By Martin Sigrist
Take away: In becoming the best that you can be the mind is more important than the body. Or, to paraphrase Arnold Palmer, “Cycling is a sport not of miles but of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears.”
Most books on endurance training focus on the body. They tend to be about measuring numbers, zones and physiology. There are exceptions, the most notable that I’ve come across being “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson (which I would wholeheartedly recommend). To their credit Sufferfest have also taken a step beyond the norm in their app by including a separate training program specifically aimed at building mental strength.
Training the body certainly is important. However realizing your full potential, becoming the best that you can be is, first and foremost, all about the mind.
I’ve chosen my words carefully. I’m not saying that you can become fitter by thinking about becoming fitter, you have to put in the hard work. And I’m not saying that anyone can become Grand Tour winning cyclist, you have to have the luck to be born with the right genes for that.
However everybody who is not already a Grand Tour winning full time athlete (and even most of those) is unlikely to have reached the limit of their capability. Training is, fundamentally, about closing the gap between what you could do and what you now do. Of bringing you closer to your ultimate personal best.
The most important factor in closing this gap is mindset. There are, certainly, people living today who have the capacity to win bike races at world tour level who are totally unaware of their potential. They may never have ridden a bike. And even if they have they may simply have decided that they prefer other activities rather than exercise.
Even those who are aware of their capability, who know how good they could be choose not to follow a path that could lead them to become winners. There is nothing wrong with this. There is no moral absolute that because you have the potential to win you must do all you can to fulfill this potential. At the end of the day it is a choice.
An example of this is case of the cyclist with the highest ever recorded VO2max. For those with aspirations of winning the ultimate prizes in cycling VO2max is the single most important number. There is just one rule, the higher the better.
To be a member of the club of those who may be in with a chance you need a score in the 80s.
Chris Froome for example had a VO2max of around 88.
This article mentions the highest number recorded for a Grand Tour winner is 92.5, by Greg LeMond.
However those who know the full story of Greg LeMond know that he did not win his tours just because he had the highest numbers. His success is first and foremost an example of just how important mindset is. His first tour victory came despite rather than because of the “help” he received from his team. His second, culminated by the most exciting finish in history, came following a life threatening accident that would have caused many to quit. He is, in my opinion, the greatest ever winner of the Tour de France, not because of his VO2max numbers but because of the obstacles that he had to overcome.
However good as he was Greg LeMond is not the cyclist with the highest ever recorded VO2max.
That distinction goes to Oskar Svensen. He was a world champion but at U23 level so he is not a household name. His story is reported by Alex Hutchinson: https://www.outsideonline.com/2398524/highest-ever-vo2max-cyclist-oskar-svendsen.
He mentions that VO2max is not necessarily everything. However he leaves the last words to Oscar Svensen. Words that echo the opening sentences of this article:
“In the end, the real lesson we can take from Svendsen’s story is that physiology isn’t destiny. His high numbers tell us that eventually someone else will come along with similarly high numbers. But to push back the barriers of athletic performance, that someone will need something more—something, perhaps, that can’t be measured in the lab. “The talent is in the head after all,” Svendsen told a Norwegian journalist (according to Google Translate) shortly after quitting cycling. “That’s what you create yourself. The physical is just a bonus.” He’d decided to return to university, and study psychology.”
“The talent is all in the head”.
What follows from that is that in order to do your best it’s not just the body that needs to get in shape but the head as well. Just as there are ways and means to train the body there are ways and means to train the mind as well.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.