Mind Over Matter
There is no question that it takes more than skill and conditioning to be successful as an athlete, but sports scientists, coaches, and even athletes have struggled to define the precise extra component that separates champions from pack fodder. The clearest answer seems to lie with the mind’s power to either enhance or hinder your ability to perform at your best.
The Mind’s Impact on Performance
Sports scientists tend to focus on performance tests that minimize the variables between test subjects; in other words, they like the lab-based lactate threshold or VO2 tests because they can control the temperature, equipment calibration, etc. Yet, there are abundant examples of athletes who test poorly in the lab and then go out and uncork phenomenal performances in competition. Conversely, there are athletes who test wonderfully and then fail to perform anywhere near their potential in competitions.
The lack of a good, scientifically-proven, physiological reason for the discrepancies between test results and actual performance leads to the conclusion that successful athletes possess mental and behavioral attributes that enhance their ability to capitalize on their physical potential. Athletes who have the engine and skills to be successful may not be able to reach their potential if these mental and behavioral attributes are absent or underdeveloped.
With the use of power meters, we can even see these discrepancies between individual workouts in training. One of the most common situations is a drop in wattage when a workout is moved from outdoors to indoors. Even after taking into account variables like tire pressure and the pressure of the flywheel on the tire, athletes consistently report difficulty reaching and sustaining the same power output indoors that they can achieve outdoors. And when they can reach the desired power output, their perceived exertion and heart rate are both considerably higher than during the outdoor workout. For instance, when an athlete is asked to perform 15-minute lactate threshold intervals outdoors, he may be able to hold 285 watts, but only be able to sustain 270 for the same workout on the indoor trainer.
The Upside of Arousal
Among the biggest differences between training indoors and out, and between training and racing, is the level of arousal you derive from your surroundings. Greater arousal leads to heightened performance because there are more stimuli; your brain is more engaged and your emotions are feeding your motivation to perform. Emotional arousal also has a physical impact on your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that triggers your fight-or-flight response) which sets off a cascade of hormonal and metabolic effects that lead to increased ability to focus, greater strength, and heightened reflexes. When you strip away stimuli by removing the competition, it becomes difficult to reach competition-level performance in cycling training. And when you remove the stimuli of the wind against your face and the sensation of speed from watching telephone polls go whizzing by, it’s more difficult to achieve the same level of motivation, and hence put out the same high-intensity effort, on an indoor trainer.
What You Can Do to Get Your Brain in Gear
The more time you spend around successful elite athletes, the more you understand the crucial roles arousal and excitation play in performance. Take, for instance, a young rider like Credit Agricole’s Saul Raisin. Off the bike or on a leisurely ride, he comes off as a goofy kid who’s way too nice to be anything but a pushover. Yet, when you put him in a race, the affable and kind small town guy disappears and a fierce, calculating, and intense competitor emerges. The same can be said of other pros I coach, including road racer Phil Zajicek (Navigators Insurance) and cyclocrosser Ryan Trebon (Kona).
While some athletes naturally develop the ability to tap into their full physical potential, many more have to spend time learning and adapting their mental approach to training and racing before they can perform at their best. For every racer who automatically understands how to deliver maximum performance, there are dozens more who are hindered by self-doubt, lack of confidence, and fear.
The tips and techniques below can be very important for shifting your attitudes about competition, and I’ve found that these simple changes in the mind can elevate an anonymous mid-pack racer to a podium contender within weeks, regardless of changes in fitness and conditioning.
When riders first start racing, or when they move up in category so they’re racing more experienced and faster riders, the desire to reach the finish line sometimes takes a higher priority than trying to win. When this attitude persists for too long, however, racers fall into the habit of racing against the back of the field instead of the front. If your brain is at the back, that’s where your bike’s going to be as well. The race is in front of you, and in order to win, you need to stay focused on what you can do to compete against the riders at the front. Once you cross the threshold of realizing that the risk of not finishing is either minimal or less important than the risk of missing out on a chance to win, you can turn your attention to improving your finishing position.
As an endurance event, cycling can involve hours of relative boredom punctuated by moments of extreme effort, but it’s important to stay engaged at all times instead of settling into a mindless rhythm and letting the kilometers just pass under your wheels. Apathy is a problem for endurance athletes in both training and competition; you see it in the racers who are just along for the ride in the first two hours of a four-hour road race and the rider who just cruises through intervals in training instead of committing to quality efforts. Use landmarks in races or specific times in your training rides to quickly evaluate what you’re doing in comparison with your goals for the day. This can be a quick check at the end of each lap of a road race to see if you’re racing or just riding, or a check an hour into your training ride to see if you’re really accomplishing what you set out to do today.
Lose your Fear of Losing
You race conservatively when you’re worried about getting dropped. This is the primary reason racers do not take the risk of initiating, joining, or working in a breakaway group. The truth is, there’s a chance your breakaway won’t make it, and a chance the break will make it, but that you won’t be able to keep up with it. There’s also a chance that making an effort off the front could mean that you get spit straight out the back when the peloton catches you. Yet, there are some other important results you may garner from trying anyway.
Some riders notice that riders they were intimidated by had to work very hard to catch them, and when you realize you’re powerful enough to make them hurt, they suddenly become beatable. Riding aggressively and showing that you’re willing to commit to potentially winning moves also makes it more likely that other like-minded racers will join you. The way you approach races, and the way you ride, can help you generate a reputation that helps you get into, and stay in, the right moves.
Clear your Mind
Once you commit to the effort of a breakaway or a chase, clear your mind and just go. There is a lot of strategy in bike racing, but the time for considering the costs and benefits of a move came and went before you committed to it. Once you’re on your way, don’t waste time and attention on second-guessing and devising contingency plans in case this move doesn’t pan out. You made the decision, and you can’t control what the rest of the race is going to do in response. The only performance you can truly control is your own, and throwing the full weight of your effort and commitment behind your decisions increases the chances that you’ll actually be successful.
Turn Setbacks into Opportunities
Several of my athletes have returned from mid-season injuries to have the best performances of their careers. Saul Raisin broke his pelvis when he was run over by a motorcycle in the Three Days of Dunkirk, yet six weeks later he finished ninth overall in the ProTour Tour of Germany. Ryan Trebon broke his wrist in the Tour de Toona in the summer of 2005, then stormed through the cyclocross season a few months later and eventually finished XX in the USGP Series and second at the US National Championships. And then, of course, there are the US Paralympic athletes I’ve worked with; men and women who are blind, missing limbs, and living with brain injuries who are nonetheless committed to competing and winning as elite athletes.
Setbacks in the form of illnesses and injuries can be a blessing in disguise when they help you get more rest than you would have normally afforded yourself. In the cases of Saul and Ryan, their injuries allowed them to take time off during periods of the year when their fellow competitors were racing and training full-bore. When they returned to training and competition, they were hungrier for results, mentally refreshed and physically recovered, and fired up to be back in the pack again.
At some point in your time as an athlete, you’ll be sidelined by illness or injury. Hopefully it’s minor and you’ll be back on your feet quickly, but be careful about how you think about your recovery time. If you focus on how much training you’re missing out on, and how far behind that’s going to make you, you’re going to return to training frustrated and discouraged. Instead, focus your energy on doing everything you can to enhance your recovery, from physical therapy to eating well and staying hydrated, and use the time as a well-deserved recuperation period. That way, when your body is ready to return to training, your mind will be raring to go as well; your fitness will return faster and more completely, and you’ll be likely to outperform your own personal bests.
Jim Lehman is a Premier Coach and Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). Lehman coaches several rising stars of US cycling, including Saul Raisin, Phil Zajicek, Shawne Milne, Ryan Trebon, and Tyler Wren. Rutberg has co-authored four books with Chris Carmichael, including the bestseller “Chris Carmichael’s Food for Fitness”. To discover what CTS can do for you, or to sign up for our free monthly nutrition newsletter, visit www.trainright.com.