Author: Dr Stuart D. Baulk

The secret to staying awake on long motorcycle rides

Staying awake on the bike

With long days the norm on epic European motorcycle tours, it’s not hard to end up in a situation where you still have 50 miles to go but you are starting to get feel tired. Here, Dr Stuart D. Baulk gives ABRs some sound advice on staying awake on long motorcycle rides…

How did you become an expert on sleeping?

I studied psychology at Loughborough University then spent four years watching people fall asleep at the wheel in a driving simulator for my PhD. I investigated how different strategies kept them awake and how their driving was affected.

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After that I moved to Australia and spent five years researching fatigue in train and truck drivers and how sleep disorders can impair their performance. These days I prefer bikes and adventure travel to simulators and data collection, but some of the knowledge comes in handy on a long trip.

So why do we sleep?

Sleep is necessary for rest and recuperation of the body, but more importantly the brain. It supports our cognitive function, and without it things start to go wrong mentally and physically.

Sleepy biker
Photo: Tom

How much sleep to we actually need?

This a topic of much scientific debate but humans tend to sleep an average of about eight hours in every 24, usually in one main sleep period (sometimes two), with the main sleep during the night and a shorter sleep in the mid-afternoon.

Research studies show that we can function effectively with less, but we tend not to like it – that is, our chirpy mood can be the first thing to suffer when we are tired. If we are motivated we can function okay with four hours sleep per night, but less than that we begin to suffer.

Are we designed to sleep only at night?

Our body clock (or circadian rhythm) regulates many functions, such as digestion, body temperature and alertness. We are far more likely to sleep during the night time or mid-afternoon.

While this clock is part of our biological system, it also relies heavily on external signals such as daylight to stay synchronised to the environment. This is why things feel so wrong when we fly across time zones – our body clock says one thing and the wall clock says another.

While some night shift workers can adapt well, essentially we are designed to sleep at night.

So what can happen when we don’t sleep enough?

When we start losing sleep, our brains can become impaired although not evenly across all functions. Rather than gradually slowing down or making more and more errors, we can still function in some ways perfectly well, while other areas have lapses where things are missed altogether.

When driving or riding, peripheral vision becomes less important, fine details are missed, and the ability to maintain accurate speed/road position become impaired. Our grip strength can weaken also. Only a minor lapse in concentration can cause a serious problem if you run off the road or into oncoming traffic.

In some parts of the world just hitting a pot hole in the road can be a serious problem, so being alert is important all the time.

What are the warning signs before things go pear-shaped?

Before we become seriously impaired and move towards actually falling asleep, there are many warning signs that alertness is decreasing and its time to take a break. When we are tired, we become less communicative, more grumpy and and short tempered.

While this can be most obviously noticed by another person, you can also recognise the signs in yourself – which is particularly useful if travelling alone. How you react internally to what’s going on around you, and what your mood is doing can be a good indicator of your level of alertness.

We are also more likely to make mistakes in navigation and map reading as well as riding itself, so keeping an eye on where you are and how you are riding are both good ways to monitor what’s going on.

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Tricks and tips for staying awake on long motorcycle rides

Aside from getting good sleep and making sure you get any sleep disorders or other health problems checked out and dealt with, there are a few tricks that can come in handy when you need to find a way to ride another two hours when you are ready to call it a day.

Caffeine can make you more alert

Campfire coffee

Commonly found in coffee, chocolate and energy drinks, this can be a useful strategy to get you to where you need to be. Energy drinks can be particularly useful since they have a standard amount of caffeine (caffeine content in coffee can be irregular).

However, strategy is the important part of this – caffeine is a drug with dependency and withdrawal effects like any other. So, if you want to use caffeine to its maximum effect for a reason, avoid drinking it socially or as a matter of habit.

Remember that caffeine can have a rebound effect to make you feel more tired (especially when combined with sugar), and can keep you awake at night. So consider the timing carefully. Take it about 3/4 through your day so that it can help you get to the end of the journey, but not stop you falling asleep later on.

Water is a vital factor in staying alert when riding

Keeping hydrated

When we become dehydrated, we naturally feel tired as our body slows down to conserve water.

While toilet breaks can be a pain on a long bike trip, they are less of a problem than the effects of dehydration, which creeps up on you much more slowly.

So, drink plenty of water and remember that coffee, tea and soft drinks do not count and can actually dehydrate you more. Consider a hydration pack if you’re touring in a particularly hot country, such as Spain or Italy.

Food intake is another way we can manage alertness

When tired we often crave high glycaemic index (GI) foods such as carbohydrates and sugary snack foods. These tend to be those on offer when riding long distance, as we are typically exposed to a limited range of convenience foods in service and petrol stations.

However, these are actually the foods we’d like to avoid. They offer a sharp spike, but you’ll soon find your blood sugar ‘crashing’ again, which can actually make you feel worse.

Looking for healthy alternatives and low GI foods will really help to maintain alertness in the longer term, without the spiked highs and lows that carbs and sugary foods can bring.

Drinking alcohol before riding is never a good idea

Beer with a view

Remember that even a small amount of alcohol taken at lunchtime can combine with the natural body clock lows to make us feel even more sleepy, despite what the breathalyser might say. Avoid any alcohol if you’re riding later in the day.

All medications have the potential to interact with alcohol and sleepiness, so always check if they cause drowsiness. Antihistamines and antidepressants in particular can make you very drowsy, so riding is not advisable.

Who is writing?

Dr Stuart D. Baulk is 38 years of age, originally born in Hemel Hempstead but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. He recently travelled to Ireland on a Kawasaki KLE500.