By Kevin Kolodziejski
“If You Can Believe It, You Can Achieve It”
When I see that oh-so-common poster saying adorning school walls, I want to pull an Oedipus and poke my eyes out.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not telling the seventh grade boy whose dream job is to become a jockey to “Go for it” — if he is 5’1” and 190. I’m not about to sell an impressionable boy, or girl for that matter, a false bill of goods. But regardless of gender, you’re not in seventh grade. Or 5’1” and 190 — unless you stopped cycling and started working the night shift at Golden Corral.
So let me sell you on something else — something that on first take doesn’t seem too different from those words that make me want to see no more. Something that will summon up your inner Ronnie Lott and improve the suffering you sometimes need to do or want to do while cycling.
So Why Mention Ronnie Lott?
Two reasons. The last time I saw the aforementioned quotation on a school wall, it was attributed to this first-ballot football Hall of Famer who is regarded as one of the smartest and hardest-hitting defensive backs of all time. Far more applicable to this article: Lott is a most sublime example of his own words and clearly one of all sports’ ultimate psychos.
During the last game of the 1985 NFL season, the top third of Lott’s left pinky finger got crushed between two helmets like a pill by a pestle. The typical recovery time after piecing and pinning a pulverized pinky together, the doctor explained, is eight weeks. Lott wondered if there was another option that would allow him to play in the upcoming playoff game. There is, the doctor replied, but it requires the use of a bone saw. So Lott said what I refuse say to any really fat kid who dreams of racing horses: “Go for it.”
Lott did indeed play two weeks later, — minus one-third of a finger. Despite that fact, I still find his posterized claim, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it,” to be too falsely optimistic, too Pollyannaish. But experimenting with something called self-talk has made me see an element of truth to Lott’s seemingly saccharine statement.
So What Is Self-Talk?
Though I called Lott a psycho, self-talk is not the conversation you have with yourself as the nurse feeds you applesauce since you’re strapped to the bed. According to McLeod Health.com, in the realm of sports psychology, it is simply repeating certain statements during exercise or athletic competition to improve focus, slow the mental process, “replace negative thinking with more positive messages” and “devote more ‘power’ to the specific task at hand.” Somewhat akin to a form of meditation, you create a simple phrase encapsulating what you want to accomplish and say it repeatedly before and during your attempt.
Let’s say you tend to get gapped on group rides on rollers because you stand and mash when you should sit and spin. In this case, your self-talk saying could be “Sit and spin, sit and spin.” You’d say it aloud as you dressed and prepared for the ride and softly to yourself every time the ride approached an incline.
Now I began this article by explaining my disdain for Ronnie Lott’s quotation to make you see I’m not the sort who would mindlessly buy into something as Tony Robbinsesque as self-talk. In fact, based solely on the way McLeod Health.com explains it — they suggest a basketball player with foul-shooting woes say, “I’ve made this shot before, and it’s doable,” — I would’ve never tried self-talk. But I learned about it by reading Endure by Alex Hutchinson.
Malcolm Gladwell Is Right on Two Counts
In separate writings about Endure, Gladwell, a journalist who’s written five New York Times bestsellers, calls Jens Voigt “maniacal” and the book “amazing.” If you yearn for better cycling performance and to exceed what you see as your limits, read the book. Endure is chocked full of research studies to help you do both, such as the one done by Samuele Marcora and colleagues about self-talk.
Self-Talk and Cycling to Exhaustion
The researchers took 24 volunteers and had them cycle to the point of exhaustion. Next, they showed half how to enhance performance using positive self-talk and gave them time to develop personally meaningful sayings and practice using them. Two weeks later when all 24 again cycled to exhaustion, the 12 who incorporated self-talk lasted 18 percent longer than the others.
In my cycling-centric mind, an improvement of 18 percent is nothing to sneeze at. It’s more like something to die for. So I just had to experiment with self-talk. But how?
The Cateye Derby Is Revived
The Derby is a well-known Sunday morning ride from the velodrome in Trexlertown, PA that begins at training pace and then becomes a race after the pee break. In fact, it’s so well-known that about 30 years ago somebody created a workout to simulate the intensity and topography of the race-pace part on the must-have wind trainer of that time, the Cateye Cyclosimulator 1500. Up until four years ago, I still periodically did the Cateye Derby as part of an indoor ride and primarily in the winter. I stopped, quite frankly, because the distance I covered was on a steady decline.
Since I still have two Cateyes (no Zwift for this guy) and my training log from four years ago, the experiment became clear: to see if using self-talk could help me cover more distance in an indoor Derby now than the last time I tried. The results made me feel more hopeful about my cycling than I have in a long time.
More Than Two-Tenths of a Mile Farther
But what I liked even more than averaging .42 mph more than I did four years ago were the sensations I experienced during the effort. When I would see my speed going down and feel my body tightening up, I would relax my facial muscles, smile — something else I learned to do in Endure — and say, “It’s all downhill from here.” I decided on that saying as my self-talk because it was said to me by the driver of lead vehicle as I struggled at the top of the final climb the very first time I won a road race on a solo breakaway. He then gave me the thumbs-up, hit the horn three times, and flew down the hill.
Strangely enough, when I started making a horn noise along with my self-talk, I experienced an even great return of power. Now you might feel stupid going “Honk, honk, honk,” — or engaging in self-talk at all. But consider what Hutchinson has added in an afterword to the most recent edition of Endure.
That even though self-talk seems a “fancy name” for “cliched advice,” it’s still the best answer he has for that “nagging question” about how to “alter your limits.”
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.