In the column about Hank Aaron and the mental side of sports I described how Hammerin’ Hank used mental skills to set a record of 755 home runs that stood for 30 years. Here’s an example of how mental skills apply to cycling.
Each year I have a client do a baseline time trial to gauge current fitness by power or heart rate. I then use these data to set the client’s training zones. If a client trains by power, Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is the relevant metric. FTP is highest average power a rider can sustain for an hour. If a rider trains by heart rate, lactate threshold (LT) is the highest average heart rate the rider can sustain for an hour.
A one-hour time trial is very painful so I have the client do a 20-minute TT. FTP or LT is about 95% of the 20-minute average power or average heart rate. (Different coaches and software use different methods, which may yield somewhat different results. However, all of these results including mine are just estimates. The only true metrics come from an expensive lab test.)
Although it’s interesting to compare the results from year to year that’s not particularly relevant. My clients all have busy lives and time and motivation to train vary significantly from year to year. I want to know current fitness.
Joel trains by power and his last estimated FTP was 208 watts based on averaging 220 watts for 20 minutes. In the past I’ve had Joel do a 10-minute flat out practice TT to get used to riding very hard. A couple of days later he does a 5-minute flat out practice TT. Two or three days later he does the full 20-minute TT. Joel has a bit of performance anxiety. He’s very concerned about how well he’ll do and this negatively impacts his performance in the baseline TT.
This year we tried a different approach using four different mental skills.
- Focus – the ability to concentrate 100% for 20 minutes
- Confidence – the belief he could produce 220 watts for 20 minutes.
- Pacing – for the first part of the TT ride a little below what he could do and then pushing hard the last part, which is called a negative split.
- Pain management – the ability to suffer for 20 minutes.
Every other week Joel did a 20-minute ride with a target average power. Time trialing is mentally very hard, which was one of the reasons he hadn’t performed well with the earlier plan of riding the two practice TTs and the baseline TT in one week. With only one TT every other week, this year was much easier mentally. The seven-week plan was:
- Week #1 average 205 watts for 20 minutes
- Week #2 intervals & endurance but no TT
- Week #3 average 210 watts for 20 minutes
- Week #4 intervals & endurance but no TT
- Week #5 average 215 watts for 20 minutes
- Week #6 intervals & endurance but no TT
- Week #7 baseline TT averaging 220 watts for 20 minutes
Following this step-by-step plan he would develop the confidence he could ride at 220 watts for 20 minutes. He’d also learn he could tolerate that much pain without blowing up.
Joel and I developed a pacing strategy based on Sir Bradley Wiggins’ strategy in his June 7, 2015 hour record ride of 54.526 km. Wiggins’ goal was 55 km for the hour. Psychologically he didn’t think he could ride that hard for that long. He broke the hour in five 12-minute segments and just concentrated on riding 55 km for 12 minutes at a time.
To average 205 watts Joel focused just five minutes at a time:
- 5 minutes at 195 watts
- 5 minutes at 200 watts
- 5 minutes at 210 watts
- 5 minutes at 215 watts
Joel learned that five-minute segments were too long but 3-minute 20-second segments worked for him. He used the 3:20 segments for the remaining TTs.
After Sunday’s ride he reported, “I was pleased that I had an average power of 219 watts today for 20 minutes. Once again, I chose to do two sets of mini-laps of 3 min. 20 seconds each of 215/220/225. I think the relative rest when I began the second mini-lap makes it easier for me. And, consistent with your advice to focus on one short time period at a time, I seem to be able to talk myself into doing the necessary for three minutes and change.”
Joel used the skills of focusing, pacing, confidence and pain management to ride beyond himself. Also, Sunday’s ride wasn’t the intimidating baseline TT. Sunday was just another very hard training ride so he wasn’t feeling significant performance anxiety.
Joel had trained primarily in the sweet spot, the optimal way to build sustained power. I described sweet spot training in two columns:
My eBook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling can teach you the same skills. Most cyclists can get greater improvement from investing some time each week in practicing mental skills than they could investing the same amount of time in training! This is especially true after age 40. I demonstrate how sports psychology can be another tool in your toolbox to help you improve your cycling, just like effective training, good equipment and healthy nutrition. Gaining a Mental Edge is set up as a workbook with a progressive set of skills to practice and master. Just you can practice specific cycling skills you can also practice and learn specific mental skills. Winter when you are riding less is an opportunity to gain a mental edge. The 17-page Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is just $4.99.
My eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness is written for health and fitness riders, recreational and club riders, endurance riders and racers. I explain in detail how training at different intensities brings about different physiological adaptations. I guide you through the process of establishing your own training zones so you can train at the proper intensities for your specific training objectives. I include sample year-round plans so you ride at the correct intensities at different times of the year. I provide over 50 structured and unstructured workouts at different intensities for different training objectives. The 40-page Intensity Training for Cyclists is $4.99.
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.