TTs: the race of truth. Nowhere to hide. Just you and the road and a target time. Doubtless you’ve dialled in that position (aero is everything, right?), you’ve spent all winter monitoring those watts, tracking that heart rate, nailing those intervals, finessing your nutrition, upgrading moving parts and fine-tuning your bike for optimal race performance. Body and bike race ready. But what about your brain? How much mental training have you done and do you have a mental strategy for that 10, 25, 50, 100 or 12 hour challenge?
In elite sport there is of course an emphasis on improving technical ability and fitness but pro cyclists find the real marginal gains in improving their mental skills.
It’s no coincidence that both Team Sky and British Cycling riders are supported by renowned psychologists who help them to reach peak performance at the moments when it really matters. Sports vary in how much technical skill or fitness is required but success is so often enjoyed by the athlete or team with the better mental skill.
Mental skill is made up of concentration, will and emotional balance. So to get your mind as ready as the other components here are some top tips on those three areas. Remember mental strength has to be practised – just the way you consistently train your body, so you must train your brain.
WHY THE HELL AM I DOING THIS?
When you’re at that point in the TT when the only thing that doesn’t hurt are your eyelids remember why you’re doing it. What is your motivation? What is your ‘why’? How strong is your will? In short, how bad do you want this?
You are less likely to ease off the gas if your motivation is intrinsic – that is, if it’s for personal, internal reasons rather than if your drive comes from external motivation, such as the need to impress your dad or win prizes. So think about your true reasons and the more it matters to you personally the stronger your mind will be when the physical part gets tough.
Closely linked to this is your goal. Setting a goal for a specific race or a full season will benefit your performance significantly. Make goals specific, attainable yet challenging and they will act as point of reference: you know when you should peak and can calculate what you should do to get there. It also provides the comfort that you do not always have to be at your best.
Riding alone is considered the hardest mental discipline. Research among shows that riders perform worse when alone, compared to when riding in a group, even when controlling for outside factors such as slipstream advantage.
The theory is that cycling in groups makes the competitive element more directly visible: you can see how you’re doing in comparison to others. If you have good legs, this comparison will boost your confidence, stimulating even better performance.
Visible competition with others helps you to focus on the competition or training that you are engaged in. Focus is extremely important.
Optimal performance is only possible if you are able to focus fully on the race. The risk, when riding alone, is that you let your thoughts drift, displacing your mental (and consequently physical) energy to other areas.
Even more dysfunctional, but also very common in solo cycling, is to start focusing on your body instead of the race. This internal focus intensifies feelings of physical discomfort, and consequently reduces your ability to withstand the pain.
Whenever you feel yourself becoming distracted and absorbed in internal sensations, it is vital to refocus on the race and the road. One brilliant strategy to keep focus and to manage the inevitable pain is to focus on your breathing. Many pro cyclists are now using mindfulness techniques to great effect for improving focus and pain management. Paying attention on our breath takes us away from the inner mind chatter that all too often is screaming at you to ease back when it’s hurting. Your brain is designed to protect you against pain so that voice that wants you to slow down isn’t trying to sabotage you – and you’re not weakening – but the key is to give it no attention. Focusing on your breathing, on your body means you can’t listen to the internal voice.
Practise this at home. Sit straight and relax. Now focus on your breathing for a full eight minutes. Pay attention to how your breath moves in and out. Your thoughts may wander; if they do, calmly bring the focus back on to your breathing.
This task — when done repeatedly — trains you to sharpen your cycling focus. When you feel your focus drifting while in the saddle, having practised this mindfulness technique, you will be able to shift your thinking back into focus quickly.
OWN YOUR ZONE
A close relationship exists between performance quality and intensity level: your performance may be poorer when your intensity level is too low (perhaps because you feel tired) or too high (perhaps because you’re overexcited). One technique I use with clients is an ‘arousal dial’ (steady, it’s not like that!). It’s an effective means for helping a client into the perfect state for performance. It helps them throttle up or down to find the right intensity.
Also, when you are truly focused you enter the ‘zone’; that flow state you may have been lucky enough to experience. It’s an unconscious state when you are totally in the present, with no awareness of distractions or even time and utterly absorbed not giving a thought to mechanics or paying attention to internal chat and it just … flows.
I work with my clients to develop a technique called the ‘zone dome’ which provides them with mental tools to create this feeling. It’s a portable skill that you can learn to pop into whenever needed. If you’re interested in how to create your own zone dome, drop me a message.
And don’t forget to develop a mantra. This is a word or phrase that you’ve created to help you feel epic and to keep those self-doubt demons at bay. It’s easy to feel confident until you rock up to register and you catch sight of the ‘competitors’. Maybe you start feeling intimidated or let self doubt creep in. Maybe you’re new to this, maybe you’re taking part in your first regional or maybe it’s just been so damn long since we were last here that nerves are getting the better of you.
They key here is to come back to your mantra. Develop a mantra, in self belief, practise it at home repeatedly until you’re sure it works. If it doesn’t work change it till it does.
Imagining an optimal performance is a great way to ensure you nail it on race day. When we mentally rehearse a skill we actually fire off the same neurology as if were were actually doing it. So it goes further than just making us feel confident and increasing self belief, you can literally create a neurophysiological blueprint for enhancing your performance.
Create a clear mental image of what you want to achieve in a race. When visualising your ideal race, include the sights, sounds and emotions that accompany the experience. Make this picture as rich as you possibly can. Increase the colour, turn up the sound, bring it into sharp focus, really feel the adrenalin. Strive to experience the action from your point of view – what it feels like to stand in the starting area, feeling calm and composed; and what it feels like to cross the finish line feeling strong and happy. See it through your own eyes.
On race day, what’s your body language saying? Is your chin up, shoulders back, chest out? Research shows that holding your body in confident postures for only a couple of minutes can produce elevations in testosterone, decreases in the stress hormone cortisol and increased feelings of power, as well as tolerance for risk when it’s needed.
Remember mental strength is something you practise and train just as you do physically. So don’t leave it till race day to put performance psychology techniques to the test.
If you have any questions about anything mentioned here or think you’d benefit from one-to-one coaching don’t hesitate to message or call me.