Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Motorcycle Training, Practice, and Muscle Memory.

So here's the question from Jay in the last post.

I will practice. I will take classes. But I don't think I will "train" like a police motor officer or MSF Rider coach. I would like to hear more about "training" as opposed to "practice". How much "training" does it take to develop muscle memory and is that much "training" realistic among recreational riders and commuters?

To me training and practice are two different animals. While practice does happen during training, not all practice has to be done in the context of formal training. Nor should practice be limited to those times. Muscle memory is based on repetition but the successful application of it, I think, depends less on deep seated actions and more on how long it's been since we last used the skill we're asking our body and mind to perform.

I want to at least try to keep this post fairly succinct. To that end I'm going to provide the skeleton with only a little bit of muscle filled in. When you're reading this and come to something you want more information on ask in a comment. I'll use another post to fill in more of the body, as it were.

Let's start with muscle memory.

When most people think of muscle memory they think of actions that have been repeated so many times that they become a permanent part of our subconscious. I guess the idea is that when a person finds themselves in an emergency situation the correct response will happen automatically without a lot of thought required. There's a lot of truth to this, for sure. While I'm certainly not an expert on the mind / body connection I have studied enough to know that there's more components to the formula than this. Besides, I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night! ( that's a humorous reference to an American television commercial for those of you in other parts of the world )

More on muscle memory in a bit. Here's a good way to think of the different settings for training versus practice.

Training teaches us what we need to practice.

Whether it's motor cops or civilians as shown in the two photos below, there's a specific reason for coming to formal training sessions. This brings us back to how muscle memory is formed.

Repetition is the process by which muscle memory is formed. The content, however, is a series of snapshots. Think of the flip books that used to be popular with kids. Each page would have a picture on it. By itself each page was static. Rapidly flip the pages, however, and the individual pictures start to look like a movie.

That's another aspect to forming muscle memory. What happens is that our brain connects a series of individual actions into a smoothly flowing whole. The process is similar to the flip book thing but a lot more sophisticated. What's equally true for both the flip book and muscle memory is that each individual picture has to be the right one to contribute to that smooth flow.

Can you imagine a flip book that has all these drawings of a black and white panda walking along the ground, for instance? We flip the pages and things are flowing smoothly. It really looks like a movie of the panda walking. Suddenly, right in the middle of the sequence, are two color photos of pink crocs. While pink crocs are certainly the rage in certain situations, they have no place in this sequence. Our movie is ruined because it's not what we want or need right now.

Training helps us make sure each picture in the sequence is correct for the plot of the movie. In my mind training is any situation where a person who understands what needs to happen can observe us and offer the appropriate feedback. So not all training has to be "formal", per se. It could consist of two riding friends meeting in a parking lot for a morning session, for instance.

Of course, the caveat is that both friends should actually know what each step in the sequence should look like and how to offer that feedback. Telling somebody that their last stop sucked, for example, isn't really helpful. They should be able to hone in on the specific spot in the sequence and offer tips on how to improve. This kind of training can be of benefit. Sometimes riders do know what SHOULD happen but might simply have become sloppy. It could be that a rider has also picked up a bad habit. Having a riding buddy watch us for a bit can make us aware where we've slipped to, as it were.

Still and all, there's no substitute for professional instruction. There's also the fact that advice we pay for can have more value to us than "free" advice offered by a friend! Under the watchful eyes of a pro we get feedback on every still photo and useful coaching on how to improve. We also know what's going right so we can concentrate more on the things that need work. Going back to the statement that training teaches us what to practice, one professional training session can fuel our personal practice for months to come.

Do you like the reference to "watchful eyes" and then the photo of the osprey? This is a bird nesting at the track where we hold our ART classes. She watches everybody pretty closely. It's hard to get a photo against bleary white clouds but I think the point comes across.

As a quick example let's look at maximum braking. I've posted this photo before. It shows a fellow instructor demonstrating maximum braking at 70 mph during one of our police training sessions. Note the head and eyes up, the fully compressed front fork, the slightly squashed front tire, and the lack of a skid mark! There is no ABS on the Ducati. This is perfect form for maximum braking but it didn't get that way by itself. This nearly perfect "movie" is made up of quite a few individual still photos.

Just to break the photos down consider these. Keeping the head and eyes up and looking well ahead during the entire stop. Smoothly rolling off the throttle while reaching for the front brake. Squeezing the knees against the tank to hold us in the seat and allow us to use the fine control of the smaller muscles of our lower legs on the rear brake pedal as opposed to the force of our thigh muscles. Ensuring that our initial application of the front brake is very firm, but equally as smooth. Modulating the feedback from our fingers and the feel of the bike to achieve a progressive squeeze throughout the application of the front brake. One squeeze until we're stopped. Not two or three squeezes like we often see. Making sure we nail the actual stop. Easing off the pressure on the front brake lever right at the end of the stop because we have a second opportunity to skid the front wheel when we're nearly stopped and the bike's weight starts to rebound off the front wheel which lessens our traction. Letting off pressure while making sure we don't let the bike actually lunge forward.

All the while modulating the rear brake pedal because, as the bike's weight moves forward, less traction is available for braking at the rear. Remembering to lift our foot as we squeeze more on the front. Light to lighter on the rear. Progressively more on the front. Move our toes up to meet our fingers.

This is if everything goes as we planned. We haven't started on the list of things that can go wrong and what to do about them.

During formal training ( and I'm talking about sessions for experienced riders here ) a professional instructor will actually be able to look at and analyze each and every individual still photo. The rider will be then be told which photos are properly placed and which need work. Along with coaching on how to fix those photos that need fixing. Armed with that knowledge we go back into our personal worlds and comment to practice.

Practice doesn't have to consist of doing the whole "drill" over and over. Yes, we do need to do the whole drill often enough to let the brain form the whole movie. It's equally critical to make sure each photo is right. Let's say the instructor told us we need to smooth out our initial brake application. Take a ride and dedicate it to practice being as smooth as possible whenever we apply the front brake. Maybe we were told we need to work on keeping our eyes up because we tend to look down right in front of the bike when we stop. So dedicate a ride to practice keeping our eyes up. Maybe take a ride and practice putting our knees against the tank when we apply the rear brake. You get the idea.

Once we're confident we have all the properly exposed photos in place then take a ride and practice putting it all together. Find a few opportunities to practice a quick stop in a safe place. You'll be amazed how it comes together.

People say that practice makes perfect. Take that a bit further and think "Perfect practice makes perfect".

I may be treading on questionable ground here, but I'm going to step forth anyway. Compare two riders. The first rider will practice a quick stop a hundred times in a session. The last few stops are picture perfect. Then, thinking they have it down, they never come back and practice it again. Another rider could practice five quick stops in one ride, five more on another ride next month, and so on for twenty months. They have both done one hundred repetitions. Who would be better off if an emergency stop were called for at the end of twenty months? The rider who did it a hundred times and then took twenty months off from practice, or the rider who practiced five times a month each and every month for those twenty months? ( we also assume they've both been very lucky during this time! )

I'd put my money on the second rider. That's the other factor in muscle memory. Our brains have long term and short term memory. As we know, there is only so much room in the short term file box. If we don't use something for a while our brain puts it into the long term box. Which is usually buried under something else. It's still there but it can take a bit longer to find than something in the much more readily accessible short term file box.

I'm not saying practicing a quick stop five times a month is enough. It may or may not be. What I am saying, though, is that the freshest correct memory wins every time.

The same applies to cornering sequence, head turns, being smooth overall, or whatever.

Most casual or recreational riders won't train or practice to the level of an instructor or a motor cop. It would be great if every rider did. Especially if we think of what's at stake if we get something wrong. However, every rider can, and should, make sure each and every still photo is correct for the sequence and that the movie is on fresh film!

Miles and smiles,



bobskoot said...

Mr Irondad:

all was fine until I got to that part about the Pink Crocs (tm) and lost all concentration. Will have to read the rest later

Riding the Wet Coast

Jay Green said...

Thanks Dan. Great post. Gives me a lot to think about regarding quick stop practice which I do too little of.

irondad said...


My point exactly. For somebody who actually wears pink crocs you "get it" amazingly well!

Take care,


irondad said...


You are welcome. Hope it puts the practice and training thing into a more practical perspective. Just remember that this discussion applies to a lot of riding skills and not just braking, as important as that one is.

I seem to remember something about you taking "Motor Man's" Ride Like a Pro course. Did they work on accident avoidance skills or mostly low speed handling?

Take care,


Raftnn said...

As always Dan a brilliant post, shit I get a lot out of your blogs. Some absolute pearls of wisdom contained in here.

And yes the 'pink crocs' remark didnt go unoticed!

Interesting comments about Muscle memory, a phase often used by my guitar tutor. It apllies to a whole range of things when learning new skills.

bluekat said...

"...our brain connects a series of individual actions into a smoothly flowing whole..."

Nice description. Reminds me of those first days where everything was little bits and pieces that made a rather stilted, jerky, riding style but that eventually flowed into a nice smooth maneuver (well, most times).

I'm betting Ms Osprey is waiting to make a mess on some noisy bike...or better yet, one of the riders interrupting her quiet afternoon.

Good post. Once again I find things that I haven't worked on in a while and need to give some attention.

Doesn't end does it - the practicing? :)

Anonymous said...

Dang, the photograph of the motor
cycle constable sitting/leaning forward ( where the person in shades and red jacket is standing)
looks down right uncomfortable!

As to pink crocs look at Conchscooter's latest.

Geoff James said...

That's a great post as always Dan. your piece on braking was particularly interesting. I'd add that when you buy a new bike, testing the braking characteristics is one of the first things you should do. When I went to the Street Triple, its light weight and short wheelbase unloaded the rear much more readily than the CBR 1100xx and I had to work at being a lot more careful with brake lever/pedal pressures.

Road Captain said...

Dan the Ride Like A Pro class was mostly slow low speed handling and just a little emergency braking towards the end of the class. I enjoy the slow speed tight turn stuff and practice that a lot more than my emergency braking.

BTW, I was on my way to a doctors appointment the day before yesterday and arrived at an intersection just minutes after a fatal motorcycle accident. A thirty year old man was speeding on a sport bike and as he apprached an intersection a flat bed truck pulled a left turn in front of him. I was coming down the road in the opposite direction and there was his motorcycle in flames about a hundred feet past the intersection where the deceased rider lay.

I definitely believe that knowledge and safe practice saves lives. I would never speed through an intersection. I slow down, cover the brakes and look for left turning vehicles to cross my path. I wish this guy did the same.

Allaina said...

Thanks for this! I have done lots of training classes but don't practice nearly enough. Thanks for pointing out the difference. At the end of the civilian top gun class I recently took, our MSF instruction emphasized that the course was designed to provide us with the skills necessary to practice and improve on our own. I get that now after reading your post. Thanks!

irondad said...


Thanks for the feedback. One always wonder if other find their writings useful!

Take care,


irondad said...


The reason you're smoother is that you have to spend less attention on riding since your body is doing more for you on its own. Great when that happens!

We never cease being students.

Take care,


irondad said...


She's a bit short for the bike.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for the kind words. I think a lot of riders should first check out the clutch release. I've seen and heard of several riders crashing first thing out of the parking lot.

First you launch properly. Then you work on the landing! Seriously, you're right for most riders. Each bike will be distinct in how it responds.

Take care,


irondad said...


I cringe every time I read or hear of things like this. It's so sad when you know a lot of it could be prevented.

Thanks for what you do in sharing and setting an example.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you so much for gracing my blog! It's an added pleasure to hear the post helped gel things for you. My helmet is off to you for the regular training you attend.

I've bookmarked your blog, by the way. Looking forward to having a good root around over there.

Take care,