Reasons to ignore people when they tell you to look up on the trails

look-upWhether it’s a rider or friend giving helpful advice on the trails, a skills coach providing instruction during a lesson or even a professional rider giving riding tips in an on-line video, a common piece of advice is to “look up along the trail” so you can see obstacles earlier and read the trail more easily. The issue with this is it’s likely to slow your riding progress down.

It’s estimated that, of all the sensation we are exposed such as sight, sound, touch, smell, position of our joints, orientation to gravity etc, we are only consciously aware of about 20% of this information. A sizeable portion of the sensory information we are consciously unaware of is used to plan and control our movements.

When we’re learning something (whether we’re learning to walk, ride a bike, swim, play a musical instrument or drive etc) we initially have to think about our actions and it often feels as if there’s too much to think about. As we practice and become more skilled though, our central nervous system begins to delegate control of the movements to lower brain centres and centres in our spinal cord. This happens because:

1. we can then use our higher brain centres for thinking about something else eg we can think about what we’ve got coming up during the day while we’re riding or driving to work

but more importantly

2. these centres can deal with the information much more quickly and efficiently.

The more primitive parts of our brain have, in evolutionary terms, been around for a long time and are highly developed for the roles they serve as a result. If we consider reflex reactions, the average time it takes a human to react to a visual stimulus is 0.25 seconds while the average time it takes a human to react to a touch stimulus is 0.15 seconds. If we involve the newer parts of our brains (the cortical areas that make us different from every other living species and in which we do our conscious thinking) information is processed anywhere from 4 to 20 times slower.

So what does this mean for us?

As I mentioned earlier, when we are learning something new and have to think about it, it feels like there are too many things going on at once and we compensate by slowing our actions to a speed we can cope with. The problem you have when following the ‘look up’ advice is that as soon as you think ‘look up’ you immediately engage your visual cortex (part of the slower, thinking part of your brain) and this causes two main problems:

1. your reaction times slow considerably

2. you begin paying attention to visual stimuli when our balance and skill on a bike comes from our tactile senses


If you’re looking for evidence of this click the menu box in the SRAM Relentless series window below and select Brandon Semenuk: Wandering. If you listen for the first minute he repeatedly talks about knowing how he likes his bikes to feel. Next gaze in wonder at his riding before listening to Shawn Cruikshanks (Brandon’s mechanic – 4:50) recalling a day when he’d built Brandon’s fork but Brandon said it felt too high. When Shawn took it off the bike and inspected it – it was 4mm too high….the world dominating rider felt it was too high, his mechanic measured it then agreed with him.

So what do we do with this knowledge?

In short, to practice more effectively you need to think about how your riding feels rather than focusing on less productive strategies.  If you purposefully practice ‘feeling’ as you ride, you will naturally begin looking up as your sensory awareness improves and you subconsciously begin to delegate riding tasks to lower centres in your central nervous system.

Be more Brandon Semenuk.

If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite.



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