How Your Mind Works on a Motorcycle

Flow While Riding

Effortless.  Symbiotic.  In the zone.  Losing one’s self.

Each of these words and phrases are examples commonly used to describe what it feels like for a motorcycle rider to “be in the flow”.  In positive psychology, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

When it comes to riding, this euphoric state can manifest in a number of different ways that can be exhilarating, beneficial and often surprising.   It is a state of being that requires practice, assimilation, and a keen sense of intuition coupled with trust.   However, once harnessed, the power of flow can drastically up your riding game.

The Science and Psychology Behind Flow

Learning the background fn the fascinating science of flow helps tie together the powerful benefits that this mental state provides and how it could potentially aid in motorcycle riding performance.

According to writer Steven Kotler in “The Science of Peak Human Performance” (, the state of being in the flow “emerges from a radical alteration in normal brain function. In flow, as attention heightens, the slower and energy-expensive extrinsic system (conscious processing) is swapped out for the far faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, intrinsic system.” 

Essentially, those experiencing flow are able to hone in on all of their senses, allowing the mind and body to work together to creative optimal focus and performance.  Both mental and physical capacity is increased, due to hormone release and altered brain functionality.

This state of mind can be achieved by anyone, as commonly experienced by those immersed in an intensely physical or creative experience, such as musicians, athletes, and artists.

The term “flow” was adopted by Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970’s when he became a pioneer in the psychology world for studying this state.   He gathered people of all background and cultures and asked about the times in their life when they felt their best and performed their best.  Interestingly, every person mentioned being in a state of “flow” in response to this question.   Those interviewed consistently described feeling more fluid, collected, and able to concentrate readily during a state of flow.

But the science behind flow goes even deeper.  “A team of neuroscientists at Bonn University in Germany discovered that endorphins are definitely part of flow’s cocktail”, mentions Kotler, “So are norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin. All five are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemical.”

Not only does being in the flow help one function better but it actually feels distinctly better.

It makes sense, when applied to the sport of motorcycle riding, that flow could be an underlying contributing factor to the appeal of the activity.


The Benefits of Being in Flow

Along with practice and sharpening of riding skills, being in the flow is a useful method that can help create peak performance on the track.   Like developing a ritual and mantra, the experience of flow can give riders a renewed sense of confidence and enjoyment in the sport.  It can take riding to an entirely new level in which a rider feels a paradox of both liberation and control.

Because being in the flow heightens a sense of awareness in the brain, riders become more effective and, essentially, safer during their rides.  Whether on a track, a dirt trail, or touring along a scenic road, a rider becomes more attentive to hazards, the bike’s capabilities, and to their own limitations.

Overall, the researched benefits of flow include:

  • A sense of clarity
  • Sharpened intuition and instincts
  • Increase in muscle reaction times, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking (problem solving)
  • Improved mental and physical performance

According to off-road motorcycle racer Blake MacMillan “Psychology- based accounts of flow however, can sometimes be misleading because it locates flow squarely within the mind.  For practitioners, flow actually feels like turning off the mind.  It is about letting the external world crowd the space of conscious thought.  Flow is the ability to lose oneself to the situational demands of a task.”

As an example, motorcycle riders are taught the term “smooth is fast, fast is smooth”. One of the most common misconceptions in the sport is that fast riders accomplish actions on a bike much faster than everyone else, such as shifting gears, braking, and adjusting body position.

The truth is more in the fact that they are simply in flow, or “in the zone”.   What the rider experiences, even during times of transition or high-concentration, actually feels calm and like second nature.  There is a sensation of time standing still as senses and instincts take over and make split-second decisions for the rider.

Being in this state allows a rider to make steady movements that lead to a smoother, more dynamic ride.  For example, if a rider has to break suddenly, grabbing a fistful of front brake will only cause a crash. The same theory applies to handling the throttle. Most riders know that hitting the throttle too hard will put increased pressure onto the tire, causing it to slip from underneath if in a turn or if from a standstill. The dangerous end result is a backflip.


How to Get in the Flow

While oftentimes this state is achieved spontaneously, there are definitely tips and tricks to help boost the probability of getting in the zone.

  • In terms of motorcycle riding, don’t forget the power of practice and muscle memory. This means riding the track or trail until every curve, bump, and nuance becomes ingrained in the rider’s head.  Think of think this practice as pre-planning, one in which you don’t even have to be on the track to suddenly remember what it feels and looks like.   Perhaps you remember that on turn three you’ll brake, downshift, add some gas, lean in, and then shift up.  Map out the steps as if it were a kind of adrenlanline-laden dance. Remember that speed comes naturally after good habits are formed. They key here is focusing on pattern and repetition while connecting it all to movements of the body.
  • Another helpful practice is to engage in a form of functional movement training. This type of training helps you to isolate movements that are essential in riding and then commit them to muscle memory.   Relearning some of these basic movements can also prevent injury. Blake MacMillan explains functional training in this way, “To become a better rider, don’t choose a fitness routine that is based on the movements of riding. Instead, challenge yourself to learn an entirely different movement discipline.  movement training is not a means to improve at another sport; instead, the goal of movement training is movement itself.”
  • Prepare for your practices and ride by developing a ritual or mantra. This will help alleviate anxiety, subdue fear, and boost confidence so that your mind and body are more open to easily transitioning into a state of flow.  You can read more about this in our previous post.
  • Ride with intention. While riding a motorcycle is certainly a fun hobby, riding with intention can help ensure safety as well as enjoyability.   This means give yourself ample time for a ride so that you don’t feel rushed.   It also means being as prepared as you can be, in terms of equipment, route, and mechanics as well as mental and physical preparation.   The last thing a rider wants to have occur is finding themselves too exhausted or mind and body to truly get the most out of their experience.
  • Though time and practice you will learn to trust your instincts. This is that voice in your head that warns you of danger or situations that could be risky or harmful.  As Gavin de Becker, author of “The Gift of Fear” states “You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.”   Trusting your intuition and instincts is a driving force behind maximizing the state of flow.  For example, if your intuition tells you to slow down, watch out for something up ahead, or to adjust your body position, learn to listen.

The Thrill of the Flow

The impact of the moment of flow for a rider is unparalleled and often intoxicating.  It is often one of the experiences that brings riders back to the bike and the track over and over again.   Feeling at one with your bike, as if the bike is being controlled by a fluid external force, is often described as being akin to a “runner’s high”.

It’s an unexpected reward for the rigorous and concerted effort required during the most adventurous and satisfying of rides.






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