There’s no doubt about it, cycling is a mentally tough sport. It can be an emotional roller coaster: one week you can be riding high from a good bike experience and then the next week you can hit rock bottom. The mind has the power to control so much of our experience on the bike. It can turn a miserable ride into an epic one; one that will stay with us for a long time to come, one that we can learn from and even brag about over a beer to friends. So how can we use the mind to do this? And what is mental toughness?
An athlete who is mentally tough has the ability to stay positive, can stay focused, is confident, and is composed. Being mentally tough is not just about getting psyched up, but also having composure. Top athletes can be under so much pressure, yet still able to perform with a lot of grace and confidence. I believe that our level of composure is part of who we are, but it can also be trained and improved.
Training the Mind
To develop as an athlete you need to go outside your comfort zone. For many riders though, as soon as they push the physical boundaries, the mind starts to wander and negative thoughts start to creep into their head. The good news is that mental skills can be developed to help control the mind. Here is what I have found to work for me and some of the riders I have worked with:
First of all you need to have clearly defined cycling goals. These need to be realistic and within the context of your life. And then second, you need to develop a sound training plan to help achieve those goals. Once these are in place and you believe in your goals and trust your plan, and have confidence to have discipline to do the work, then you can focus on the mental side of training.
Stay positive in your thoughts, actions and words because our thinking can drive how we feel. Outcomes and scenarios we tend to focus on can tend to become our reality. By staying positive can help overcome and erase any self doubt such as “I’m out of shape. I’m behind in my training.” Negative thoughts like these set you up for failure. Whereas positive thoughts can give you confidence, and it is from this confidence that can give you the ability to dig a little deeper when the going gets tough. This alone automatically helps minimize our weaknesses and maximize our strengths. Here are some techniques to help:
Trigger words are words to say to yourself that will help conjure up a certain feeling, emotion or visual. Select words that are very meaningful to you (such as fluid, relaxed, control, and strong). They can also be names or images of your athletic heroes or events that just conjure up a certain positive emotional feeling for you. Or they can even be lyrics to a song. One of my trigger words is from a car commercial that had a jingle; “zoom zoom zoom”. This immediately brings to mind a feeling of relaxation, smooth efficient pedaling and speed.
You need to practice using these words in training. So eventually when you say them they automatically trigger a feeling, emotion, or a reminder to focus and stay present. Having trigger words as a tool can take your mind off the discomfort and wanting to stop, and instead allow you to continue working over and above what you normally might be able to do.
Visualization. Once a week allow yourself to have a period of quiet time. It doesn’t have to be a big chunk of time, a few focused minutes can work wonders. This may be one of the hardest things you have to do! Use this time to practice visualization techniques. This can be a powerful tool to help keep a positive attitude, to help reduce anxiety and to bring about a nice smooth pedal stroke. You want to use your mind to “guide” your ride into a success.There are several types of visualization. The most common is the one is where you watch or see yourself (like you are watching the action unfold through a video camera) train or race and you visualize an efficient, fluid technique with a positive desired outcome. Take your mind to the ride location and visualize the whole ride scene from ride preparation to ride finish. Aim to visualize many aspects and details of the ride scenario (the terrain, the weather, fellow riders, etc.) Visualize how you hope to feel and what to expect.
Bring to mind a specific workout or race that went to near perfection and was a very positive experience for you. Think about all the details of how this race or workout unfolded that made it so perfect. For some athletes it may be a benefit to write it all down (there can be a lot of details). The goal is to apply these positive memories to your upcoming ride.
Stay Focused: During at least one workout a week practice staying focused for the entire time. These workouts are good to do on a stationary trainer or rollers. The goal is to have conscious control of your thinking and not let your mind wander (don’t think about dinner, work meetings, family, etc). Instead think about the actual workout, your heart rate, your technique, body position, and breathing. It takes a lot of practice to put on the “blinders” to help tune out distractions and focus on only the relevant factors. Over time it will become easier and eventually a habit. This focus on technique and breathing can help block out the feeling of discomfort and get you through the tough spots of a ride whether it is a strong headwind, down pour, or steep hill to climb. I recommend developing a check list to go through that will help remind you what to focus on and also trigger words that help conjure up feelings, emotions and visualizations. Here are some techniques to help you stay focused:
Check lists are a list of teaching points pertinent to you and they are a huge help with the following: -to focus the mind, -to stay positive -to reinforce good habits -to un-do bad habits -to remind us to relax and not waste energy -to focus on technique, which in turn helps us move with more efficiency.
How to develop Checklists: Checklists are personal. They should include words/terms that are meaningful and appropriate to you. The trick is to use the same words, in the same order every time. Having some sort of logical order makes it easier to remember. You can write the list down on a small card and tape it to your handle bars, or you can become creative and come up with an acronym. Here are some ideas for your checklist:
– Head position (especially if you are practicing riding a stationary trainer, remember to keep your head up) – Relax shoulders down – Open chest – Loose elbows – Relaxed hand grip – Steady breathing – Steady core to create a stable platform to allow your upper body to be still, and generation of power from the hips down – Stable hips (no rocking side-to-side) – Hips/knees and ankles all in alignment – Smooth complete pedal strokes – Relax toes, push down will ball of your foot, and let the heel drop slightly – Scrape the bottom of the pedal stroke, using your hamstrings as your foot moves slightly back in the shoe – Pull up, leading with the heel, feel the hip flexors working, feel the top of the shoe on the top of your foot as you think about throwing your knee up over the handlebars – Push over the top of the pedal stroke, feel your foot move forwards in the shoe, feel your quads and gluts working. – Think about pedaling back and forth (not up and down).
When to use check lists: The value of checklists can only be realized if you use them often enough that they become second nature. During a workout use them frequently; every 15 minutes so they serve as constant reminders on what to focus on. I’ve had really good success using checklists during racing, and this is only because I have used them often enough in training. It’s like having your own personal coach standing over your shoulder giving you some good advice. It makes you feel like you have an edge on your competitors. For me, the checklists have helped in half ironman racing, stage racing and in long tough bike races (especially towards the end on a final climb when you tend to fall apart because you are so tired and you’re just waiting for the finish line). The checklists would help keep me focused, keep my technique together and remind me that everyone is suffering at this point.
Counting pedal strokes is an excellent technique some riders use to get through tough spots, especially effective for time trials. Here’s how it works: count 3 to 5 pedal strokes on your right leg. Then count 3-5 pedal strokes with your left leg and then 5 pedal strokes without a focus on either right or left leg (this give the illusion of a rest period). Then repeat the counting sequence over and over. When you are focusing on the right leg, it gives the illusion that the left leg is resting, and vice versa. A lot of riders find that this technique not only helps to keep them focused and but they actually ride faster to.
Rhythm: Another counting technique can be used to help find a consistent pedal rhythm. Simply count up to an even number over and over again (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) or try a 2-syllable phrase such as “tick-tock, tick-tock”. This helps you focus on the timing of your pedal strokes rather than the physical effort that is being exerted.
Breathing: You will be able to reach your highest level of performance when you are at your most relaxed. The best way to relax during hard efforts is to focus on your breathing. You will need to practice this for it to be effective. This is harder than it sounds.
The more air we can get into our lungs, then the more oxygen can get delivered to our working muscles. The end result is an athlete that is able to ride longer and stronger without becoming anaerobic in their metabolism. In addition, focusing on your breath can take your mind off the physical discomfort. Some things to practice:
Exhale more completely. If you exhale more completely, it is easier to take a deep breath in.Widen your hand position. A 2 cm wider hand position will open up your chest and decrease the difficulty of drawing in a deep breath.Synchronize your breathing. Try to synchronize your respiratory rhythm to that of your pedal cadence. Use a 3:2 ratio of exhale to inhale (exhale for the count of 3 and then inhale for the count of 2). Belly breathing (also known as diaphragmic breathing). As you concentrate on deep breathing, you will push your diaphragm down this gives your lungs more room. If you are doing it correctly, your abs will expand out more than your chest.Use a checklist to help remind you to relax, especially your shoulders, hands, toes, and neck.
Set-backs and low moral: Races or workouts don’t always go to plan. Set-backs happen. The challenge is to stay positive. Use the above techniques: visualize, stay positive, use checklists to remind yourself of efficient pedaling technique, use trigger words to conjure up feelings and emotions, focus on finding a good rhythm by using breathing and counting techniques.
Repeated set-backs can lead to low morale and a bad attitude towards training and racing. Revisit your written goals and reasons for riding. Remind yourself that whatever is happening now, will not last and that things will improve and will not remain down too long so long as you can maintain some balance in your reactions. Expect that you will have low morale at times. If you expect it, you can handle it better.
In order for you to maintain good morale, you need to understand how you respond to different types of situations. For example, if you lose contact with the leaders during a ride or race; does that motivate you to try harder or to give up? There is not a right answer. Your answer gives you some insight to yourself as an athlete. And if you know yourself, you can minimize the negative self-judgments that can bring us down.
Conclusion We get used to training our bodies for the physical demands of riding/racing and easily forget that there is more to riding/racing than the physical. Mental toughness can be the factor that helps us reach the next level and fortunately mental skills can be trained. Just like the physical aspect of cycling you need to practice, practice and practice some more.