What you think influences how you feel, and how you feel affects your performance. For example, on my trainer I can put out about 5% more power if I’m thinking, “I feel strong and I can nail these intervals” than if I think, “This is really going to hurt”!
Further, I’ll put out more power if I get on the trainer and really focus on my intervals than if I’m thinking about something else, letting my mind wander.
Psychologists call this the Arousal Curve (see diagram). As a rider gets more focused and excited, his/her performance improves until the rider gets too nervous, and then performance declines.
This is why from On the Rivet I: Learning to Focus you learned how to focus your attention on the ride.
I can clearly see the difference in my own athletic performance between instances when I am focused – and when I lose focus, and when I am thinking positively, or when I let negative thoughts creep in.
I cross-country ski most days in the winter. One day staring down Homestead, a descent on an intermediate ski trail, I thought to myself, “This is a hard one. I always have trouble, and I’ll probably fall.” You can guess what happened: I got tense and, sure enough, halfway down I got scared and sat down rather than risking a face plant.
Another day I was having fun and decided to ski down Gandy Dancer, an advanced trail that alternates moderate and steep pitches. At the start I yelled, “Yee-ha!” and had a great time skiing down it. I was focused and positive. (Gandy dancers were railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the early days.)
I imagine that my mind is like a TV. If I’m thinking negative thoughts, then I’m probably feeling negative emotions, and this will negatively affect my performance. So, like with a TV, I just change the channel. But to which channel? Where is that positive channel?
You can develop your own personal positive channel three different ways:
Get out a piece of paper and free-associate. What words describe you as a rider (or describe the rider you are becoming). You may think of words like “powerful,” “strong,” “fast,” “steady,” which describe how you ride physically. You may also identify words like “aware,” “focused,” “and “relaxed,” which describe your attitude while riding, that you are alert to other riders, the route, the conditions, your nutrition, etc. Other words may describe your intentions during an event, e.g., "determined,” “in control” and “chasing down.” Your words should all be positive and affirm how you perform when riding at your full potential.
The key words should be so powerful that each actually creates an image in your mind and a feeling in your body. For example, “fast” might evoke the image of a thoroughbred and the feeling of your body moving in a fast rhythm.
Each word can be used in a specific situation to help your performance. When you’re climbing, think “strong” or “rhythm,” instead of “damn this hurts.” You’ll climb better and enjoy it more. While fixing your second flat, repeating “calm” can help you focus on the task at hand and not waste energy.
As homework, look at your list of words or phrases and pick at least three to help you ride better. Each day when you ride, start by using your breathing to help you focus on the ride and to still the (perhaps negative) chatter in your mind.
Then, in a specific situation, repeat the appropriate word several times, to evoke that feeling. When climbing, repeat “powerful” or when riding into the wind repeat “strong and steady.” Research has shown that repetition is key. By repeating the words over and over on a daily basis, you’ll change your thought patterns. Research has also shown that when such techniques are practiced over a long-term period, your thoughts become more positive.
Your mind works with images before it forms thoughts as words. By creating power images, you can control even more directly how you think and feel. Look at your list of power words and free associate. Make a list of the images that come to mind.
For “power” you might envision a particular animal, for example a horse, running smoothly. For “great endurance” you might imagine a flock of migrating birds, wings beating smoothly. A hunting cat might evoke “crafty” – crouched down, ears forward, timing the leap, motionless except for the slight twitch of the tail. When you want to evoke “relaxed,” what better image than a house cat standing up and slowly arching its back in a relaxed stretch.
Practice using your power images on your rides. When descending, instead of thinking aero or tuck, imagine a hawk diving under control. When climbing, imagine that horse, powerful muscle rippling, moving smoothly up the hill.
You can expand your power words into power thoughts. Take a half-dozen of your key words and write down self-affirming statements. For example, write down, “I am a powerful climber” rather than “I want to develop more power.” The latter subtly reminds you of what you view as a negative aspect of yourself and reinforces that negativity. Here are some examples:
- “I am a powerful rider like a big tiger.”
- “I have great endurance like migrating birds.”
- “I love going hard.”
- “I love testing my limits.”
- “I am mentally prepared.”
One of my affirmations is, “I move forward smoothly and effortlessly, like a spinning water wheel.” When I’m getting tired I just visualize the water spinning the wheel and settle my legs into that rhythm.
Write down your affirmations and put them in one or more places so you’ll see them every day: on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator door, taped to your handlebars. Like power words, repeat your affirmations several times a day to program your brain.
Additional Resources: See my 17-page eArticle Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling.
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.