Friday, August 24, 2007

Exercises for Riders

Today I’d like to tie together two of my favorite subjects: fitness and riding. I think it’s extremely important to be in good physical condition when you ride. Even if you are not striving towards a particular fitness goal or trying to lose weight, there are things you can do to benefit yourself and make riding a motorcycle more comfortable and enjoyable and to avoid injury while you are riding, especially if you plan on going through areas with rough terrain that can be hard on your back, neck, and shoulders.

First of all I want to mention that any exercises you do should be preceded by a warm-up – generally about 5 minutes of doing some simple cardio such as going for a walk, doing a few jumping jacks, or any other activity that gets your heart rate slightly accelerated, thereby warming up your muscles. You should then stretch whichever muscles you intend to work. A good stretch lasts for a count of 10 to 15 seconds at least.

The areas I think most concern riders include leg strength; back, neck, and arm comfort; and balance. You must have all three to be ready to ride and have an enjoyable riding experience. Here I will introduce a few basic exercises focusing on these areas:

1) Leg strength. This is important simply because when you aren’t moving, you typically have to have at least one leg down to keep your bike upright while you wait to get into motion again. It can also be a factor in keeping yourself astride your bike and being able to cope with issues where leg strength is important, such as a drop or accident situation.

Squats are an excellent overall leg exercise. They especially work your butt and thigh areas. You will generally want to do 15 squats at a time, for a total of 2 sets (30 squats total). This focuses particularly on endurance rather than bulking up; if you are looking to build muscle mass, then 3 sets of 8 squats with weights as heavy as you can manage will do this for you.

A correct squat is done keeping your back isolated and straight. You want to keep your knees and ankles aligned as much as possible. If you have access to an exercise ball, I suggest standing with the ball between your back and the wall and using it to support your weight while making a motion similar to sitting down in a chair. Otherwise you can also counter-balance your weight while standing without support and holding a set of dumbbells out in front of yourself while performing the squat.

Another good leg exercise to consider is working your hip abductor and hip adductor muscles. Remember all those exercise videos from the ‘80’s with the ladies in leg warmers doing leg lifts? That’s what I’m talking about. Do this: lie on your right side with your left leg on top. Do 15 leg lifts with your left leg. Then bend your left leg so it is folded across your right leg. Lift your right leg 15 times. Repeat. Then roll over and do the reverse while lying on your left side. You will notice a difference in the muscles used.

2) Back, neck, and shoulder exercises. These are exceedingly important to a rider. We don’t have the same kind of support on a motorcycle as we do in a car, so it takes some amount of strength to maintain a good riding posture. We also can endure some pretty rough bumps and wind resistance, loaning to some discomfort if we aren’t prepared. A few small stretches and strength exercises can go a long way towards preventing injury and making your ride more comfortable.

Yoga is one of my favorite things to do for this area; it has wonderful stretches and positions you can do that do not put a lot of strain on you but provide beneficial elasticity and strength.

First, the cobra pose; this stretches and strengthens your lower back and is a wonderful stretch for your entire spine, as well as strengthening your shoulders. Lie on your stomach with your hands placed beneath your shoulders. Breathing in, push up with your arms while arching your back – your feet and legs should remain on the ground; you aren’t doing a push-up. Only your upper-body should leave the ground. Look up at the ceiling. Inhale and exhale six times. Exhale out of the pose. Do this two or three times. If you want to check how much you are supporting yourself with your back instead of your arm muscles, lift up your hands for a second or two and see how far down you go.

Second, the toe-touch and roll-up. Start out standing with your feet shoulder-width apart in a neutral position, your arms and shoulders relaxed. Slowly roll down, letting your arms dangle and hang loose, until you are as close to touching your toes as is comfortable. Hang there for a moment. The focus here is not on stretching your calves or legs, but just letting your back hang loose and stretch while you are bent over at the hips. When you are ready, slowly roll up, vertebrae by vertebrae. Take your time – if this takes you shorter than 30 seconds to do, you are going too fast! This is wonderful for re-aligning your spine.

The neck is an area where many people store a lot of their tension. It is important to ensure the muscles here are relaxed, yet strong enough to support your head and keep your spine in alignment. Tilt your head to the right, keeping your eyes focused forward. Raise your right arm and gently pull your neck towards your shoulder – do not over-do it, just apply enough pressure that you feel a stretch. Repeat with the left side of your neck. Another exercise to try is to look over your right shoulder as far as you can. Then look forward and keep your neck straight up and down. Press the right side of your head against your right hand as hard as you can for 10 seconds. Look over you right shoulder again… see the difference in how far you can turn your head?

3) Balance. Balance is important for when you are doing slow-speed riding, because your bike has less momentum to keep itself upright. Most drops occur while you are going slowly.

First, a basic balance exercise: stand on one leg, while bending the other and holding your foot in your hand. If you are having a hard time with this, try focusing on one spot in front of you. Concentrate on it; you are basically fooling yourself. When your eyes are in motion and you are looking around, your body thinks it is moving in a certain direction and is trying to adapt. If you focus on one spot, your body is at rest and easier to balance.

Feeling a little more ambitious? Try the headstand pose! Start in a seated position on your knees. Then slide forward so you are resting on your knees and elbows with your fingertips together. Bend down and rest your head between the V created by your hands. Straighten your legs so you are resting on your head, elbows, and toes. Then slowly straighten your back until your legs are elevated off of the ground. Straighten your knees. You’re upside down!

This is a more advanced pose. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t do it right away. Maybe even try it against a wall to start out with. Have some fun!

All of these should be helpful in building strength and balance to make your riding more comfortable and enjoyable. Ride safe!

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