Techniques: Improve your riding simply by relaxing

Misti Hurst explains how understanding what causes your body to tense up in the saddle can transform your riding overnight.

A good friend of mine recently gave me this advice: “When you know more, you do less.” He was actually referring to the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but I was struck by how the same theory holds for riding a motorcycle.

 For most of us, riding is a way to escape the stress of our day-to-day lives and find some relaxation. It is ironic then that one of the main things that holds us back while riding is tension. Tension in our back, tension in our neck, and tension in our arms. Any tension in our body prevents your bike from working the way it was designed to and prevents us from enjoying it as much as we should. No one wants to deal with an arm pump, numb, tingly hands, stiff shoulders, or a tight neck after a long day in the twisties. 

As riders, we do so much work. We grip the handlebars tightly, muscle the bike, wiggle, bounce, move around, and put too much effort into trying to ride fast or ride well when in reality we would be better off practically letting go. On a motorcycle, as in Jiu-Jitsu, less is more. When I coach my students, I can often be heard saying: “If the entire school could be broken down to just two words it would be, do less.” 

So, what exactly does all this mean? How can knowing and understanding more about your bike and your riding technique help us do less? First off, when you understand that relaxing on the motorcycle has many influences on the mechanics of the bike, and on your ability to implement riding techniques, you are better able and driven to make changes. 

For example, when you grip the bars tightly, you don’t allow your bike to work the way it was designed to. Bumps and dips in the pavement are felt more intensely, your motorcycle becomes unstable, and overall traction is reduced. This can also cause your bike to take a wider arc through a corner than intended because you are inadvertently counter steering to the outside of the corner, with extra pressure on the outside bar. 

Keeping your arms and hands relaxed allows the tyres and suspension to work more effectively by soaking up bumps and imperfections in the road, allowing the motorcycle to hold a more predictable line. Tense arms and a tense back can also prevent you from turning your head to look through the corner, or as far up the road as possible. And, if your arms are straight and tight, then turning the bike quickly for a sharp turn or an emergency manoeuvre becomes near impossible. 

A relaxed, almost slouched riding position can open up your field of vision so you can see and react to more of what is going on around you, and having a natural bend in your arms will encourage you to press forward on the bars instead of down, which gets the bike turned quicker. Sometimes, all it takes is a reminder to loosen your grip, a deep breath, and flap of the arms to relax. However, I understand it can very difficult to relax, even when you are telling yourselves to do it. 

So, what are some causes of being tense on your bike in the first place? Your riding position, where you sit, what you are doing with your legs, and how stable you are with your lower body all play a huge roll in how well you can keep your upper body relaxed. You can stabilise your lower body by pinching the tank with one or both knees to get the weight off your arms. Sitting back in the seat also creates space and a natural bend in the arms. Trying to move your body around on your bike to much, such as hanging off the side as you steer, can cause you to tense up because you are trying to do too much at the same time. If you set your body position before you turn into a corner, you give yourself more time and you can remain relaxed

 Also, be aware of factors that can trigger your arms and hands to involuntarily tense up on the bike. Riding above your speed or skill level, or travelling in wet, windy, and other tricky conditions are all examples of these and can trigger a ‘death grip’ on the bars as your survival instincts kick in and your body tenses up. Sometimes, what helps you stay relaxed in the saddle is simply understanding what causes you to tense up in the first place. Either way, knowing more will help you do less. Next time you’re out for a ride, make a point of taking notice of what you are doing in the saddle, such as how your body is positioned and how you hold the bars. Notice what triggers your body to tighten and then see how reducing that tension in your arms, back, and neck improves your overall ride. Breathe deep and most importantly, enjoy the ride.