Faster, Safer and more comfortable. This is how getting in shape makes you a better motorcyclist.
Need another reason to add “get fit” to your list of New Year’s resolutions? Well, doing so is one of the most effective ways to become a better/faster/safer rider. This is how getting in shape makes you a better motorcyclist.
I’d always considered myself a pretty fit guy. As a kid, I was a competitive athlete and worked manual labor jobs. In college I stayed active, played intramural sports and kept moving all day, every day. After that, I regularly cycled (for transportation) but, at some point in my mid-20s, my level of fitness began to slowly taper off. It wasn’t like I was all fighting fit one day and had a beer gut the next. More that the stuff I could do when I was 25 was harder to do when I was 30. Plus, I became unhappy with the way I looked with my shirt off and, suddenly finding myself single, decided to do something about it.
The whole fitness thing took awhile for me to figure out. At first, I just tried to get back into what I used to do — cycling, being active — but neither produced any sort of change in my body any more. So I started going to the gym. At first, I had no idea what I was doing and was just sorta moving weights around in a chaotic, pointless way for an hour a day or so, a few times a week. It didn’t do much. So, I swallowed my pride and started asking the friends who had the kinds of bodies I wanted for help. That changed everything. I figured out how to weight lift properly, I figured out how to manage my diet and I got back in shape. Now, I’m closing in on weighing 200 lbs (up from 155 in college) and I’m not just able to do the things I did 10 years ago, I’m in the best shape of my life. Back then, I was a skinny dweeb, now (less fit) friends frequently refer to me as “the big guy.” The ones that helped are probably laughing right now. You know who you are and yeah, you can still kick my butt.
I see the benefits reflected in my everyday life in more than just personal vanity. Unsurprisingly, I can lift heavy things. But, It never ceases to amaze me and most others how large and heavy those objects sometimes are. That also means everyday challenges suddenly feel smaller and lighter. I carry my 85 lbs puppy around in my arms like he’s a baby, but he’s big enough now to scare people. Last week, I carried 35 lbs backpack 20 miles through the mountains in a single day. Two and a half years ago, 10 miles of that same route would have wore me out. Last year, I experienced my worst injuries ever, but I also recovered faster than ever before. Most importantly for this discussion, I’m now a better motorcycle rider than I’ve ever been, all thanks to weightlifting.
What Is Fitness?
One of the things I had to learn in order to get fit is what fitness was. This statement will be controversial among those who haven’t traveled the same road, but anyone who has will totally agree: fitness is not running, it’s not doing yoga, it’s not swimming and it’s not doing endless miles on the stair climber/treadmill/stationary bike. Doing those things will make you better at those activities, but will not force your body to adapt to stresses, will not improve your physical appearance, will not improve your cardiovascular health, will not improve your flexibility (OK, maybe yoga will) and will not make you stronger. And, getting stronger is the goal, because it’s what comes along with strength that brings all the other health benefits.
Getting fit is lifting weights. And here’s how doing so will improve your motorcycle riding.
By applying resistance through a muscle’s full range of motion, that muscle becomes stronger throughout that range of motion. What once may have been a difficult stretch for your body (touching your toes, for example), becomes an easy movement.
Apply that to bike riding: the extreme contortion required to fit legs onto a sportbike’s rearsets suddenly feels more like a natural movement. One that’s easily sustained and repeated.
Five years ago, after a track day, I’d come home barely able to walk; my hamstrings and quads felt like Jell-O. Now, I’m rarely sore at all. Basically, after getting fit, stuff that was physically challenging is now easy, so you can do it better, for longer. This will help you last longer in the saddle on a long ride, complete a grueling moto or last lap to the end of a race, all while riding better than before.
As the size of your muscles increases, so does the capacity of your heart and lungs, which have to fuel them. Greater capacity means they don’t have to work as hard as your body completes a given task and that means a lower heart rate in any given situation. So, dragging knee on The Snake? You may have been amped up before, but after getting fit you’ll be doing it with a lower heart rate and therefor with less fatigue and more ability to concentrate. In short, getting fit makes you a cool customer. Getting fit makes you faster.
Last summer’s BMW F 800 GS Adventure launch in Moab took place in unexpectedly hot, dry conditions (even for the Utah desert) which, combined with an error in tire pressures, meant virtually everyone crashed off-road multiple times. Fellow moto journalist Neale Bayly and I rode at the back and helped most of the other guys pick up their 500+ lbs bikes, over and over in 114-degree temperatures. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t break a sweat, but I’d like to think we prevented a heart attack or 12.
Combined with flexibility, an increase in core strength makes achieving appropriate body position for sport riding far easier. The idea is to support your torso with your abs and lower back, not your arms. You won’t believe how easy hanging off and changing direction becomes once you’re fit.
The book Body by Science puts a fine point on an unexpected benefit of physical fitness: it may one day save your life after a bike accident. “The medical literature affirms the absolute role that increased muscle mass plays to one’s benefit during life-threatening situations. A lot of the beneficial effects of strength training come from the fact that other organs of the body increase their functional capacity to track, one to one, with increases in muscle mass. As an example, if you were to be in a severe traffic accident and had to be admitted to intensive care, the ‘start’ point from which you would atrophy all your organs is predicated on your degree of muscle mass. In other words, how long it will take before you reach multi-system organ failure and die is directly linked to your level of muscle mass, because all your other organ weights are going to be proportional to that.”
Lifting weights has been shown to also increase your bone mineral density. It makes your bones stronger and stronger bones are less likely to break. Muscle also absorbs shocks, decreasing the forces that reach your bones, again reducing the odds of a break.
A healthier body is better able to repair itself and can therefore do so more quickly. Last October, I shattered my left arm, broke two ribs, put a huge hole through my knee and fractured my coccyx. It sucked, but for less time than previous, less serious injuries have.
Stronger muscles are more comfortable muscles. Do you ever get off your bike with a sore back? I used to, but it’s been years. Oddly, I’ve noticed that it now takes longer for my butt to get sore on long rides, too, that is if it gets sore at all. I guess the reason why is that my muscles now have a greater capacity, so something as simple as sitting on them for a long time causes less stress to them. My butt also probably has more padding in it thanks to the additional muscle, so less force reaches my sit bones.
Want to improve your riding by getting fit? These are the books that helped me figure it out:
Have you observed benefits to your own riding through physical fitness? Tell us how in comments.