Well, you can't pay me what it's going to cost?" Because, at the time, I had an apartment, student loans, and my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife. "I can't just do this for free." So, I ended up doing it pretty much for free, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I trained Christian, and I remember at Red Bud in 2015, he had a breakout ride where he podiumed a moto. That was the start of everything for him. In the fall of 2015, they (Geico Honda) were deciding between Wil (Hahn) and me, who would be the team trainer. That was in the heyday of trainers, and the timing that I had with all of this could not be duplicated because, in 2014 and 2015 was when trainers were a hot commodity. You could charge almost whatever you wanted per rider to be a trainer. It was a crazy time in the industry if you knew what you were doing. I was so young, and I wasn't making Aldon (Baker) or Swanie (Gareth Swanepoel) money by any means, but it was crazy because everybody was doing it. Wil ended up racing again for Kawi that year, and I got a call from Jeff Majkrzak. When he hit me up the first time, he said, "We're going to go with Wil Hahn. Nothing against you. It will be easier this way because he's already out in California." I was like, "Yeah, no problem." A week later, I got a call from Jeff, and he asked, "When can you be in California?" I said, "Next week." I moved to California and started training the Geico guys. It was the best possible experience I could have had for getting into it the way I did. Jeff, Mike LaRocco, and everybody there took such good care of me. I had an absolute blast.
Vital MX: What were some things you noticed that the athletes needed from you, something that maybe they weren't doing correctly or weren't aware of? Does anything stand out?
John: I got super lucky, and I think this is the key to being a trainer in my position. You don't have to tell them how to ride when you work with guys like Chase and Christian. They already know how to ride. I always tell people, "I can't take a C rider and make him a Supercross champion." I don't have the tools, but if you give me someone who knows how to ride the dirt bike already, I can help them get stronger and more fit cardio-wise. When I got Christian and Chase, it was the dream as far as a trainer who wants to get people fit goes. I wish I could get Chase and Christian on a podcast. One day we can because, dude, some of the stuff that would go down, these guys were at each other's throats for 30 plus two on a Tuesday before a race like Washougal. It was epic, and it was just us three at the track. It was like walking on eggshells a lot of times because, you know, one-time Christian cleaned Chase out, and it was this huge drama, but it was just us three at the tracks. Nobody else is seeing this stuff, and it was before the heyday of Instagram and whatnot. I didn't have the cameras out. There's no vlog about it. So, it was crazy. Going back to your question, for Chase and Christian, it was more about building up the toughness, the mental toughness, the physical toughness, and getting them fit so they could go ride their dirt bike however they wanted to ride it for 30 plus 2 or 15 minutes in Supercross. That's what I look at. I have a lot of guys like Jeremy Martin, who's not as efficient as Chase Sexton, so he has to be more fit. My job is just to make him more fit. It's not to change everything or reinvent the wheel or any of that because, a lot of times, that muscle memory is kind of embedded in them. So, they can only make small changes by the time they're 25.
Vital MX: We've heard stories of when Dungey went to Aldon's, and he found out he was maybe doing too much on his own program. I imagine many of these professional riders don't know exactly what the body needs for the best results.
John: It's all a learning process. I always tell people if you don't overtrain at some point, you're just not trying. Especially at the pro level, they get so much grief for overtraining. It's because they care. They are going the extra mile every day because that's what they think they need at that time. You have to learn the hard way with training. It's kind of funny, the moto industry, they kind of look at training like, "Oh, it's just training. It doesn't add up", but obviously, it's my job, so I don't look at it that way. It matters so much because we're looking at such small percentages to win these races, and it does matter. It might not even be a fitness thing. It actually might be a resting coming into the weekend thing. You have to know the full spectrum of what to do and when to do it. I always tell my guys anybody can come up with the Monday to Sunday perfect training plan. This is what you do every week. The good coaches and the great trainers, once something goes wrong, they know how to fix it. All my best coaches and all the best coaches I've ever had, when shit goes south, how do you fix it? That's what makes the best trainers and the best coaches. In the industry, you're starting to get a lot more trainers and coaches that are more educated and understand it and can help with that. When I was coming in, that didn't exist that much. It was like, "Here's your plan. Monday through Sunday, everybody has the same program", you know, punch and shoot, let's go. Now it's getting a little more scientific, and it's for the better because when you watch these races, there's not a whole lot of extra percent anywhere that Jett (Lawerence), Chase, Hunter (Lawrence), Justin Cooper, (Haiden) Deegan, and these guys are giving up. We're talking tiny, tiny percentages here and there. So, I'm obviously very passionate about the fitness side. It adds up, and it does make a massive difference and more so for the confidence because once somebody thinks they're doing everything right, it changes. How they ride changes. How they show up to the track changes. I've seen the shift multiple times, and it's pretty cool to see.
Vital MX: You mentioned different programs for each athlete depending on their needs. What do you find to be the most difficult part of building a program individually?
John: Yeah, it's tough. I think diet is always talked about in moto, maybe to a fault. It's very important and part of the puzzle to be a great athlete, but I don't think it's the end all be all in moto like we think it is. One of the biggest things is getting guys to go easy enough on their easy days. All my athletes who have been with me for a while are probably so sick of hearing it, but it's hard to do. It's not easy. If you're motivated, it is not easy to do a nine-minute mile pace run or a 15-mph bike ride in flat Florida. That's probably the hardest thing for me. I got pretty lucky because most people I train are motivated. It's more or less holding them back like a J-Mart scenario. You never have to tell Jeremy to go hard. You have to tell him when to stop. If you have athletes like that, it makes your job the dream for sure.
Vital MX: What was the decision for you and Alex (Martin) to start Troll Training as a legitimate business and present it to the public?
John: I think it was in '20. I was training Alex in 2019, and we started talking about it. Alex is super knowledgeable fitness-wise. He's probably tried every diet, every training philosophy, and everything you could imagine to a fault. I mean, he's gone way overboard multiple times, but I think that's what makes him such a good coach. He's tried everything, and not that things that didn't work for him will not work for somebody else, but I think he has enough knowledge of everything to lean people in the right direction. I hadn't found that with anybody else I've trained. Having a passion for the fitness world. Alex and I have been super close friends for a while, which helps. I was living with him in 2019, one week a month, when I was training him at JGR. I was like, "Man, we should do something. Once you retire, you won't have anything to do." I kind of pressured him into it because, at the time, it felt right. We get along well, and we have the same philosophies on a lot of stuff. So, it was a good match. We were live for about two years while he was racing, and we weren't really that big. At the same time, Alex was chasing his career, so he wasn't doing much besides promoting it. Once Alex retired, man, that guy, he's all in. It's one of the craziest things as far as a transition goes. From a moto career into what he's doing now, it's been really fun to watch. That's how we did it. It was more or less an organic situation where we wanted to help people. The biggest thing for me is truly preaching what is right and wrong and quitting giving the magic pill answer that I feel happens a lot in this sport. I want to show and teach people how you train, just like you, Darkside. You don't have to kill yourself every day to get fit. Once you learn that, you're like, "Oh shit, this is nice. My easy days I'm not mad about right now." Then your hard days, you're cursing at the wall, but having that yin yang on the balance aspect of being an athlete brought Alex and me together and how to be fit. As you can probably tell by Alex's runs and marathons, the dude's no joke. Even outside the motocross world, he's a legitimate endurance athlete.
Vital MX: I do like the fact that the exercises change every day. There's something a little different every day. So, I look forward to it and have seen huge gains in my fitness. I'm getting old, and I want to be in shape.
John: That's awesome. That's great to hear. I think that's where our value is high because we are an online program now. I miss going to the races, doing the whole grind, winning the championship with Malcolm (Stewart), and all that stuff. That's the greatest height and something I never thought I could be a part of. With the online stuff, we're super valuable, especially in the vet class, where guys don't know what to do. They probably aren't doing the right things, and to give them a bit of direction, that's where our best feedback has been. A lot of these vet guys love it because they're like, "Oh man, I can take a day off, and I can go hiking with my wife, and it's still training." They're figuring out how to balance it all, and that's the biggest thing when you work a job. This isn't your job, so you have to have that balance. Your body doesn't know the difference between training stress and life stress. So, stress is stress, and if you're trying to pile on a 12-hour training week on top of work and family stress and everything else, it's probably more stress than most professionals feel in a week, and you probably can't handle that. I pride myself on finding that balance while still making big improvements.
Vital MX: You mentioned the championship with Malcolm Stewart. You also have at least one mountain bike championship. You have a Cat-1 National Mountain Bike Championship in 2019. I want to know the biggest personal and professional highlights of your career.
John: Professionally, Malcolm's has to be the highest one up there. I honestly wish it wouldn't have happened the way it did because they all happened in the first couple of years I did it. I'm like, "Oh, shit, this is easy." So, I kind of wish it would have been a couple more years, but obviously, I'm still grateful for it. Christian Craig's first win in 2016 at the Arizona Supercross. Just being a part of that whole thing with him coming back. That was super cool, and for me in my head on that day, I had made it. The team was really stoked about everything, and it was a good environment to be around that year. Seeing Chase develop is like a win for me. When Chase was really young, I remember coming home every day to my wife, and I would tell her, "Chase is going to be so good. He is incredible." He was 15 years old, doing two 30s, and I would drag him on 100-mile road bike rides. We'd be in the gym, and he'd be deadlifting more than us. He was a stud at a young age, and watching him develop is one of my biggest victories. I'm close with Peter Park, his trainer, and I participated in his fall boot camp this year. The guy is just a machine, and as a fitness guru, I love watching him do well because you're stoked to see somebody as fit as Chase put pen to paper and win races and do well. Some of Jeremy Martin's wins were really big for me too. That was a cool part of my career. The day he got second at Daytona behind Eli (Tomac) was phenomenal. Ryan Villopoto was helping Jeremy on the dirt bike, and there was me, and just a really fun crew. Pedro, his mechanic, and Kyle Lawler, his practice mechanic. That was a highlight as well. Even watching Alex win the 2020 Loretta's Pro National by over a minute was pretty sick on the JGR Suzuki. I loved watching that race. Technically, I race professionally, but I've never considered myself super good at that. In 2019, I did win a national championship. I won two in 2019 and one in 2021, which was really cool. I think some of the ski races I've done pretty well, like the American Birkebeiner, which is a big race. I got fourth in that one year. I don't really have anything that I'm like, "That was incredible," because everybody I'm surrounded by is so damn good at what they do, you know? It's more or less I enjoy pushing myself and trying to be good. I feel I'm a bit past my prime as far as many of my competitors in cross-country mountain biking, especially the UCI stuff. They're like 19 to 24, and I'm 32 and rubbing bars with them. I have an absolute blast, but I just started mountain bike racing too late to do anything with it. August 12th, I'm racing the Leadville 100, a big mountain bike race, and just being able to compete against some of the best guys in the world has been really fun.
Vital MX: It sounds like you don't give yourself enough credit for your abilities in general, but that's not a bad thing to not have a large ego.
John: Yeah. I mean, I know I'm good at mountain biking, but when you're training and doing a boot camp with Chase Sexton, and you can't drop him on a bike ride, and he doesn't bike for a living, you're just like, "Yeah, I'm not that good."
Vital MX: You mentioned you haven't ridden dirt bikes in a long time. The Steve Matthes ride day at Millville is coming up in. Can we get you out? Are you going to come to spin some laps?
John: Yeah, I'm going to ride. I've been planning on doing that. I think the last time I rode was maybe in 2017. I think I rode either Jeremy's 250 or Chase's practice 250. It was sick, and I somehow snuck into AC's (Adam Cianciarulo) pants. I don't even think I could zip them up.
Vital MX: That is going to be the quote right there. "I snuck into AC's pants."
John: Oh, man, that's funny. I hope a ton of people show up. I've probably spun more laps than most pros there. So, for me, it would be so much fun to hang out like the good old days, and it's no pressure. Nobody's racing or anything, so it's a different vibe than on a Saturday in the summer. I hope it's really cool because I want to have some sort of battle with somebody. Hopefully, somebody is slow enough for me.