Learning How To Learn

As many of my readers (read: both) know, I’m also a martial artist. There’s a lot of cross-over benefits from martial arts to cycling: better balance, quick reflexes, explosive power, better flexibility for aero positioning, etc… not that I have any of those, but you know, I’ve heard.

But the thing that has helped more than any of those others though, is learning how to learn.

So um… what does that mean? Learning how to learn is about understanding how to not only acquire skills, but how to re-evaluate the skills you already have, so that the new skills not only compliment but enhance your previous skills.

When we learn athletic skills, we tend to do them… not well. That’s okay. That’s being a beginner. Then, we learn more skills, and then more, and the subsequent skills we learn tend to make up – to some degree – for the earlier skills that aren’t the best.

Bad fundamentals are like an unstable foundation: at some point, something’s bound to fail.

Problem is, those early skills – when not re-evaluated – become habit. They’re the base upon which we build everything else on. And yeah, you can build a Jenga tower on a couple of crossed blocks, but you can only build up so high on that weak foundation. Those new skills we acquire can often end up fighting against those old habits we’ve formed.

Instead, with each new skill we acquire, we have to be ready to tear down what we think we know. Look at what we’ve been doing with a critical eye, taking into account this new information. When you learn to do this, it’s like starting your Jenga game over again. Instead of a couple of blocks cross at the bottom, you lay those same blocks down side by side, in nice, neat rows.

As you continue to learn new things, you continue to re-evaluate those things you already know, and that foundation you’re working with becomes so solid that you’ll find it’s far easier to acquire new skills.

This is learning to learn. A feedback loop of evaluation and understanding that clarifies and solidifies your knowledge while allowing you to gain more.

And it’s not easy.

So… how do you begin? Select something that you never focus on, but always do. Like say, drinking water. I know that sounds silly, but it’s a basic thing that we forget can be improved. For example, a lot of people learn then practice riding in the drops. But then when they go to take a drink of water, they sit up. This immediately slows you down, can mess with a pace line, can throw off your own line, etc. So practice grabbing the bottle while pedaling, drinking from it without sitting up, and returning it to the cage without looking down.

Each learned skill is another block on the tower. It’s supported by the ones below. The lowest ones don’t just disappear when you build on top of them.

If you’re working on this particular task for the first time, you’ll find things like:

  • You have to adjust how you pedal in order to take/return the bottle
  • You might have to adjust how you grab or hold the bottle as you drink
  • You’ll have to balance being in the drops with one hand on the handlebar, maybe on the top-bar instead but still bent over in a dropped position

And more. So those other things that you usually do (ride with one hand, hold a bottle, pedal) are now being adjusted as you go back and work on a simple thing like drinking. This applies to all skills on the bike: how/when to shift, how to breath, when to eat, when to drink, how to take/put things in your pockets, and so on. As you start learning and practicing more complex skills (how to corner at speed, how to find a proper path in gravel, how to clear a tricky feature on a mountain bike) those basic skills need to be adjusted to fit into your new skill set.

Never be afraid to go back and work on the fundamentals of cycling. Remember: the strong the base, the taller the tower.