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Getting in Riding Shape

by Craig O. Olsen, M.D.
Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, February 2013

For many sports (football, basketball, baseball, soccer, skiing, and swimming to name a few) being physically fit (defined as flexibility, strength, endurance and balance) improves performance while reducing the risk of injury. Initially, it may seem being physically fit is not necessary for riding a motorcycle, particularly when looking at some segments of our motorcycling community. (This is not meant as a back-handed reference to Harley riders; after all, I own one!) For that major, motorcyclists don’t get much respect as far as athletes go. For the non- riding public, many believe that riding just involves sitting on a motorcycle and letting it carry you and do all of the work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Figure 1: Maximum aerobic power (VO2max) measurement obtained by analyzing expired air with an oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzer. [4]
Figure 2: Ambulatory oxygen consumption measurement while riding an off-road vehicle. The rider’s nose is plugged and all expired air is expelled through the mouthpiece which contains a volume meter and expired air sample line held in place by the modified chin guard of the helmet. Inset top leU: Reverse angle view of the metabolic computer (with protecLve padding) in the backpack as worn by riders. [7]

To counter this misconception, we need only to look at motorcycle racers. Several studies from the sports medicine literature show that both professional and amateur male and female motorcycle road racers have very intense physical strains imposed upon them during qualifying and completion races as evidenced by sustained heart rates greater than 90 percent of maximum and significantly elevated serum lactate and cortisol levels. [1-3]

In addition other studies looked at both professional and amateur off-road motorcycle motocross racers along with enduro and desert rally racers. [4-5] These studies show significant increases in maximum aerobic power (measured by VO2max), sustained maintenance of heart rate at greater than 97 percent of maximum, isometric muscle strength, and serum lactate levels consistent with great physical stress and demand being placed on the riders. This is more evident in motocross riders than in enduro or desert rally riders, but all three groups of motorcyclists were equivalent to or exceeded the values achieved by male distant runners who were recruited as controls. [4]

Conclusions from each of these five studies support the development of well structured specific physical fitness training programs geared toward improving aerobic and anaerobic capacity as well as strength and power training of different muscle groups to improve road and off-road motorcycle racers’ riding success while reducing their risk of injury.

The vast majority of adventure dual-sport motorcyclists are neither professional nor amateur road or off-road motorcycle racers, so how does the above information translate to a need for our being in shape to ride? The answer is that it does apply. Recently, a few novel studies out of Canada looked at the physiological demands and physical fitness of riding off-road vehicles (ATVs and motorcycles). These studies were conducted in 327 off-road riders, ages 16 and older recruited through local and national Canadian off-road riding organizations. [6-8] Some of the findings from these studies include: (1)Off-road motorcyclists had above average aerobic fitness(79th percentile) while those riding ATVs were below average (40th percentile) compared to the general population. (2)

Off-road motorcycling conforms to the recommended physical activity guidelines and can be effective for achieving beneficial changes in health and fitness. (3) Positive physical fitness and health adaptations can be gained from a training program using off-road motorcycle riding as the exercise stimulus. (4) The aerobic demands of riding off-road was found to be similar to other self-paced individual activities, such as golf, rock climbing, alpine skiing, tennis, and racquetball. [7]

In addition to the physiological benefits of off-road motorcycling there is a distinct benefit from being in better physical shape to ride; being fit to ride (as is true of many other sports) significantly reduces the chance of injury.[9] Being physically fit to ride definitely helps prevent fractures by increasing flexibility, greater strength, and better balance. It also helps prevent strains, sprains, and falls. [10] Having improved physical endurance (an important component of physical fitness) significantly reduces riding fatigue that can contribute to rider error, accident and injury, especially on longer rides. (See “Fatigue and Managing Motorcycle Riding Risk,” IAMC Newsletter, Issue 1, 2010.)

Of the four components of physical fitness (see first sentence of thisti) strength is the easiest and quickest to develop. Strength building involves resistance exercises (using free weights, resistance machines, or the weight of your body). If you are out of shape and start doing regular resistance exercises, you may expect to see a 50 percent increase in your strength in less than a month. While it is possible to develop your strength from resistance exercises using commercial or home gym equipment, you can also accomplish it at home with very minimal equipment and expense.

Some muscle groups to target with strengthening resistance exercises for motorcycle riding include calf and thigh muscles used to stand on the pegs for prolonged periods of time that is sometimes required, arm and shoulder muscles used to deily maneuver your bike and secure the handlebars over rough terrain, and core back, abdominal, and chest wall muscles occasionally needed to pick up your dropped bike. Some fully loaded dual- sport bikes weigh around 600 pounds and require both strength and technique to pick them back up when dropped; and if you ride like me, you may need to pick it up several times a day.

The only way to increase the flexibility component of physical fitness is to stretch your muscles. Strengthening muscles without stretching them makes them tighter; just as some body builders who don’t stretch their muscles become muscle-bound in that their tight muscles keep them from moving quickly and fluidly. For motorcycle riding (as for many other sports) emphasizing muscle strengthening without stretching actually increases the risk of injury. A good time to do stretching exercises is before and right after each workout, especially after doing the endurance component of your exercises while your muscles are sfll warm.

The endurance component of physical fitness, or cardiovascular fitness, is typically developed by exercises that increase your heart and breathing rate in a sustained fashion. The goal of endurance training is to build gradually to a moderate-to-vigorous level that increases both breathing and heart rate. Once your goal is reached, you can divide the endurance activity into sessions of no less than 10 minutes each with a total minimum of 30 minutes per day most or all days of the week. Your goal with endurance workouts is to achieve 55-90 percent of your maximum heart rate for a minimum of 30 minutes per day for most or all days of the week in order to be effective. Your maximum heart rate is calculated as 220 minus your age in years.

Some examples of moderate endurance activities include walking briskly on level ground, swimming, bicycling, golfing (without a cart), tennis (doubles), volleyball, rowing, or dancing. Vigorous endurance activities include climbing stairs or hills, swimming laps, bicycling briskly uphill, tennis (singles), cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, hiking, or jogging.

The cardiovascular system delivers oxygen to the skeletal muscles, which in turn use this it to burn various fuels (carbohydrate and fat) to yield mechanical energy. Your body adapts in response to the demands placed upon it. As you work or exercise hard, you overload your aerobic systems. During rest, your body adapts by making improvements in its cardiovascular and muscular function. The heart becomes stronger and more efficient, and the skeletal muscles become better at extracting oxygen from the bloodstream. Within muscle cells, the mitochondria boost their enzyme systems to oxidize fuels. These changes occurs slowly over time. For confined improvement, you must confine to overload these systems, and as you adapt, you require more strenuous workouts to do this. How do you know if you are training at the right level? Physiologists have discovered that the rate of oxygen burned in the muscles is the best measure of aerobic work. To determine this requires expensive equipment and specialized testing facilities. Basically, this is determined by having an individual run on a treadmill while heart rate and volume of inhaled and exhaled air are measured. Samples of exhaled air are periodically taken, and the oxygen concentration determined. The difference between the amount of oxygen breathed in and out during this test is what the muscles have consumed to burn fuel. The rate of oxygen consumption, in liters per minute, is call VO2. The test is done at progressively greater levels of exercise until the individual can exercise no more. The maximum rate of oxygen consumption is called the VO2max.

Research on VO2 has shown that there is a threshold below which no additional gains are achieved in aerobic exercise. For most people this is approximately 55 percent of VO2max. Since it is difficult (a cumbersome process requiring expensive equipment) to calculate VO2, percent of maximum heart rate is a much easier determinate for the effectiveness of your endurance exercise workout. The relationship between percentage of maximum heart rate and percentage of VO2max is very predictable and is independent of age, gender, or level of fitness. As you can see from the graph, 55 percent VO2max corresponds to about 70 percent maximum heart rate.

Figure 3: Linear relationship between % VO2max and % maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate = 220 – age (in years).

For motorcyclists balance is another important component of physical fitness. While motorcyclists probably have better balance than the average individual, this component nevertheless should not be neglected in your physical fitness program to get into better shape to ride. It involves strengthening the muscles used to balance and conditioning the neuromuscular components of balance (vestibular system of the inner ear, visual system, and somatosensory/proprioception system). Improving the balance component of physical fitness augments your riding ability while reducing your risk of injury. The more technical and difficult your level of riding, the more effect this has.

Following are brief summaries of websites that deal with the four components of physical fitness (strength, flexibility, endurance and balance) along with some that are specific to motorcycle riders.

A. The Motorcyclist’s Free-Weight Workout Made Simple for Riders. This arfcle from Sound Rider appeared in Spring 2010 and summarizes 7 simple strength resistance exercises you can do at home utilizing free-weights (dumbbells) to help you get in better riding shape. You don’t have to wear your motorcycle gear to do them.

B. Racer X Virtual Trainer has teamed up with professional trainer Seihi Ishii to offer useful instruction for improving your performance both on and off the motocross track. While this is geared toward motocross, much helpful information on physical fitness for off-road riding can be gleaned from its 26 pages of archived articles and features on training.

C. Physical Conditioning for Riding: Getting in Shape. This site from MCL Sport-touring in Simi Valley, California, lists 10 strengthening and stretching exercises to improve physical conditioning for riding. These exercises are illustrated and can be done without any special equipment.

D. P1Fitness. This is a series of 11 short YouTube videos by “83268majhew” illustrating several exercises that target strength, flexibility and balance and can be done at home without specialized equipment.

E. Offroad FanaWc. This company strives to bring all off-road motorbike enthusiasts together in one place to share, learn and experience exciting and engaging content. They have over 114 videos posted on their YouTube channel from pro fps, new products, and featured rides to do-it-yourself videos. Among them are the following four specifically related to (1) body conditioning; (2) core flexibility, balance and endurance training; (3) training like an athlete; and (4) strength and power training. These four videos by Mandy Thomas and Brad Compere show several excellent exercises geared toward the off-road motorcyclist, combining all four components of physical fitness that can be done without specialized equipment.

F. Physically Trained. This site contains the US Army physical readiness training and physical fitness training programs outlined in detail with illustrated exercises covering all components of physical fitness. This site probably has more on physical fitness than you would ever care to read, but it also contains about everything you need you will ever need to know.

Article References:

1. D’Artibale E, et al. Heart rate and blood lactate concentration of male road-race motorcyclists. J Sports Science. 2008 May; 26:683-9.’arfbale%20E%202008

2. D’Artibale E, et al. Heart rate and blood lactate during official female motorcycling competions. Int J Sports Medicine. 2007 Aug; 28:662-6.’arfbale%20E%202007

3. Filaire E, et al. Salivary cortisol, heart rate and blood lactate during a qualifying trial and an official race in motorcycling competion. J Sports Medicine Physical Fitness. 2007 Dec; 47:413-7.

4. Gobbi AW, et al. Physiological characteristics of top level off-road motorcyclists. Brifsh J Sports Medicine. 2005 Dec; 39:927-31.

5. Konlnen T, et al. Cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular responses to motocross riding. J Strength and conditioning research. 2008 Jan; 22:202-9.

6. Burr JF, et al. A cross-section examination of the physical fitness and selected health atiributes of recreational all-terrain vehicle riders and off-road motorcyclists. J Sports Sciences. 2010 Nov; 13:1423-33.

7. Burr JF, et al. Physiological demands of off-road vehicle riding. Medical Science Sports Exercise. 2010 Jul; 42:1345-54.

8. Burr JF, et al. Physiological fitness and health adaptafons from purposeful training using off-road vehicles. 2011 Aug; 111:1841-50.

9. Simpson, AE. Exercise training patterns and anthropometric characteristics of amateur motorcycle road racers. Doctorate thesis, University of Pittsburgh. 2010.

10. Gordon, F. Fitness, in Blood, Sweat and 2nd Gear. Whitehorse Press. Center Conway, New Hampshire. 2007; pp.215-17.

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