This is part one of a three part series on the psychology of arm pump by Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D. an expert in motocross psychology.
I think no one in motocross has discovered the real cause of arm pump or why it happens. After studying the mind of athletes and racers for over 15 years, I think that most racers never consider what I think is the real cause of arm pump. My theory on arm pump is that it is all in the mind.
Imagine this scenario…You are on the start line ready for the next moto. You have trained hard, sweated out 30 minute motos at home in practice, spent tons of money to get your bike just right, and you are now ready to conquer the world.
The gate drops, you fly out of the gate and grab the hole shot. Everything is going according to plan…as you check out from the pack. However, on the second lap, arm pump begins to sets in… your arms feel as hard as bricks, you can’t work the clutch or break because you can’t feel you hands – they are numb. You start to lose speed and get passed by everyone.
After the moto, you don’t understand why you can do a 30 minute moto in practice without getting any arm pump, but in a 20 minute race, you tighten up on the 2nd lap. Everyone agrees that arm pump slows racers from racing up to there potential. However, it seems like no one in motocross really agrees to the causes of arm pump or understand why arm pump happens.
I have seen many theories about what causes arm pump in the literature. Most, if not all racers and coaches, think that arm pump is a physical inadequacy due to lack of fitness or poor riding technique. Therefore, many people in motocross explain the cause of arm pump and its cures with a purely physiological or equipment explanation. I am certain that poor fitness or riding technique will contribute to the severity of or how fast you get arm pump, but the real causes start in the mind.
From my perspective as a mental game coach to professional athletes and motocross racers, arm pump is caused by a change in the racer’s mindset or attitude from practice to race situations.
I have worked with pro and amateur racers for over three years on the mental side of racing – confidence, focus, and mental preparation. Motocross is really a sport that is late to adopt and embrace mental training as a means to peak performance. I am not sure why this is the case, but I know that I have helped my students reduce and in many cases eliminate arm pump from their racing and vocabulary.
This is my take on arm pump… in a race, you put more pressure on yourself to succeed or win. This pressure causes mental tension or the need to try harder. When you try harder or race with high expectations, you try to be more perfect or correct, and this causes you to force the bike around the track, fight the track, and give the handlebars the death grip, which eventually leads to the physical symptoms of arm pump that many motocross racers have experienced.
What is Arm Pump?
Arm pump happens when lactic acid in the forearms, due to exercise, makes them feel like they are burning and tight. Therefore, as you exercise your muscles, lactic acid enters the muscle and gives a burning sensation when you are working beyond the anaerobic threshold – or the point at which lactic acid builds up in the muscles.
For the motocross racer, the hands tense up on the grips and gives you a feeling that they cannot be moved. There is an overwhelming sense of stiffness in the hand and it is difficult to work the clutch and the gas to the full potential. Sound familiar?
One of my motocross students said when he gets of the bike after a moto his fingers are so clenched on the grips that he could not even move them or take them off the handlebars. So why is arm pump so harmful? Obviously, you can’t have a relaxed and free ride if your hands and arms are permanently tensed up and in extreme pain to the extent that your muscles are working against each other.
When a rider gets arm pump, the issue becomes of greater mental concern to him or her. Why? Because it becomes a mental block for them, they think, “‘I’ve got arm pump’, ‘I have the dreaded disease of arm pump and I can’t do anything about it, this moto is done and I am down and out for the day’.”
My Theory of Arm Pump
I have read many theories about arm pump, most if not all focus on the bike set up or your fitness level. A popular theory is that your bike may not be set up correctly. For example, the suspension is wrong, it is too stiff and this causes you to hold onto the bike too tightly. Nevertheless, you have to ask yourself ‘why do I get arm pump in races when it never or rarely happens in practice?’ Based on my experience, this is the most important question you have to ask yourself.
My theory on arm pump is that it begins in the mind… with your race mindset. If you can ride a 30-minute practice moto and never or rarely get arm pump, but then only get arm pump in races – this tells me that arm pump starts in the mind with fear of failure, tension, or anxiety about the race. The reason it starts is that your mindset changes from practice to racing because practices do not count and the races do count.
Riders want the easy fix or a quick-fix solution to get ride of arm pump. Just take a pill and no more arm pump! However, without concerted effort and digging at the root cause, the mental game issues, they will never find out how to solve arm pump forever. None of the physical or equipment solutions address the main underlying mental game breakdowns that I believe is the real cause arm pump.
In part 2, of Arm Pump Solved, I discuss the real culprits to arm pump – the mental game breakdowns that lead to physical symptoms of arm pump.
This article was based on Dr. Cohn’s new CD program titled, “Arm Pump Solved: Mental Skills for Motocross Racers.”