“Baseball is 50% physical, and the other 90% is mental.” – Yogi Berra. A roadie wrote, “After post-graduate math courses at the Yogi Institute, I’ve since changed the percentages to, “Cycling is 25% training, 25% planning, and 95% mental.”
Lying on the frozen ground with my mountain bike on top of me, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t having a good day.
I’d spent Monday morning reviewing clients’ reports and writing workouts. At noon I had tossed the bike in my car, driven to the Creekside trail in Fraser, Colorado, and headed out for a noon ride. The trail was rocky and had several short, steep descents. Finding and riding the correct line is key in mountain biking. This requires total focus — thinking about something, anything, that detracts from this focus often results in a crash.
On this particular day, I kept thinking about work.
The bike goes where I’m looking when I ride. I didn’t find the line, tensed up, looked at a rock and – sure enough – hit the rock and found myself on my side. Damn bike wouldn’t shift properly afterward, so I limped back to the car and took it to the Icebox, my local cycling and ski shop, to get it fixed.
The next day I had even more to do: write more workouts, clean the condo and drive home. But I didn’t know how long our Indian summer would last. I did triage on my long to-do list, took care of the essentials and drove to the Idlewild trailhead. After I got the bike out of the car I spent a few minutes just breathing, focusing on my breath and relaxing my shoulders, which is where I feel tension.
First climb — there’s the line — nailed it! Second climb — the same! As I continued to ride I rode the right lines and was rewarded with great single-track through the forest. Coming back, I consciously focused on my breathing just before each descent and kept the rubber side down all the way to the car.
Why Learning to Focus and Relax is Useful for Roadies
Ever get nervous with anticipation and excitement the night before or morning of a big event? We talk about “getting psyched.” Ever tense up before a tricky descent? We call this “getting psyched out.” At the start of a long or tough climb, have you ever thought, “Even if I can make it, this is really going to hurt.” We call this “psyching yourself out.” Ever have a flat or other mechanical on an important ride and get so upset that you’re just beside yourself with emotion and anxiety? We call this “freaking out.”
Psychologists have studied these and learned that as you get more excited – up to a point – your performance improves. But if you get too excited, your performance will decline. You want to be excited enough so that you are motivated to do well, but relaxed enough to allow your body to practice the skills you have learned: how to ride comfortably in a group, how to climb rhythmically, how to corner smoothly, how to fix a flat efficiently, and so on.
By learning progressive relaxation, you can learn to relax both physically and mentally and to feel the difference between muscle tension and relaxation. You can then use this to manage your emotions for optimal performance.
Start by lying on your back on a firm surface in a quiet environment:
- Inhale, scrunch your right toes under the ball of your foot and toward your heel. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Then exhale for about 10 seconds and progressively relax your toes.
- Next, inhale, tighten your right calf muscles, pointing your toes and foot away from your leg, hold and as you exhale and slowly release the tension.
- Reverse direction, inhaling and tightening the muscles on the front of your right lower leg to pull your toes toward your knee, holding and exhaling and releasing.
- Then inhale and tighten your right hamstring and gluteal muscles, pushing your right heel into the floor. Hold, exhale slowly and release the tension. Repeat several times.
- Repeat the process with your right quadriceps, inhaling, stiffening your leg, holding and relaxing as you exhale.
Before starting on your left leg, shake your right leg gently side to side, noticing how relaxed it feels compared to your left leg. Then repeat steps 1 to 5 with your left leg.
Now move to your arms:
- Start with your right arm. Inhale, tighten your right hand into a fist, hold for a few seconds, exhale slowly and relax, repeating several times.
- Next, tighten and release your biceps several times using the same process.
- And then your triceps.
Shake your right arm gently and feel how relaxed it is compared to your left arm. Then repeat with your left arm.
Now progressively relax your upper body. Remember with each stretch to inhale as you tighten the muscles, hold for 3-5 seconds, and exhale slowly and completely as you relax.
- Inhale and tighten your core muscles around your stomach and lower back. Hold and release slowly while exhaling.
- Next, tighten your chest muscles, hold and release.
- Then tighten your upper back muscles, pulling your shoulders back, hold and relax.
- Then scrunch your shoulders up to your ears, hold and relax.
- Finally, contort your face into a grimace and let go.
You’ve learned how to focus on your breathing and are learning to use progressive relaxation to relax more fully. But you’re probably also thinking, “How the heck do I do this in the middle of a ride?”
In the January column on mental focus (the 3rd in this “On the Rivet” series on the mental side of cycling), we’ll learn various psychological tools to use during a ride.
Additional Resources: See my 17-page eArticle Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling. It’s part of our New Winter Cycling Bundle as well.
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.