Baseball great Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”
In my almost 50 years of riding I’ve found that mental skills are at least as important as physical fitness. Mental skills are just like cycling skills; they take practice. I work with each of my clients to learn the skills that he or she needs for success.
As we get older despite our best efforts our physical capacity inevitably declines. By working out diligently doing all the different types of exercise we can slow this decline and if we’ve lost a lot of fitness reverse the decline. Fortunately, as we age we can improve our mental skills to help to compensate for the loss of physical prowess.
While we were down in Boulder, CO last weekend I completed a ride I’d never done before: the Lee Hill loop counter-clockwise. I’ve been riding the loop clockwise for over 20 years but have always been intimidated by the steep northern leg — descending it is scary, why would I ride up it? Time to put my mental skills to work and do it!
In the Tour de France commentators noted how relaxed Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) was the night before the big time trial when he took the yellow jersey. Last week I made a point of finishing all my work and other chores on Friday so nothing was hanging over my head. Saturday morning I practiced tai chi to completely relax. Then when I threw my leg over the top tube I was looking forward to exploring and enjoying a new route instead of worrying about what wasn’t finished at home or what lay ahead.
Rather than just going for it I developed a very simple plan. Ride US 36 to the foot of Left Hand canyon in about half an hour and stop for a drink and snack. Ride up the canyon about half an hour to the base of Lee Hill and stop for another drink and snack. Sticking to my time splits would ensure I wasn’t tired at the bottom of the big climb. Climb for 20+ minutes to the top of the first summit. Stop, catch my breath and refuel. Descend, climb the second summit and coast home!
I’d been doing increasingly tougher climbs all summer including Berthoud Pass (11,300 ft.). Berthoud isn’t steep but at altitude it was taxing. Riding out US 36, I thought about the climbs I’d done and became more confident I could get up Lee Hill.
Pro riders often pre-ride part or all of a stage to get a feel for it. Just two days before my Lee Hill ride, my riding partner and I had ridden the first half at the pace I planned to ride the Lee Hill loop. The night before Lee Hill I spent a few minutes thinking about my plan, rehearsing the ride in my head.
When Pogacar won the TdF time trial he was 100% focused on his ride. Riding out US 36 and up Left Hand I let my mind wander but when I turned up Lee Hill I focused completely on every moment of the ride putting all of my physical and mental energy into each pedal stroke.
Using my plan I paced myself to the bottom of Lee Hill. Pacing wasn’t a problem the first part of Lee Hill: dead slow was all I could manage. When the climb eased a bit I disciplined myself to only speed up a bit and conserve energy for the next wall around the corner.
Ride my ride
Riders kept passing me as I rode to Lee Hill and I let them. At age 71 I don’t have to try to keep up with anyone and sticking to my plan was the key.
It was daunting to think about riding from my house to the top of the north side of Lee Hill so using my plan I divided it into smaller rides and just concentrated on each leg. Starting up the climb my goals shrank. I was sure I could ride the few hundred yards to the corner ahead. I didn’t know in detail what lay around the corner and didn’t worry about it. Just ride to the corner. And then to the next corner. And the next corner. And then I saw the “School bus stop” sign — I’d made it. School buses don’t stop on steep inclines!
As I coasted home I had huge grin on my face, especially descending at 40 mph!
All of my clients are at least 50 and several are in their 70s. Each trains hard — I see to that! — and each also works on these mental skills. A client’s weekly workouts start with four or five 10 minute sessions a week learning to fully relax. Then the rider practices focusing on just breathing, a useful skill to ward off distracting thoughts. Before an important ride we develop a plan analogous to mine. We divide the ride into sections, decide how to ride each section, when to stop and what to eat and drink. Building and thinking through the plan are ways of rehearsing the ride and in the process building confidence that the ride is do-able. Then I stress ride your ride. During the ride the client uses the small goals in the plan. If one of the sections seems too tough then the rider can divide it into smaller sections.
My Lee Hill ride wasn’t epic: 17.75 miles with 1,720 feet of climbing. Using these mental tools enabled me to be successful and finish with that smile. You can also use these tools to complete your personal challenging ride.
Here’s a related column on Anti-Aging: How to Get and Stay Motivated.
My eBook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is the primer I use with my clients. It’s divided into six chapters of progressive lessons on relaxation, focus, using powerful thoughts and images, building confidence and managing anxiety, creating a plan and visualizing it, riding the ride and dealing pain during the ride. Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is only $4.99.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has individual chapters on each of the types of exercise the ACSM recommends: cardiovascular both endurance and intensity; upper, lower, and core strength; weight-bearing, flexibility and balance. I include interviews with Gabe Mirkin (recommendations from an M.D.) Jim Langley (importance of goals), Andy Pruitt (importance of working on your skeleton, posture, balance, muscle mass), Muffy Ritz (recommended activities for older people, especially women), Malcolm Fraser (recommendations from an M.D.), Fred Matheny (importance of strength training), Elizabeth Wicks (motivation) and five other male and female riders ages 55 to 83. Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. It’s your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBookAnti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is available for $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.