March
6

 A Case for Ambidexterity…or Why You Should be Able to Ride Switchfoot

Ambidexterity in Practice – by S. Vockenhuber, 2013 – © M. C. Escher

This is another guest post from Jukka Maennena, a Finnish coach I’ve had on my podcast and blog before. He’s a really bright guy who is always thinking about things a little differently than most, which is why I’m always curious when he sends me a new article to check out.

In this one he makes a case for ambidexterity, or the ability to use both of your hands and feet to do things. I’ve been a long time proponent of the need for riders to be able to ride regular and switchfoot on the trail, which is why I was excited to see Jukka talking about and making a case for it in this article….

By definition ambidexterity is the state of being equally adapted in the use of both the left and the right hand (or leg). Humans are naturally asymmetrical, heart and liver aren’t located in the midline of the body, most of us have a dominate hand etc. Ambidexterity has interested me for a long time since it´s very rare, only about 1 % of population are naturally ambidextrous, and seeing someone perform a high-level skill with both hands, legs or sides is very impressing.

How does all this apply to mountain biking? You don´t need to have many seasons of riding under your belt to know that you and most riders have a natural riding stance which involves having either left or right foot forward. On top of this, some riders even have a better side for cornering. Although we often think that mountain biking is a symmetrical sport, but as it turns out it isn’t exactly the case. Sure, there are way more extreme examples such as golf, throwing sports, high jump etc. but that´s another subject.

Muscle imbalances and gym setting

A bit surprisingly though, on average riding doesn’t seem to develop any major imbalances. In a gym setting it´s rare to notice asymmetries that could be traced to riding. Of course, this can be very individual and your mileage may vary, but all in all, riding doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in this area. Structural and postural balance issues are another story though.

An interesting side note related to this is that high-level Olympic lifters do most, if not all, of their jerks only to one side. This means pushing the barbell overhead from the rack position – with significant weight – and catching it in a split squat position. As far as I´m aware of this doesn’t cause significant problems even in high volumes. Although the point arguably does exist when corrective measures become necessary or at least beneficial.  But all in all, it might be that asymmetries aren´t that important in strength sports.

Lessons from top performers 

Have you ever tried riding switch footed or just switch for short? Meaning that you´re using the opposite stance that you’ve used to. If not, a pretty fitting description for it is like writing with left hand (assuming you´re right handed) and being a bit nervous or even scared at the same time, depending on the situation and terrain. In plain words, it feels goofy!

The questions are, would you want to do this on regular basis and are there any benefits for doing so? Let´s take a step back and tackle both of these questions separately.

Let´s start with the latter one. I had recently a very interesting discussion with professional movement teacher and circus performer who has background in gymnastics, capoeira and floor acrobatics. To make it short, movement and skill acquisition combined are his expertise.

First of all, he made an interesting point that a lot of top performers in different type of sports have partly credited their success to the fact that they’ve taken the time to practice their sport with their non-dominant or natural side. This in turn, has led to a higher level in the long run. So far I haven´t figured out a fully satisfactory explanation for this other than that if you can do a somewhat high-level skill on your less trained side, you surely can do a lot more on your natural side.

Is this phenomenon based more on how the brain works and skill acquisition happens or just plain increased self-confidence? Hard to say and I´m not sure if anyone can answer to this questions with full certainty.

          I have a secret…I am not left handed…

By the way, did you pay any attention to the words “less trained side”? This is an important distinction. We don´t have good or bad sides, only sides that we’ve trainer or used more which leads to better performance compared to the side we haven´t trained.

On the bike

I’ve put this idea to a use and acted as a short-term guinea pig during the winter months. First, I’ve only ridden a hardtail bike which has been a very refreshing change! The snow packed trails (yes, the Finnish winter includes plenty of the white stuff, thanks for asking) are usually very smooth and therefore rarely provide the need for a full-suspension bike.

On top of the change in the bike choice, I’ve spent some time riding switch footed. Just by starting going through sections of trail here and there and slowly doing it more and more. I’ve even had couple of rides when I’ve paid close attention to ride switch only. It takes considerable attention though, since it´s very easy to fall into old habits that have been built over decade or so.

What are the experiences so far? Very positive to put it shortly! At times, it feels almost like a new sport or at least whole new skill. You can get a lot out of even from your regular home trails just by riding switch. A very pleasant notion was that the learning curve is quite fast. At first it felt a bit like being a fish on a dry land, but quite soon I could ride 90 % of the sections on my regular rides with ease and good confidence. On couple of occasions I’ve even had to think what is my regular stance? Although these moments have been brief so far, the experience has been very rewarding.

I can´t say for sure if this will make me a faster rider but I firmly believe it is beneficial in the long run. It´s hard to go wrong when trying to develop better bike handling skills and control on the bike, no matter which foot forward you´re riding. Riding switch definitely feels fun and rewarding and that alone is a good enough reason to give it a try.

On philosophical side

I´m a big fan of podcasts. Just recently a quote from Angela Duckworth hit me like a high voltage current: “Substitute nuance for novelty.” Instead of searching for the flashy new thing such as new bike parts (which are nice, I admit) or tackling a new sport altogether, try diving deeper into what you´re doing already. This separates the students of true mastery from the dabblers. Practicing riding switch can be a one way to do this.

This draws a connection the topic James has written about: Forging the blade vs. sharpening the edge. It´s a brilliant concept. I´d go as far as say that this belongs to the forging the blade category. Either way how you see it, I encourage to give it a go.

Practical examples

How to apply this to practice? Here´s one type of progression to use during regular trail rides or even downhill runs if that´s your cup of tea. You can progress riding switch starting from the following:

  • Track stands
  • Familiar sections on the trail
  • Pumping
  • Turns
  • Bunny hops (small ones, at least…)
  • Challenging and hard sections on the trail
  • Jumps
  • Manuals (if you get to this point, kudos to you!)

This should keep you busy, challenged and even entertained for quite a bit of time. Riding switch doesn’t need to become the new normal for you. It´s an option to have that can be employed periodically. Do whatever suits you and fits to your current situation and skill level.

Unfortunately, I can´t come up with any examples of pro riders who are ambidextrous, although I´m quite certain that there are some, at least to some extent. I’ve heard that Cedric Gracia does jumps and corners either foot forward but I´m not geek enough to confirm this from videos etc.

Hopefully this provided some fuel for thought, a new way to challenge you and keep you motivated to learn new. What are some other things that you can develop ambidexterity in? Brushing your teeth, writing or drawing, kicking a ball, throwing a knife, running your brakes “moto-style” or driving a car with a right hand side steering? Just kidding with the two last ones!

– Jukka Maennena-

If you’re interested in learning more about Jukka, his blog can be found at www.super-sets.com. The blog is only in Finnish, but you can check out a couple of his articles written in English below.

StrongFirst.com – Use Goal Cycling to Stay on Target
Bretcontreras.com – Inside the Mind of Bret Contreras

You can also follow Jukka on Instagram at jukka4130.

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