Baseball great and quote master extraordinaire Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 % mental. The other half is physical.”
Excusing the math mistake, he was really on to something. You may have heard the term “mental training techniques” in cycling circles (or perhaps the more clinical sounding “sports psychology”). This concept actually extends to a number of sports, but unfortunately, it doesn’t usually get applied to non-elite athletes, who might benefit from it the most.
Everyday cyclists can use some of these concepts to their advantage. There are several ways you can improve your performance and enjoyment of the sport — not to mention safety — just by spending a little time on the mental side of cycling. Here are three simple techniques you can integrate into the off-bike portion of your day that can actually boost your training time.
Put aside your visions of meditation or calming music. This is actually a fantastic skill not just for riding, but for all facets of your life. The simplest way to leverage this is to think through the series of steps you’ll have to perform in an upcoming event, workout or even a presentation at work.
If you have a workout coming up, you might spend time on your commute home thinking through the series of steps to get out the door, the gear you need, the route you will take or how the workout will feel during the hard parts. Some people like to close their eyes to help with their focus and creation of a mental image, while others can benefit from keeping their eyes open — perhaps with the assistance of a video of a skill being executed or head-cam footage of a race course. For races or hard rides, you can take yourself to those critical moments and mentally rehearse how you want to respond to discomfort or setbacks.
We’re human, so we’re quite often scared of pain and discomfort. By thinking through the critical moments that will define success, we can be ready for when they happen for real, whether that’s in a workout, race or even at work.
2. Set goals
We all know we should do this — we hear it often enough in our professional lives, too — but challenge yourself to set one simple goal for each day or workout. Think about it for a second. You may already have a larger seasonwide goal, but minigoals can provide day-to-day challenges to keep on track for the larger goal, making it more manageable, and thus, more attainable.
Make your daily goal something you know you can do, something like a number of calories burned in a ride, distance or a wattage that’s just one or two watts harder then what you did on your last similar ride. The key is to set a goal: Writing it in a journal or your training log can help you stick to it. But you also have to use the prompt to take the action to reach that goal by fueling well and working hard in the workout. By having goals most days, you can set yourself up for success by regularly taking small steps toward your larger performance goal.
3. Talk to yourself
I like to start athletes with two strategies for the conversation they have with themselves during workouts and races.
One is to keep asking “What’s next?” to cue yourself to think about the next section of trail or road. That’s a better visual than thinking about discomfort or negative and unproductive thoughts happening “right now.” In mountain biking, this helps us react faster; for road biking, it helps motivate harder effort or better readiness for attacks because we’re focused on the moment rather than thoughts that are ultimately unproductive.
The other strategy is to focus on cue words like “be smooth” or “breathe,” which can help reduce our perceived exertion by reducing tension in our muscles, cuing relaxation and avoiding shallow, rapid breaths.
All of these points really just boil down to a set of techniques you can leverage to improve your ability to perform under pressure — but only if you practice them before race day when they’re the most necessary. Odds are, you’ll find your performance benefits, and you’ll enjoy the sport much more.