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Life Lessons from the Trail #4: Balance is your Friend

Anais has always had a natural talent for balance. That skill has allowed her to do things that others wouldn't think of. It was also an important part of building her confidence in herself up.

Well, time flies when you're having fun... or when you're just busy. Since starting the Life Lessons from the Trail series at the beginning of the year, I've struggled to get these articles written consistently. And the reason for that is quite simply because things in my life have been unbalanced. Not recently mind you - I've had a number of things in my life out of whack for a while.

For a few of you that know me well or have been to some of my classes, you may have heard me mention that I have terrible balance (often to everyone's surprise). When it comes to my natural tendencies in life, I'm more of a foot flat to the floor kinda guy, historically having a need for speed (one of the reasons for the Danger Zone riding nickname) that doesn't always end well, both on the trails and in my life in general. Learning to be better balanced has been an ongoing challenge for me. But before I get into that, let me delve into mountain bike lore.

When it comes to dealing with technical features out on the trails, you may often here the expression "Speed is your friend". Or sometimes it gets translated into "Momentum is your friend." Whichever version you hear, the basic premise is that if you go faster, you'll be able to get through a challenge more easily than if you go slowly.

There are definitely some situations on the trails (and in life) where speed and momentum is not just something that can help, but is absolutely necessary. But that's not the whole story.

In some cases this is definitely true. In the case of a large jump you will one hundred percent need speed to clear the jump in the way that it's been intended. Or in negotiating a drop, going faster can lessen the amount of time you need to keep your front wheel elevated without needing significant input from you, while also keeping you stable. But in both of these situations, speed and momentum are actually helping to give you something that you need anytime you're on two wheels. And that is balance.

I won't go into the physics of why speed and momentum make it easier to balance on a bike - there are a few things at play there. Suffice to say that the slower you go, the less help physics and the design of your bike give you in contributing to your balance. And so staying up right becomes a question of your own ability to stay balanced on a bike. For many of us, that means cruising along at a speed where we're comfortable - fast enough to maintain our balance without any effort, slow enough that prevents our brains from stressing out at the possibility of danger. I'd probably call this our comfort zone - which is actually also a form of balance point and exists both on the trails and in other areas of our lives.

But what if you want to improve your balance, assuming that you've actually realised that it is something you should actually do? This is where it can get confusing for people who end up trying to go faster to improve their stability, often instinctively - myself included. This can and does work, up to a point. I've watched many a rider use what I call the bulldozer technique - hit it hard and fast to brute force yourself a way though a challenge, again both on the trails and in other life scenarios.

One of those situations where the "Speed or momentum is your friend" technique didn't work out. Alison didn't adjust her balance point, causing her front wheel to dig into the the tree root, well and truly stopping her forward progress.

When that works, it's fine. And it does actually work in many situations, especially with the modern mountain bike being able to compensate for a lack of technique. It's when something goes wrong that a problem arises though - because a higher speed means a bigger impact in a crash situation. And injuries, both physically and mentally, are generally worse at higher speeds.

But what if you could actually master balance without the need for speed or momentum? What if you were able to stay up right at lower speeds, or even stand still (or at least what appeared to be stand still)? And how would that actually improve your balance, stability and confidence at higher speeds or in more challenging situations?

To explain balance I like to refer to a bike riding skill known as the track stand. Applicable to both road and mountain bike riding disciplines, it's basically where a rider is able to remain stationary on their bike without needing to put either of their feet down. To people that don't understand the skill of track standing, it looks like a rider who is able to remain stationary has an absurd amount of balance. And they do, but only because they know the secret of being balanced - you're actually always moving, but not in the way you would naturally think.

The art or skill of the track stand comes through constantly having the bike in motion, but moving forward and backwards, as well as left to right, or performing a combination of those movements to stay roughly in the same spot. Actually, in mountain biking this can also be up and down as well. As you move in a particular direction, you're brain and body makes the necessary adjustments to keep you balanced. Initially while you're in the learning phase these movements tend to be distinctly noticeable, with over extended motions tending to throw you off balance. But with practice, your balance begins to improve and these movements gradually become so small they can reach the point of becoming imperceptible - at which point you look like you're not moving at all.

And that is the real secret to balance - making a series of continual adjustments so as to keep yourself in a centred position. But the benefit to this isn't just for when you're stationary. When you're negotiating a piece of technical terrain, dropping down the side of a steep rock face, or soaring though the air over a large gap - the ability to continuously adjust your body to stay balanced in the moment, even while moving at speed, is a skill that helps you both accomplish more and increase your confidence in handling more challenging situations.

It actually took me a long time to get the hang of doing a track stand for even just a few seconds. I found that I just didn't have a natural sense of balance and was prone to moving too far in one direction before I would fall over. And to be honest, one of the hardest things I had to learn was the ability to stop and deliberately roll backwards to adjust my position to where I needed it to be before controlling the forward motion - and then repeating. Because when you think you're trying to either move forward or even pause momentarily, going backwards can seem counter intuitive, even unnatural.

Balance in mountain biking is essential to achieve mastery of a variety of different skills. The same could be said of balance and skills in life. In both cases for me it requires constant practice and discipline.

It takes focus and discipline to overcome something that is difficult to learn. Even more so when you have to unlearn something that is reinforced in so many aspects of our lives - that progress is about moving forward. But like so many things, life and balance is not a singular black and white statement but a spectrum of grey that you adjust to for the situation that you're in. And you'll only be able to achieve this if you are aware that balance is a series of constant adjustments to keep you centred, and more importantly that it is more effectively achieved through constant practice.

Off the trails, balance in life can be even harder to achieve as there so many things in life that convince us to maintain our forward momentum. What we're taught as being important as we grow up, the expectations of others and society in general and these days, the projection of how we should be through a barrage of media at our finger tips can mask the importance of living a balanced life. Work and career, family and friendships, health and fitness, mental health and self-care, and taking care of others are just a few of the things we try and keep balanced in life to try and stay centred. And it's easy to neglect a few of these areas as we maintain momentum in others.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I'm not naturally good at balance in my life. And at times there has been a price to that lack of balance. When I was 30, focusing on work and family led me to neglecting my own health, resulting in triple lobe pneumonia which had the potential to become fatal. At 40, a realisation that I had been too self-focused on what I wanted from life at the expense of the needs of others caused me to spiral into the depths of depression, which took several years to rise out of.

Just after 6:30 on new year's eve in 2019. I still have a habit of focusing too much on work - one of the things that tends to throw my life out of balance. These days I've learned to wind down on the train trip home.

Even as I approach 50, while I'm more aware of when I'm getting out of balance, it is still all too easy for me to maintain forward momentum to try and drive through difficult and challenging situations, neglecting other areas of my life. But while it might seem ironic, taking a step back from those things that seem to need my constant attention and moving in other directions to maintain balance in my life is a key part of being able to be effective in what I do.

Often, challenges in life seem insurmountable despite your hardest efforts to to drive through the problem. But it's not always because you're not trying hard enough - it may just be because you're off balance and you need to regain your centre.

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