There’s some interesting research out there about how swearing or riding angry can make you go faster. One theory, for example, is it can increase your body’s fight or flight response. Riding happy can have a massive impact on your performance too. Being prone to optimism, I choose the second option.
Take bike handling skills. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about an obstacle, try smiling.
It’s basically impossible to give a huge, genuine smile and hold a large amount of tension in your body at the same time. Try it right now and you’ll see what I mean.
When you smile on the bike, your body relaxes. And when your body relaxes, you absorb the terrain and the feedback of the bike better. The bike is free to float more over the terrain now, too. This means you ride smoother and feel more in control. This continues to increase the smile factor and decrease the tension, setting you up better for the next obstacle, and the next one. It has a big impact on the types of conversations you have with other riders as well, keeping the positive feedback loop in full swing.
By contrast, if you’re tense, you lock up more as you fight the bike. A visual giveaway is stiff arms, legs, elbows and knees, or looking a little, well, constipated. A white-knuckled death grip on the bars, weight too far forward over the saddle, or track standing your way down a bumpy descent instead of letting the bike roll, are symptomatic of riding tense as well.
When you carry all that extra tension on the bike, you ping around more in relation to the terrain. You tense up extra to try and control the bike more, you might dip your head to focus on the immediate obstacle instead of what’s coming up further ahead, stop moving your body weight in relation to the terrain and feel generally average as a result. If this happens to you out on the road or a trail, give your arms and legs a little shake to loosen them up, smile because you’re out riding and not on a computer, and feel how things change.
That’s the short version of this article. But because I’m a writer, and because some people like to read a little extra, here’s a story to go with it.
I was picking up my road bike after a well overdue service from Cyclery Northside in Sydney the other week (“I swear I’ve hardly been riding it! Maybe it’s your chain checker that’s worn out!”) when I met another rider for the first time, Robyn. Robyn was picking up her mountain bike, a high end model that I’d long drooled over but hadn’t had a chance to really ride. With bike lust as the ultimate ice breaker, we got talking.
As we were both leaving, Robyn mentioned she was heading to the final edition of the Highland Fling that weekend, one of Australia’s longest-running marathon and half marathon cross-country events. She was feeling a bit anxious about some of the singletracks. “Just smile!” I found myself saying, sharing the reasons I gave above.
Fast forward a few days and Robyn and I caught up again at the presentation ceremony for the Fling after similarly excellent days out (picking a good event is key to smiling a lot too). “I had dinner with about ten other riders last night,” she said (or sort of said, I’m paraphrasing heavily as my attention was split between Robyn’s story, enjoying the enthusiasm with which she told it, and the delicious post-race veggie burger I was holding lovingly in my hand). “…And I told them your story.”
“What story?” I asked.
Not only had Robyn smiled her way all around the course, but her dinner mates had smiled their way around the course too. They rode much better, and (surprise!) had a lot more fun.
I’d also smiled my way around the course but for other reasons. It had been almost three years since my last marathon mountain bike race. I've been documenting my journey back to fitness in some of these articles, and the 114km Fling was a big milestone in many ways as I prepare for L'Etape Australia's 157km journey on the tarmac.
The feeling of just being out there on the course, of feeling fit and strong, the beautifully groomed trails, and catching up with so many members of the riding community meant I was smiling all day long. But Robyn’s story topped it off. I hope that reading it now gives you a similar feeling.
Next time you find yourself stressing about an obstacle that’s well within your reach, give the biggest smile you can and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, here’s a bonus tip, just to say thanks for reading this article all the way to the end. Imagine your belly button is a torch. Now, as you ride, shine that torch where you want to go to light up the path ahead. Not only will it help you steer with your hips, but it will lift your eyes further along the road or the trail, and in doing so it will lift your head, line up your torso, and shift your body weight ready for the next twist or turn.
The belly button torch is such a beautifully simple cue that helps with a whole-of-body action across a huge range of terrain. I use it whenever I feel like I’m fighting my bike or my skills aren’t just happening the way that they should. It’s yet to fail in bringing my smile back too.