Exercise scientists and sports psychologists instil in elite cyclists the mind tricks to help them focus, overcome defeat, bounce back from injury, cycle further and stay motivated. Here are their tips to help overcome the common psychological hurdles of
The mind tricks used by experts to help you overcome cycling’s common psychological hurdles.
PROBLEM: Performance Anxiety “Whether it’s a Team GB elite rider or a club cyclist, everyone suffers from nerves or anxiety,” explains Michael Caulfield, a sports psychologist with over 30 years’ experience dealing with elite athletes, and advisor to wiggle.co.uk. “I’ve learnt, through conversations with some of the greats in cycling that asking for help is a sign of genuine strength.”
SOLUTION: Team Talks “One of the first things to do with anxiety about your performance is to open up about it – find someone in your support network, a fellow rider, who you can discuss it with. This way you can normalise the fear and rationalise it, in the same way that you might discuss a technical point or ask for a kit recommendation. Talking through when your anxiety arises, how it manifests itself, what effect you feel it is having are all key to dealing with it. Chances are other riders will experience a similar attack of nerves or anxiety about their ability.”
PROBLEM: Race Nerves “We can all suffer with a level of pre-race nervousness and when it’s controlled that feeds into your focus,” says Dr Victor Thompson, triathlete and clinical sports psychologist ( sportspsychologist.com). “Often the anxiety can stem from what’s beyond our control – the weather, a change in race conditions, or a sudden attack of self-doubt and ‘what if…’ scenarios.”
SOLUTION: Checklists, Not Changes “Many athletes use a pre-race routine – part preparation, part superstition – from tactile actions that help focus the mind; packing their kit, checking their bike and shaving their legs to more mentally focused activities such as visualising the race, the route and how it’s going to go, to help overcome nerves,” explains Thompson. “Check you’ve got all your nutrition, training and bike setup dialled-in – this can help reassure you mentally that you’ve done all you can in your power. Avoid making any changes to your race-day routine and if needs be use imagery of yourself overcoming any scenarios – mechanicals, a crash, or falling behind.”
Thompson suggests the checklists don’t stop before the ride. “After an event, review what went well not just what didn’t. Elite athletes will take positives from each session, reassuring and reaffirming that their training and progress is on track.”
PROBLEM: Status Insecurity Social media brings many benefits to the cycling world. From sharing the latest pro cycling news via Twitter to organising a ride with your Whatsapp group, it’s becoming our favourite way of avoiding work. But there’s a serious side to this culture of sharing that Thompson is alarmed by. “From Strava to social media the peer pressure to rack up miles can overwhelm riders and push them to burn out,” says Thompson. “I’ve seen several who’ve struggled to get balance in their life, not allowing the body to recover, and have just plateaued.”
SOLUTION: Reality Checks “We need to step back and remember that few riders post about the easy sessions,” says Thompson. “They don’t brag about recovery rides, wind down efforts, sleep and the mundane but important elements that protect your body from infection and ensure you’re able to ride regularly.”
PROBLEM: Addiction To Cycling “When cycling becomes the be all and end all, that should be a warning that something’s wrong – but when it gets to that point you may not be able to see it that way,” says Caulfield, speaking about how athletes become obsessed with performance. “I’ve seen it in those who haven’t developed an interest beyond their sport and so, when not performing, they’re worried about the next training session, body fats, weight – they lose perspective and balance in life.”
PROBLEM: Ridden Off The Road The physical injuries may have healed but the mental scars of a major crash can cloud your judgement and distort your focus when you get back on the bike if not addressed properly. “Fear can trigger biological reactions – diverting bloodflow, unsettling digestion – which will affect performance,” warns Thompson.
SOLUTION: Recovery Rides “Don’t pick up where you got hit – I mean in terms of speed, distance or importance of ride,” says Caulfield. “If it’s an accident so bad that you’ve been off the road for any length of time you need to re-start small and slowly as soon as possible.” A private road or safe space away from traffic is ideal to get up to speed again. “Physically you need to feel comfortable and mentally you need to restore your confidence, get familiar with handling the bike and ensure that when you return to a busy road or pushy peloton you’re prepared.”
”The physical injuries may have healed but the mental scars of a major crash can cloud your judgement and distort your focus when you get back on the bike”
SOLUTION: Audit Time In more severe cases of those addicted to exercise to a point where it dominates your thinking, changes your behaviour, affects your mood and even causes resentment or conflict within other aspects of one’s life, cognitive behavioural therapy is used to help deal with the addiction. If the symptoms are there, you can start to evidence it – record the time you’re devoting to your rides compared with other demands in your day or week. How do you feel when you miss a session? What happens to your behaviour?
“Reflect upon your training habits and the impact they’re having,” suggests Caulfield. “It’s the starting point to managing your balance better. Cycling can be an amazing release from the daily grind, but you don’t want it to create a whole new set of circumstances that cause you to feel pressured, stressed and in conflict.”
PROBLEM: Peloton Plateau Non-functional overtraining – when that balance between training load and recovery is skewed and your performance just gets worse – isn’t solely a physiological condition. Although many symptoms are physical – greater susceptibility to illness, insomnia, getting dropped on easy rides – there are mental cues and cures too.
SOLUTION: Talk Back Irritability and mood swings are not uncommon among riders showing signs of non-functional overreaching – fatigue to some, or just knackered to others. But as Professor Samuele Marcora’s, director of research at the University of Kent’s School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, studies have shown, cyclists can push through and last longer in the saddle thanks to the power of positive self-talk.
“Adopting an ‘I can’t go on’ approach can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the saddle,” says Marcora. “You need to convince yourself that exercise feels easier than you perceive it to be.”
In his own trials riders spent half an hour writing down self-talk statements and choosing favourite motivational statements; two for the early stages of the ride (such as, ‘I feel good’) and two for the later stages (such as, ‘push through!’). Over several weeks the cyclists honed the statements that worked best for them and fought off exhaustion for longer than a control group who didn’t self-talk.
” Irritability and mood swings are not uncommon among riders showing signs of non-functional overreaching – fatigue to some, or just knackered to others“
PROBLEM: Lost Focus “Research shows that fatigue can have a negative impact on performance, not just physically but psychologically too,” says Marcora. In his own trials he discovered that endurance time decreased by 12 per cent after participants had been mentally fatigued, while a review of 11 studies published in the journal Sports Medicine confirmed that when mentally fatigued, overall performance in endurance and high-performance sessions is negatively impacted.
SOLUTION: Sharpening Tools “Multitasking, task-switching is mentally demanding, and prior to a ride it can overstress the mind,” says Marcora. “Just as you shouldn’t arrive at a race physically exhausted, you shouldn’t be mentally fatigued either.”
Simplify your build up to a race, get time off work if you can, avoid taxing tasks and have friends or family help with travel and logistics. “Practising good sleep hygiene – turning off gadgets and getting plenty of sleep – has been shown to help athletes’ preparation,” adds Marcora. “Taking mental breaks during the working day and even rinsing your mouth with a caffeine-containing sports drink before a training session has been shown to counter cognitive fatigue.”
PROBLEM: Road Rage Social media can add a level of healthy competitiveness to your routine. “It’s useful for setting goals, holding yourself sociably accountable, which is positive, unless you don’t achieve them,” says Marcora. “It can also be an emotionally charged, angry place.”
Whatever response it provokes, Marcora’s advice is not to bottle up any emotions, as research shows that can ruin a ride. He cites a University of Portsmouth study ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/25226609) in which participants watched an upsetting video before riding a 10km time trial. When participants suppressed their emotions they were slower, generated lower mean power, and reached a lower maximum heart rate than when they were given no instruction to suppress their feelings or when they didn’t view the videos.
SOLUTION: Channel Your Inner Italian “It’s easy for me to say, as an Italian, but retaining that English stiff upper lip is not good – it’s better to be more Italian,” says Marcora. “Seriously though, your mental focus, your emotional state, your anger levels or levels of mindfulness all contribute to your performance in the saddle. If you have reservations, concerns or something troubling you it’s better to let it be known and address it face on. When you see the pros getting so emotional that’s why.”
“It’s easy for me to say, as an Italian, but retaining that English stiff upper lip is not good – it’s better to be more Italian…When you see the pros getting so emotional that’s why”
Professor Samuele Marcora was involved in the ASICS Blackout Track – the first running track to train both the mind and the body