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Training the Mind

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.