Riders on the sleek, colorful superbikes of motorcycle racing have to be in far better shape than even their fans realize. When racing at speeds over 170 mph for an hour at a time, sluggards don't win.
"It takes a lot of flexibility to get the bike in the right position. There's no relaxation. You're actually up on the pegs the whole time. Your knee on the inside of the turn drags on the ground, your legs are working hard to control the bike. Your lower back, arms and chest muscles steer it," says Craig Etkin, one of the top club racers in California.
The knee is padded with a "puck," a two-inch thick rubber pad. Dragging it on the track allows the racer to lean the bike over to a lower angle, which means that corners can be taken at faster speeds, but the skill is in knowing just how hard to touch down.
Etkin lifts weights and cross trains on a road bike, like athletes in many sports. But there's one thing that sets superbike racers apart: the required mental conditioning, a factor that can also help athletes in every sport. Etkin says that kind of mental focus can only be developed while in competition, and that's where it should be practiced.
"When you're in the heat of summer, and it's 110 degrees and you're wrapped up in a leather suit, and you're on a motorcycle that's putting out 220 degrees between your legs; staying focused is a skill you have to develop on the track. There's really no outside training that can create that. It's a matter of seat time. There's no replacement for it," Etkin says.
He explains, "It's not about doing a thousand things, it's about doing ten things really well. Doing them over and over again, to develop the skills that you need to do well in a race. It takes precision, control and a calm mind."
The 37-year-old California software developer also studies martial arts, as do many of the elite superbike racers. He believes that the most valuable part of martial arts training is the breathing techniques it teaches.
"What has been most valuable is learning to pay attention to the cadence of breathing, because that affects heart rate. It's important to be able to manage the impact from the adrenalin that you get from being in competition. Breathing rate, heart rate, those things affect concentration when you are competing," Etkin says.
The biggest thing to concentrate on for mental conditioning is your emotions. It's more than controlling them, it's also being aware of them. Many people go into a race as if it were a grudge match. Bad strategy, Etkin warns.
"You may want to get even with another competitor, but that should not be your concern. You don't want to get caught up in a tit-for-tat with another racer, because it's not going to help you get ahead in the race. You have to be dispassionate. Yes, you're passionate, you want to go out there and win, but if you deal with things emotionally, it will cloud your head and you will lose," he says.
Even when you make a mistake, don't let emotion cause you to make more of them. "If you make a mistake, let it roll off your back and continue with your game plan," Etkin advises.
He points out that there is a lot of Zen-like behavior among the top racers, "They are aware of their body, their mind and their emotions in a very stressful environment. Anyone who competes like that has a better chance of winning."