“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” — Yogi Berra, 18 time Major League Baseball All-Star. The same thing applies to cycling, especially to going faster.
The days grow longer (and hopefully drier and warmer). Let’s ride! Let’s rebuild our cycling fitness.
- I wrote this column: Ride Like a Pro This Spring
However, as we age there are diminishing returns from riding more. My personal experience and my experience working with older clients have taught me you’ll get even faster if you include building mental skills along with training physically. Ride just half an hour less each week and spend the time on your mental skills.
My 73-year-old client Eddie wrote me, “When I started on the airport segment (flat, 2.5 miles), I blasted off. OMG! I kept at it as hard as I could, even toward the end when I had trouble catching my breath, started grunting and groaning and my quads were screaming, but I just kept pushing myself and turning those pedals over. did it in 7 minutes 58 seconds, at 19.3 mph! The second fastest time since I’ve kept records!! My fastest time was almost four years ago: 07:26 minutes, at 20.7 mph. And it was 0.3 mile faster than just seven weeks ago when I did it at 19 mph. There’s still life in this old man.
“And other times when I can go faster and seem to be stronger when I’m tired at the end of a multi-hour ride I focus and can hold it.”
Eddie was 100% focused on going as fast as possible.
- I wrote a column: On the Rivet, Part 1: Learning to Focus
While training for the non-stop Race Across AMerica (RAAM) I participated in a course on pain management by my physician Dr. Gottlieb. He taught us pain has two components: how your body hurts and then how your mind reacts to the sensation of pain. Can’t change the pain; can change the mind. He taught us to relax in order change how we reacted to the pain.
I rode a time trial every couple of weeks to gauge my fitness. For my next TT I practiced progressive relaxation before the TT. I was 5% faster because I was relaxed!
- I wrote this column: On the Rivet II: The Importance of Progressive Relaxation
3. Don’t Get Discouraged
Years ago a friend was learning how to descend better on skinny skis. Davis Phinney was an excellent skier as well as a world class bike racer. He told her, “If you aren’t falling you aren’t trying!” The coaches at my Nordic center say the same thing.
You’re a roadie and hopefully won’t fall at all. However, the basic point applies. When you can’t do something on your road bike, don’t get discouraged — keep trying.
- I wrote this column: On the Rivet III: Keep Falling! Keep Getting Up!
I wrote the column after a hard fall skiing, which resulted in a mild concussion. Repeated hard concussions can result in lifelong problems. I’m training in back country first aid and used my skills to analyze how I felt lying in the snow. No signs of a major concussion so I skied carefully back to the car.
4. Avoid Negative Thoughts
After a time trial Eddie wrote, “Felt better than many other previous times. I am referring to a mental state. I am avoiding any negative thoughts pertaining to the past and my previous training and how hard (I thought) it was to get better/stronger/faster. I am getting it in my brain that I can do. While doing hard stuff I am talking to myself in a very different way than before. I’m not allowing a single space for negativity of any kind while training/riding.”
- I wrote a column: On the Rivet IV: Improving Performance Through Positive Thinking
5. Mental Control
RBR Reader Eli asked, “I have a local route where I have an option at one point to take #1 a continuous long climb or #2 a series of short steeper hills with flat sections between. The hills in option #2 are steeper than the continuous climb in option #1. I find option #1 wears me out and I have to dismount. I don’t know what to make of this.”
I responded, “I suspect pacing is the reason the sustained climb wears you out more than the multiple steep hills. There is a very slow pace at which you could do the sustained climb without stopping. Try riding at an easy conversational pace. Of course you have to ride fast enough you don’t fall over!”
In a few days Eli wrote, “Yesterday I was triumphant and rode the entire stretch of that climb without dismounting.”
Eli used the mental skill of controlling his pace.
- You can read more about Eli in this column: Anti-Aging: How Can an 83-Year-Old Climb Long Hills?
6. Change Perceived Exertion
Your perception of how hard you are riding limits how hard you can ride. Perceived exertion has two components: the physical sensations from your body and how your mind interprets those sensations. For a given level of fitness you can’t change the physical sensations from your legs, heart and lungs. You can’t change how you feel when your heart rate monitor or power meter tell you that you’re at max effort. But you can change whether you think you’re at your maximum level of fatigue.
- This column explains different ways of changing your perceived exertion. Anti-Aging: Mastering Fatigue
My client Joel (age 63) trains by power. (If you don’t train by power his approach still works.) Each year he does a 20-minute time trial to estimate his Functional Threshold Power (FTP), the maximum average power he could sustain for an hour. A one hour time trial is brutal. His average power for a 20 minute TT (still no fun!) is about 105% of his FTP. I then use his estimated FTP to set his training zones. Two years ago his estimated FTP was 208 watts based on averaging 220 watts for 20 minutes.
Last year he could only push 205 watts for 20 minutes, almost 10% slower than two years ago. Joel’s training has been the same so the 10% slower pace wasn’t physical. Joel has a bit of performance anxiety. He’s concerned about how well he’ll ride and this negatively impacts his performance in the 20 minute TT.
To build his confidence Joel rode a practice TT every other week:
- Week #1 average 205 watts for 20 minutes
- Week #3 average 210 watts for 20 minutes
- Week #5 average 215 watts for 20 minutes
With his progressively longer TT’s Joel also changed how he interpreted the pain. And he improved his focus – the ability to concentrate 100% for 20 minutes.
Joel rode a great 20 minute TT averaging 219 watts – essentially the same as his performance two years ago.
- You can read more about Joel here: The Mental Side of Cycling: An Example
Mental skills really pays off!
- 10 Tips to Improve Your Mental Toughness
- Hank Aaron and the Mental Side of Sports — Aaron used mental skills to hit 715 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. And he hit 755 home runs during his career.
How to Learn Mental Skills
I wrote the On the Rivet columns as a series of progressive exercises. Start with the first column, practice the exercise and progress through each column:
- On the Rivet, Part 1: Learning to Focus
- On the Rivet II: The Importance of Progressive Relaxation
- On the Rivet III: Keep Falling! Keep Getting Up!
- On the Rivet IV: Improving Performance Through Positive Thinking
I wrote my eBook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling because most cyclists can improve more from investing some time each week in practicing mental skills than they could using the same amount of time training! This is especially true after age 40. In the eBook 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. You practice specific cycling skills and 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 Off-Season Bundle includes the eArticles:
1. Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling
2. Productive Off-Season Training for Health and Recreational Riders describes how to build general fitness. What you should do during the off-season depends on your cycling objectives, whether you ride primarily for your health or for recreation. This eBook is both for people who ride primarily for health and also those who ride for recreation. It describes different off-season activities and then combines these into:
- A 12-week, off-season exercise program to keep you healthy during the winter months.
- A 12-week, more intensive off-season program for recreational riders to build your endurance, power and speed, preparing for base training.
3. Year Round Cycling: How to Extend Your Cycling Season explains what you can do to successfully ride year-round with in-depth information on: 1) How to set your goals for the coming year; 2) How to train in the off-season to meet those goals; 3) What you should wear and proper equipment; 4) What you should eat and drink; 5) How you can improve your techniques; 6) How to stay motivated.
The 60-page Off-Season Bundle is $13.50.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.