Ryan Dungey: 'I don't think there's a muscle that I don't use'

Ryan Dungey discusses the importance of fitness and the impact motocross takes on his body.

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.

Eight-time AMA Supercross and Motocross champion Ryan Dungey is not afraid of hurtling through the air atop a 220-pound machine. He is also apparently not afraid to pose for the world in his birthday suit. But roller coasters? That's where he draws the line. Dungey is currently on the mend after suffering a cracked vertebra in a crash at the Thunder Valley National in June. But before that, Dungey talked to Body Issue reporter Morty Ain about his training regimen, being a perfectionist ... and that nagging fear of roller coasters.

We use our legs a lot; our legs are always acting as our suspension. If you think about riding a dirt bike, you are hanging on to the handlebars, but you have your core and your lats trying to control the side-to-side and up-and-down movement of the rear. Meanwhile, your legs are working to push the bike to the ground and to grip the bike tight and squeeze. It's multiple areas and it's full body. I don't think there's a muscle that I don't use.

I definitely think the physicality of the sport is overlooked and underappreciated. Anybody who gets on a dirt bike would be quick to find out that it's a very hard workout. Nobody can see our faces underneath [our helmets]; our faces are beet red. Picture running up a steep incline at 5 or 10 percent grade for 35 minutes at a pace where you're dang near about to quit -- you're at your max and you can't take no more. That's what we're feeling when we're on a dirt bike. It takes a lot of suffering.

We get a break at the end of the season for five weeks where we don't ride at all and we let the body recharge. We'll cycle and all that, but then I hop on the dirt bike and I'm sore from head to toe. It blows my mind. I think we underestimate how much muscle in certain areas we use. It's really full body.

At the end of the day, I've been fortunate to race a dirt bike for a living. But it's a lot of hard work. We'll put in about 10 to 15 hours a week in training, and if you're not training, you're resting. And if you're not resting, you're training. So it's a 24-hour job.

Our outdoor races are 70 minutes, and usually those races are in the summertime, so you can bet that it's going to be hot. It will get close to 100 degrees out there. We have a lot of gear too. The bike might be 220 pounds, but then we have another 15 pounds of gear on average between your helmet and boots and everything. So you sweat a lot.

On our heaviest day out, I would say we're consuming anywhere from 6,000 to 7,500 calories. In one moto race, we're burning 750 to 800 calories. So in one race day, we're burning about 1,500 calories just racing.

Fitness is very key. These days, everybody is training, where before in our sport, everybody just rode. We spend probably on average 120 to 150 miles a week on the bicycle -- a road bike. We do a little bit of cardio every day before we go riding. Like today, we put on 30 miles outside in the morning. We do a lot of cycling because it's not a lot of impact on your knees as much as running would be, but you still get that good base endurance. I enjoy cycling. Growing up, I enjoyed watching the Tour de France and stuff like that. For me, I've always worked out and enjoyed fitness -- aside from all the racing and the riding. If I didn't do this for a living, I still would be active, I still would be involved in health and wellness and exercise. I like to be fit and lean and strong.

Roller coasters? Oh dude, I'm not a fan. I think it's a control thing [laughs]. On the dirt bike, I feel like I'm in control. But when it comes to all that stuff, my mind gets thinking too much. I will go on them. I'll go on a ride with my wife, but I'm not pumping about it. I'll put myself through it, but yeah, I'm scared out of my mind in those photos, and here she is with a big ol' smile on her face [laughs]. It's uncomfortable. But I'll take one for the team.

As a young kid, I got a little pudgy. I didn't like that; I think I felt a little insecure. I grew up in Minnesota. You can't ride a dirt bike up there in the snow unless you put studs in the tires and go out on the frozen lakes. Between the cold and being inside all the time, you get bored, so you're probably eating. We'd go snowboarding and snowmobiling a little bit, but you're not burning as many calories as you would be during the summer riding around, swimming in the lakes, jumping in the pool. Yeah, I got a little pudgy [laughs].

Joe Pugliese for ESPN

"I definitely think the physicality of the sport is overlooked and underappreciated." -- Ryan Dungey

I used to beat myself up a little bit. If I'm going to do something, I want to do it right. I don't want to half-ass it. I put in way too much hard work to just go out there and get second and third. I don't think it's a bad thing. I enjoy that, trying to get the best results and giving it my best.

Early in my career, I didn't know how to handle the stresses. How do I be there every single weekend? Then I started trying to control things and the expectations of all this stuff. That wore on me early in my career. But now it's like, "My best is my best." I put in the hours, so I know when I get to the race I've done everything I could. I'm prepared. What we practiced, apply it to the race. Have a plan of attack and go for it. Learning how to manage that was probably the biggest mental challenge for me.

My biggest body challenge is trying to keep it flexible and loose. Riding a dirt bike, you tense up. You are squeezing that bike real tight the whole time, whether you know it or not. Squeezing the bike all the time makes your groin really tight, so that's one of the things that gets overlooked in our sport. People think they can ride, they can cycle, they can run, they can do all these things and they don't have to stretch. Well, over time that starts to catch up to you; your body starts to get tight, you get sore and you're more likely to pull something. I've learned that a body that is loose and nimble and flexible -- whether you get massages or [do] stretching or yoga -- it will perform better.

I've been very thankful that I haven't had to go through a lot of injuries. There was a point where I was training and riding so much -- it was a good thing because I found the limits of what I could and couldn't handle. I was pushing my body to the limits. I was thinking that more was better. It hit a point where it just stopped, where I just said, "I can't do this anymore." That was my fault. I wasn't resting. I was overtraining.

Usually when injuries happen it's because people get fatigued at the end of a race. That's when mistakes happen, the mind starts to fade. So all this preparation is very important. Sometimes being stronger, healthy and more fit can be the difference. When you hit the ground and you're stronger, you can take more. That's why it's important to be in shape.

I've had some collarbone injuries -- broken collarbones and broken wrists and stuff like that. People think, "Oh, it's all fun and games." Yeah, a 450 bike has over 60 horsepower; if you disrespect it, you are going to find yourself on the ground. There's a lot of respect you've got to have for the bike and for the sport. You've got to be smart and put yourself in good positions and know what you can and can't handle.

Back in the day, all these guys at the professional level were older guys. Now it's like they are all kids. There's a lot of talent. The younger kids coming up, they almost bring the next level to the sport. They come into my class -- the 450 class -- where they bring more intensity, they bring more fire. You've got to understand that I have to rise above that every single time, constantly trying to bring "kid energy." You know when you are a kid you just always have that energy all the time? That kind of starts to go away as you get older. I don't want that to happen, so I train hard. There's just more up-and-coming guys, there's more talent, there's more competition. I want to do this as long as I can be on top. But the second that I can't, then it's time to walk away.

Related Content