Touring Tip: Just Relax!

Oct 03, 2014 View Comments by

Touring Tip: Just Relax! Staying relaxed while riding a motorcycle is often easier said than done. Riders are continuously on the lookout for road hazards, wildlife, other vehicles, pedestrians, and other potential threats while piloting a vehicle that provides no intrinsic protection from impacts with hard objects. In addition, riders must constantly be assessing the best lines and speed to enter and exit curves, which may be blind and have surprises like a decreasing radius or oncoming vehicles on the wrong side of the yellow line. It’s only natural that the mental stress felt by a rider is transferred to a stiffening of his or her limbs, as if they’re bracing for an imminent impact.

Rigid arm muscles, which are effectively pushing against each other on a curve, keep a motorcycle from leaning in the intended direction. This is oftentimes a panic reaction accompanied by the rider looking straight ahead, instead of through the curve. This sequence accounts for many, if not most, single vehicle accidents by motorcyclists. Stiff arms also can prevent a rider from executing a proper swerve to avoid a sudden road hazard. And there are other potential panic reactions like applying both front and rear brakes and then releasing just the rear brake—get ready for a high side crash! Panic breaking while leaned over in a curve often produces the inevitable low side crash.

Riders who have undergone proper training know intellectually at least how to execute proper crash avoidance maneuvers, but the element of surprise can render that training inoperable. It’s one thing to know what to do, but often quite another to have practiced the techniques so often that they are programmed into what is often called “muscle memory,” which is being able to execute those techniques without having to think about them. Achieving muscle memory usually requires extensive practice, often in an empty parking lot. Remember “wax on, wax off” in the movie The Karate Kid? Muscle memory requires continual practice, Daniel-san.

But even after achieving muscle memory for effective crash avoidance techniques, a rider can negate that training in real life situations when he is carrying tension in his body. You’ve probably read about riders achieving a kind of Zen state while they’re riding, where everything seems to flow smoothly and naturally. The key to achieving both optimal crash avoidance preparedness and a Zen state of mind while riding is being relaxed on the bike. Relaxed muscles also can react faster than tense ones. Here are a few suggestions of how to ride more relaxed:

  1. Clear the Mind: Let your subconscious be in control. It’s possible to overthink the process of riding a motorcycle and give the bike’s controls too much input, like correcting your line in a curve, re-correcting it, and so on. Most of our bodily functions, like breathing, are controlled by the subconscious or unconscious mind providing just the right action or input. Once proper technique has been committed to muscle memory, this can also be true for identifying and avoiding hazards.
  2. Breath Deeply: Sometimes an overly anxious mind will overpower even routine body functions like breathing. When we’re anxious, our breathing tends to become shallow and rapid. Slow, deep breaths, originated in the abdomen, help improve oxygen flow and relaxes muscles. Consciously checking and adjusting your breathing rhythm periodically can be an effective first step to becoming a more relaxed rider.
  3. Be Mindful of Your Body: Consistent with periodically checking your breathing pattern, riders should periodically survey the rest of their body mentally to see if arms and legs are relaxed, even when executing maneuvers like cornering. For example, when performing a right hand turn, ask yourself if all of the pressure on the handlebars is coming from the right hand, while the left hand only maintains a relaxed grip. Also, it’s important for a rider to periodically check his or her riding posture: back straight and upper body supported by abdominal muscles, not arms and hands.
  4. Avoid Disruptive Distractions: For example, talking on the telephone (even if it’s hands-free via Bluetooth technology) while riding may be sufficiently disruptive to both conscious and subconscious brain activity to cause riders to not identify hazards and/or diminish their capacity to reflexively avoid those hazards. Riding while emotionally distraught can also pose a similar riding danger. Each rider should evaluate what constitutes disruptive distractions to their safe riding and avoid them.
  5. See the Big Picture: Or, stated another way, don’t succumb to tunnel vision by concentrating on only one aspect of the riding environment. For both safe riding and riding enjoyment in general, it’s important to be cognizant of the entire riding environment, not just the pavement 20 feet ahead of your front wheel. Riders should constantly scan their surroundings to identify potential threats, like deteriorating weather or wildlife running across an adjacent field, which may quickly develop into a hazard. I find that having a 360º awareness of an attractive landscape also enhances my riding pleasure.
  6. Let Your Speed Happen Naturally: When the first five items above are flowing within their proper channels, the appropriate riding speed will happen naturally. Riders will automatically slow in more dangerous situations and accelerate when risks subside (based on each person’s level of riding expertise). Your subconscious will tell you when, for example, you’re trying too hard to keep up with other motorcyclists or are riding too fast—be sure to listen!
  7. Evaluate Your Progress: By increasing their ability to ride in a more relaxed state or mind, motorcyclists can improve their riding ability, safety, and pleasure. Periodically perform a self-evaluation of your progress.

My one caveat to all of the above is riding in heavy traffic environments. By definition this is disruptive, distracted riding, and motorcyclists must be consciously aware of other vehicles, particularly those with distracted drivers changing lanes, entering or exiting traffic flow, or approaching too fast from the rear. When a danger presents itself, however, the muscle memory of a relaxed rider should quickly engage to avoid the hazard. Overall, riding relaxed is not only safer, but also more mentally rewarding. Try it.


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