No Apologies

On Bicycles, Muscle Memory, and Making Changes that Last

Tue, Oct 8, 2019

I taught my son how to ride a bike last month, a week before his eleventh birthday. He got the hang of it quickly, perhaps because he already had good balance and coordination thanks to five years of tae kwon do. I taught him in spite of not owning a bike myself and not having ridden one for at least twenty-five years. We spent maybe an hour working on basics – how to ride without falling over, how to pedal and steer at the same time, how to start without me holding him up, etc. – and he pretty much took it from there. Soon he was practicing with his hand brakes to master smooth stops, and experimenting with his six gears, while I sat on the curb and marveled: Look at him go!

As far as I recall, I hadn’t ridden a bike since high school, and the bike I had back then had only one gear and no hand brakes; to brake, you pedaled backward. It was, in equal measure, humbling and exhilerating to watch my kid attain and then blow past my level of achievement in the course of a weekend, and I started to contemplate whether I should get a bicycle of my own again so that we could go for rides together.

So last weekend, when he wanted to bring both his bike and his scooter to the skate park near our house (he learned the scooter right before the bike, and is still honing his skills on both), I decided to test out a cliche. You know the one: “It’s like riding a bike, you never forget.” While he challenged himself on ramps with his scooter, I raised the seat on his bike and tried pedaling around the park just to see if I could.

I wobbled a lot, but I did not fall, and if you’ve never attempted to regain a long-abandoned skill while your kid shouts “You can doooooo eeeeeeet!” in the background, you’re missing out. By far my biggest problems were controlling my speed (I later realized he’d left the bike in sixth gear, so that makes sense) and stopping. Because even while I was entirely aware that his bike has hand brakes, my muscle memory from long ago kicked in and I kept trying to pedal backwards when I wanted to slow down, which was of course completely ineffective. A few times I resorted to putting my feet on the ground.

This got me thinking, though. The muscle memory of how to ride, how to balance, all that, was still in my body – and embedded with those memories was how to brake, which I will need to unlearn. I’ve already determined that in spring I will see about acquiring my own bike, and I suspect that a few hours of practice will be all I need to override the old movement habit with a new one. So long as I keep reinforcing the new muscle memory, it will take hold.

But that brings me around to bodywork, because what I’ve just described offers a perfect demonstration of a principle I learned in massage school: neuromuscular reeducation. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This is how neural pathways form and strengthen, and it holds true for conscious thought patterns just as much as subconscious movement patterns. When a client comes to me with chronic aches and pains, that is typically because they have longstanding physical habits – how they sit, how they walk, how they hold themselves – which are causing them strain. At first that strain was probably so minor as to be negligible, but over the years our patterns reinforce themselves and their effects accumulate to the point of pain. (See also Victims and Criminals: Decoding Chronic Pain.)

One session of bodywork can relieve that pain, but only for a time. Within a week or two, the effects of treatment wear off as muscle memory reasserts itself. This is why, when a client is looking to make a lasting change in their body, I advise treating the problem aggressively with multiple sessions close together for at least the first few weeks. Depending on the issue(s) and level of pain the client experiences, this might mean treatment two or three times a week, or it might mean once a week, but either way, I only recommend this frequency of treatment until the change starts to take hold. Once we’ve made enough progress, we can taper off from twice weekly to once a week, to every other week, to monthly maintenance sessions. If the client is also doing their own work to change their habits – incorporating new exercises and stretches into their routine, increasing their awareness of their posture to correct it when alignment is compromised – progress comes that much faster, and eventually treatment is no longer needed. (This is why I joke that if I do my job well, I put myself out of a job with each client. This is also why I will always need more clients.)

Our bodies like what they are used to; in physical terms, we are all creatures of habit. The familiar is safe and comforting, while the unfamiliar can be disorienting and scary. No matter how good you might feel after a massage that relaxes you and resets your alignment, left to its own devices the body will quickly revert to what’s familiar. The only way to effect lasting change is to get the body used to new patterns – this is what neuromuscular reeducation means – which takes time and repetition as well as effort.

But the good news? Is that once you’ve firmly established those new patterns, they become second nature. And then you’ll never forget them; it’s like riding a bike.