An Adrenalin Rush. Really?

Getting your Buzz

This article is about a little bit more than its title might suggest. The topic is one of my real bugbears so I'd like to put a dent in the myth and get you thinking about it. I especially want to get you thinking about your relationship with fear and anxiety. It is an area where I have seen extraordinary transformations in performance so I'd like to share it with you.

Most people who have been around Motorsport, motorcycle racing in particular, or any other extreme sports for that matter, will have heard someone mention that it's all about the so called adrenalin rush,  how the sport is adrenalin fuelled or something like it. This adrenalin buzz is often associated with optimum performance. I've even heard it being said that it's the adrenalin kick that helps riders to ride through the pain barrier for an entire race when they're injured!

The Origins

In terms of history, it is quite difficult to identify the exact source for this assumption about adrenaline in psychology but there are some contenders. The main ones probably being:

There was some research done back in the 1960s by a psychologist called Zuckerman. He suggests that there is a particular personality type that seeks constant novel experiences. He called these people sensation seekers. As a result of this research, risky behaviour is written off as a personality trait where athletes involved in dangerous sports are basically considered the same as alcoholics or drug addicts.

According to health psychology, anyone that does something dangerous out of their own will is abnormal and that they therefore need treatment. Basically it is assumed that we are hardwired to keep ourselves safe and if we don't there is something wrong with us. It is also presumed that any activity that is considered dangerous will simply fire off our natural 'fight-or-flight' response which means running on adrenalin.

Based on my own personal experience of being involved in many different types of action sports and research which includes the experience of top level athletes in this area, I think the theories are actually way off the mark. I think it is really unfortunate.

So whilst these theories have largely been accepted in mainstream and popular psychology, how does it really stack up? Lets look at what these activities are and what they demand and see where it takes us, shall we?

The Activity

Firstly, motorcycle racing, other Motorsports and extreme sports typically require an extraordinary amount of skill. They also require a lot of focussed and dedicated training and development which is often long term. You don't just jump on a MotoGP bike having never ridden before and set lap records (although this would scare you silly!). As you'll be aware, the top racers, particularly those from Europe, will often start off on mini motorbikes in their early days, moving up as they get older and develop their skill. The skill and ability demonstrated by these athletes does not simply arise out of nowhere, nor does in it any way equal the kind of self-harming behaviour associated with certain types of addiction.

Secondly, the reporting of top level racers and other athletes in extreme sports, puts their experiences at the opposite end of the spectrum. They do not perceive their experience as stressful or frightening while they're doing it - unless they're having a really bad day. Instead they often report that when they're performing well, they're calm, relaxed, have lots of space and time, they can think clearly and they have a good awareness of the environment around them. I recall listening to the late Isle of Man TT legend, David Jefferies, describe how at a section of the TT circuit when he was running at just under 200 miles per hour, he could have a break and relax for a bit. He experienced this as slow! He also used to describe how he raced at the TT with a margin of error which clearly shows massive awareness of riding capability and limits along with the ability to think and be aware of it in the heat of the moment.

Likewise, many years ago, Neil Hodgson described that when he rode fast, it felt slow to him but when it felt fast, it was usually slow (and a bit scary).

Similarly, a racer I coached a good few years back described once how, through a 110 miles per hour corner with his knee on the floor, it was so calm and quiet that he had time to look over towards the horizon and notice how smoke from a fire far away, rose and curled up into the clear blue sky. He said it looked really beautiful. He had this experience while he was leading a race. I don't know about you but none of this seems to ring any warming bells of 'fight-or-flight' stress!

A few years back, there was a documentary film about extreme sports on Channel 4. In this documentary, they measured Guy Martin's physiological response to riding his superbike. The increase in his heart rate while riding was consistent with the physical exertion involved in riding. If he had been on an adrenalin high his heart rate would have spiked much higher, beyond the necessary heart rate for the amount of activity he was doing.

The Symptoms

Typically, there are a number of very clear signals that we've entered into an adrenalin rush - the stress response or 'flight-or-flight.'

The symptoms include raised heart rate which is often perceived as thumping, faster but shallower breathing, tension of muscles, including shakiness. Thoughts will become unclear or we might feel that we can't think quite straight and that we've gone into a sort of autopilot. The fact of the matter is that in this "fight-or-flight' mode we do not and cannot think straight. When you are racing a motorcycle you absolutely need to think clearly and straight.

I think that just on this basic level of experience, we can safely discount the adrenalin rush myth as it applies to elite performers. But this doesn't mean to say that many of those in the racing paddock don't experience this adrenalin rush.

I was asked by a car racer to help with pre-race nerves. This racer found himself so anxious at the start line that it could take as many as three laps to calm down and get into his rhythm. By then, of course, it was too late to really compete for the win.This for me would be much more representative of a 'fight-or-flight' adrenalin rush. This racing driver had been taught by someone else to control the fear and suppress it, but wanted some input on why it hadn't helped. I suggested getting to know the fear, getting a real sense of it and exploring where it felt like it needed to go. We had a 15 minute pre-race talk to deal with this and there was an immediate benefit. Start times improved dramatically and he was able to get into it within the first few corners.

I find it particularly common at the motorcycle club race level but also at national levels. It is not always completely obvious and a bit of awareness around the other symptoms I think can be helpful.

I was asked by a racer to help in the transition between a 600cc bike and a 1 litre bike. I have helped a good few racers to successfully develop new bike relationships. When I arrived at the circuit, the racer was having a sweet snack. A chocolate bar or something. We sat down to talk and the racer described to me the need to keep grazing when they were at the circuit because this was important for keeping up energy levels. After this, the racer told me about some ongoing problems with heartburn, indigestion and feeling bloated. During the day the racer was eating quite a lot of snacks, way more than you'd normally expect to compensate for energy expenditure. Although this racer came across as totally calm and confident, I wasn't quite so sure. When we spend a lot of time in higher states of stress it affects numerous important internal organs, including our digestive system. The stress response fuelled by adrenalin can actually shut down digestion completely. It also affects our appetite, making us eat too much or too little. So I began to see a picture of stress that this racer was not very aware off, other than in terms of nervousness about the new bike. I spent some time talking about a wide variety of things, but with calming and relaxation as a subtle topic. The result was that the racer did find good feeling for the new bike that day. Unfortunately, we didn't get the opportunity to work any more on the other aspects for more long term benefit because the racer didn't relate to the issue.

In a very similar sense, I have come across numerous racers who simply cannot eat when they're at the races, and sometimes this lasts for the entire weekend. I have seen this at a national level where this can be a problem too and I find it a really good marker to understand how well my coaching is working with a racer. As we progress, they usually find either their healthy appetite returning or a new one developing that allows them to eat and digest when they're racing. For me, this is extremely important for performance and their wider wellbeing.

The mechanisms around 'fight-or-flight' are complex but it is possible for us to simplify them down to a few key things for better understanding. 'Fight-or-flight' is a protective measure. It is believed that it is there to keep us alive, giving us a very simple choice. A boost of energy to allow us to run away very fast, or to allow us to attack an immediate risk to life. The fight choice is often described as being for fighting off an attacker but it has also been seen to work in accident situations where somebody has momentarily found extraordinary strength to lift something of a person, for example. This response, however, is very quick. The adrenalin kick only lasts for a very short time frame - seconds - but the after effects can take a long time to resolve. This is evident when we experience a sudden fright, we experience a surge of hormone followed by a settling over a period of time while our systems settle down. The way adrenalin works in this context is not to sustain an activity for longer periods of time, even a short 8 lap club race. However, without wanting to complicate the issue, the body does release small amounts of adrenalin during endurance activities but this has nothing to do with fear so it is a totally different mechanism and shouldn't be confused with it.

Unfortunately, if we remain in a state of heightened anxiety, our mind and body start functioning differently which can be damaging to our overall health. For example, we can develop long-term anxiety, mood swings, even depression. We can find ourselves with high blood pressure, poor digestion and our immune system takes a hit and weakens, making us more susceptible to illnesses.

The Relationship

The top athletes in dangerous sports are aware of fear. The best of them don't tend to report that they 'control' it. It is more like they have a positive relationship with it that helps them to perform. For me this is a very important distinction. If you are about to race at, for example, the Isle of Man TT, I think it is reasonable to expect there to be some fear ahead of time. Some racers get it so badly that they're sick before the race and many report going into a different state of mind and get themselves some space. What then happens is that as soon as they're off, this fades away and they're fully present in the moment of racing. To me this process does not mirror the 'fight-or-flight' experience. Many elite extreme sports athletes report that they are always aware that fear is there with them but it doesn't intrude on their performance or awareness. They feel that this helps them.

My view is that fear and anxiety do play a central role in performance in motorcycle racing and other extreme sports and this reality needs to be accepted. It isn't however, like it's pedalled in popular psychology. I tend to view it as a relationship that needs nurturing.
So, basically, motorcycle racing both is and isn't an adrenalin rush. At the elite level racers definitely aren't adrenalin junkies. When it is an adrenalin rush, it is a problem and a hinderance to performance and this can be found in every paddock! The after effects of an adrenalin rush are usually pretty unpleasant so when we get that very special buzz from riding at our best, it is actually whole load of different chemicals being mixed in your system!

(Image credit:Sepang_Test1_Day2_T4_MM_1 by Francesco Piasentin licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)