Over the years I have learned many important life lessons from riding a bike.  This past weekend I broke out my bike for the first long ride of the season and I am pleased to share that I learned one more lesson that I would like to pass along to you.  The point of the lesson has to do with what at first seems like a paradox–something that is completely counter-intuitive, one can work to be relaxed while stressed.
Because I’m somewhat of a bike nerd, I love to read articles about biking whenever I get a chance.  I read an article  this winter that provided the basis for the life lesson I learned last week on my bike.  This article said that many riders lose valuable energy during times of peak exertion–the very same time that they can least afford to lose any energy.  The article made the point that when a rider is straining his or her legs riding up a steep hill that there is a natural tendency for the rider to completely tense up his or her hands, arms, and upper body.  There is a tendency to grab the handle bars with much strength and thus to tighten all the muscles in his or her ‘s arms and shoulders.  This tensing of the upper body does not translate into any increased output for the rider’s legs, but rather it has the opposite effect.  Tension in the upper body drains energy from the lower body, where the energy is needed most.
The article went on to say that the art of riding well when a biker’s legs are stressed is to keep the upper body very relaxed and loose.  When I read this, I was intrigued.  I wondered if it was really possible to be relaxed and stressed at the same time.  I looked forward to trying out the idea and that’s exactly what I did last week.  Sure enough, I naturally did  exactly what the article said not to do.  Whenever I came to a hill or tried to accelerate quickly, I found that I immediately tensed my whole upper body–not just my arms and hands, but my teeth as well!  This reaction was automatic each time I exerted myself.
I remembered the article I had read in the off-season and for the remainder of my ride I tried to practice what I had read.  Each time I found my self straining my legs for either a hill or because I was increasing my speed, I worked  hard to keep my hands, arms, and jaw very relaxed.  I consciously deepened my breathing and loosened my grip on the handle bars.  I loosened my shoulders and jaw as well.  And guess what?  I could immediately feel a difference.  My legs felt stronger and most importantly I felt like I was riding more efficiently. I could truly feel a positive difference.  One thing I learned was was that if I consciously took the time to relax my upper body just before I began a steep climb up a hill the climb was much more manageable.
The application of my bike lesson to the rest of life is perhaps obvious.  We all face stresses and obstacles.Like you, I have plenty of things that can be stressful in my life.  Sometimes the pace of my work gets very stressful.  Sometimes I have to have a stressful conversation with someone I care about.  Sometimes I get stressed worrying about someone I love.  In all of these situations, remembering to take some deep breaths and at the same time to loosen my need to control the outcome of situation, has a very positive effect on how things go.  Whenever I know I am about to enter a stressful situation, I always take a moment to say a prayer and center myself.  It always helps me to approach the situation with greater calm and greater clarity.  In a sense, that’s what I’ll be doing from now on my bike as well.  I’ll be praying that somehow I can make it up the steep hill in front of me. And because I’ll be more relaxed going forward I will in fact have a better chance of making that prayer come true.
Please don’t take me word on all of this, though.  Try it out for yourself, whether on your bike, or the next time you are about to enter a stressful situation at work or home.

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