How to Sharpen Your Mental Focus for Motorcycle Riding?
(with contribution by Dr. Johnathan Edwards)
Mental focus is a prerequisite for safe motorcycling. In fact, motorcycle riding is mainly about processing information. One must think clearly and accurately to reduce risk, ride safely and maximize their experience. The best riders ride with a clear head, without distractions, making good decisions, and being a proactive participant in the environment around them. Mental focus is at the core of every good ride. Many factors feed into achieving optimum cognitive performance. Nutrition, including diet and hydration, physical conditioning, the proper amount of rest/sleep, and ensuring you are in a positive emotional state are important factors affecting one’s mental outlook.
The often-over-used phrase “becoming one” with the motorcycle while trite is true. To achieve this state requires discipline and commitment. So, let’s break these down in detail and see what each means.
Let’s start by looking at which foods help keep you alert. Take the following test. Try eating a high carbohydrate meal such as pancakes or biscuits and gravy and check your mental alertness and decision-making. Then try eating a high protein meal such as 4 or 5 hard-boiled eggs and check your mental alertness. Most people realize a huge difference. Yes, carbs have their place but not right before a ride. There is no question that consuming proteins before riding will help mental concentration. And what about caffeine, the most widely used drug in the world? As you probably know caffeine increases mental alertness. But did you know caffeine can also improve reflex time in muscles, decrease muscle fatigue, and help increase lung capacity? All clear benefits, agreed?
Caffeine’s main effect is an increase in your reaction time and alertness/awareness. This has obvious benefits when riding a motorcycle, especially at speed; increased alertness/attention will make you less likely to crash, which decreases injuries to yourself and the bike. The idea here is not "load" your body with tons of caffeine but to use just enough to get the job done. Caffeine is a diuretic (a drug that makes you urinate). Lucky for us, caffeine is a weak diuretic by medical standards. Drinking fluids alone has a more considerable diuretic effect than caffeine itself! So, remember to keep drinking fluids on ride day; a normal response for your body is to pee more. Be aware that drinking too much coffee (6 - 10 cups in a day) will give you headaches, and insomnia, cause you to urinate excessively, and cause your hands to shake; moderation is the key.
Lastly, the importance of adequate hydration cannot be overemphasized. Water is what makes our bodies work, especially our mental function. Sodium, potassium, and calcium are among the essential electrolytes which exist in the body. Even a tiny drop in sodium can cause cognitive changes, including dizziness, decreased reaction times, and mental alertness, which are paramount in any ride. Potassium is vital in many processes in the body, but one that most people relate to is muscle soreness and cramps. A low potassium level will contribute to muscle spasms and make riding uncomfortable and sometimes impossible. Remember that bananas and other cellular fruits are excellent sources of these needed elements. Finally, calcium is essential for muscle strength, reaction times, and bone growth. It is rare to be low in calcium, but it becomes more common after age 30 or so. Replacing electrolytes can be done via fluids as well as protein. Many sports drinks contain appropriate amounts of electrolytes and should be used in addition to regular meals. Start hydrating early in your ride. Iof you wait until your thirsty you are already partially dehydrated. Camelbacks and drink systems are ideal for maintaining adequate hydration.
Sleep deprivation has become a pervasive problem in our modern world. Work, family, friends, social media, computers, technology, and hobbies conspire to rob us of much-needed rest. A rider preparing for any ride (especially a long ride) must practice sleeping more efficiently before the event. For example, sleeping only 5 or 6 hours per night may work in the short term, but over the long haul, there is a real toll on physical and mental acuity. Training the brain to go into deeper sleep quickly is also important. The former can be achieved by taking afternoon naps and practicing good sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene consists of using your bed for sleep only, avoid watching television or reading in bed. If one practices good sleep patterns before riding, one will be in an optimum position to focus on the task.
It’s also important to consider sleep quality rather than quantity. Learning to fall into deep sleep fast and efficiently is a learned process and must be practiced. Also, practicing when time allows can be a valuable practice. Scientists believe the body and brain can work on 4.5 – 5 hours of sleep per night depending on the quality of sleep. They say the best is to sleep at least 6 hours (8 is ideal)and nap for 20 minutes in the afternoon. Every person is different. Sleep hygiene is essential for safe riding, overall health and well-being.
There is no question that physical conditioning is an integral part of maintaining mental awareness, improving reaction times, and overall comfort. The longer the ride, the more critical your current physical state becomes. I recommend practically any type of physical activity for overall health and well-being, but for motorcycle riding, I highly recommend interval training.
Interval training stresses the anaerobic glycolytic energy system, the lactic acid system. Interval training will allow you to increase your heart rate and then recover. Interval training is performing cardiovascular exercises near the maximum heart rate and then resting until the next interval. During these intense efforts, many different reactions go on inside the body. One of these reactions is the production of lactic acid. When more lactic acid begins to accumulate in the muscles (more is being produced than can be removed) you enter a state called lactic acidosis. Several positive training adaptations can occur by doing intervals that put the body into this state.
I recommend either running or on a bicycle. These workouts' most crucial training effect is a higher power output at VO2 max. Another benefit may include an increased lactic acid tolerance (the ability to sustain a workload as lactic acid accumulates). For example, warm up for five minutes, run or cycle all out for 1 minute, rest for four minutes, and then repeat the interval. Continue until one minute is reached for resting and a break; then rest for two minutes, do an interval and rest for three minutes, and so on.
The main point is to stress your body, so you can operate at a high level over a long time. Muscle fatigue, back pain, and arm and leg discomfort can become distractions. Anything that takes your mind off the road or trail is detrimental to mental focus.
The last condition for achieving ultimate connection and mental focus with your machine is checking to make sure you are riding in a positive emotional state. Motorcycling is a fantastic experience. Appropriately done; it’s like meditating. Your mind is focused only on the present, the here and now. Never ride when angry, when sad, when agitated, or distracted. Most of all never ride under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Motorcycling is one of the most joyful experiences in life. The kinesis and sense of movement through space and time are exhilarating. A sense of acceleration and freedom, the feeling of being in the world the sights, the sounds and the smells are all rewards offered by motorcycling. Be sure you are in the right state of mind every time you get on your bike. It’s the greatest sport on earth and a great way to leave your problems behind. The last thing you want to do is carry emotional baggage. Travel light both physically and mentally.
Most of all: Enjoy the ride!
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