Aikido and the Art of Mountain Biking

Part 1 – Energy 

My Aikido sensei always pushed us to find applications of Aikido outside the dojo, and I have done that for years.  One of my other activities outside of work besides Aikido is mountain biking.  I can leave my house on my bike and be on a desert trail in about 90 seconds.  I don’t get to ride very often but when I do my brain always seems to make connections between my Aikido practice and what I’m doing on my bike.

One of the most important parts of riding off road on hilly terrain is energy management.  You have a constant exchange in energy between gravitational potential (elevation), kinetic(speed), and the chemical energy (food, ATP) your body uses in manipulating the bike.  Many novice riders find a speed they are comfortable with and keep it relatively constant during their ride, up hill or down.  This makes for a more tiring ride.  They will tend to use their brakes to reduce speed on downhills and then have to use their own energy to get up the next hill rather than exchanging gravitational energy for kinetic.  This technique results because they are not yet comfortable with their ability to control the bike at higher speeds, and they are afraid of crashing.  The average speed of the rider is also slower since the up hill climbs are started at a lower speed and are more difficult. 

The experienced rider will be using the hills to their advantage to gain speed and keep as much as possible of it to help them get up the next hill.  This is best illustrated when crossing through the many washes that desert trails cross.  These are fairly short, steep downhills, with some flat in the middle and a short, steep climb up the other side.  When done well on rolling terrain like where I ride, you can get across these washes with a minimum of rider effort.  Stay off the brakes the entire time and keep your speed all the way to the bottom of the climb out.  If possible, change to a higher (harder) gear across the flat so you can pedal slowly at a high bike speed.  On the climb out you might only need one or two pedal rotations to get to the top.  This is because you can use the speed gained by elevation change to get you most of the way up the other side.  You can use a high gear on the flat part to actually increase your speed so that you don’t have to switch to a low gear to grind your way to the top of the climb.  Done well, you can cut your time across a wash in half, with very little energy expended.

So how does this apply to Aikido practice?  Well, we manage energy in Aikido all the time (if we’re doing it right).  The attack is like the trail.  If a punch comes in, this is like energy you get from going down a hill.  You wouldn’t waste that gravitational energy by turning it into heat in your brakes.  Likewise, you wouldn’t try to stop the attacker’s motion only to have to use your own energy to start them moving again to finish your defense.  Instead, you receive the attack with minimal energy input of your own to redirect it in the direction of the intended defense.  Your input has to be at the right time and place just as your pedal strokes have to be in order for the result to feel effortless.

In terms of expert versus novice, the fear of an attack has an effect on how efficiently we deal with it.  As you are just learning technique, you go slow and try to get the position right, but you are not very efficient or effective at this stage.  As you lose the fear, it’s like allowing your bike to just run underneath you and flow up and down over the trail.  You become more adept at blending with the energy instead of clashing and dissipating it.  Once you stop clashing, you can find the point where a small energy input creates large results in terms of uke’s movement.  This is like those few pedal strokes at the bottom or top of a wash, easy if you know when and where to do them.

So, am I advocating that Aikidoka need to go out and ride their bike?  Actually, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  Just like any other knowledge or skill, novel applications facilitate learning and new brain connections.  You don’t have to be an expert bike rider or racer.  But once you get on your bike and ride around your neighborhood, you should begin to see how subtle body inputs can have significant impact on your experience.   Plus, it’s just fun….

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