Any cyclist who rides regularly along Victoria’s Beach Road will know there is a considerable increase in bike traffic in September and October every year. While the spring weather no doubt plays a part, the majority of the extra riders are squeezing in their last-minute training for the Portfolio Partners Around the Bay in a Day ride.This annual event is just one of a growing number of rides challenging cyclists all over Australia every year. Dr Lydia Ievleva, Chair of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) College of Sports Psychology, says the events meet an inherent human need to achieve and to earn the respect of others. “One of the great things about any sporting activity is that it provides immediate feedback about how you’re doing at a particular task. You can objectively measure whether you’re getting better. This is what drives so many people to take on the challenge of endurance cycling events.” While the flurry of activity on Beach Road suggests people recognise fitness is a prerequisite for success, Dr Ievleva says most people overlook the importance of mental strength. “Nearly everyone I have spoken to after an event of more than five hours’ duration attributes about 80% of their success to mental strength. Yet despite this, very few people spend any time preparing for this.” This article looks at some simple steps you can take to ensure your mind is in peak condition for your next cycling challenge.
Mental preparation starts with goal setting. “It’s really important to be clear about why you’re competing before you begin mapping out your training program. I recommend setting several goals, ranging from the most basic achievement, which may be to make it to the finish line or even the start line, right through to the best possible outcome, which may be finishing within a certain time.” “Obviously it’s important to be realistic in setting your goals, as they provide the measuring stick of success. One of the biggest mistakes many busy people in the corporate world make, is to expect the same performance from their body after 20 years sitting behind a desk as they were able to produce when they were a young and active 20-something. This is a recipe for disaster.” “The other important consideration is to focus only on things within your control. It’s much better to have a series of process-oriented goals than to define your goals in terms of beating someone.” “For example, in Jane’s case study (see below) her focus was to position herself appropriately in the bunch. This helped divert her attention from negative thoughts, while at the same time ensuring she was protected from the wind and working together with her teammates.” “Be aware that focusing on results, or outcomes, tends to make you feel anxious. It’s better to focus on the things you can control.
The great thing is, that if you get the issues you can control right, the results will automatically follow, but without the same degree of anxiety.”
Breathing and Rhythm
Another powerful weapon to control anxiety is to focus on your breathing. “Most people are aware that deep breathing can help alleviate stress,” says Dr Ievleva. “The reason for this is that the part of the brain that controls respiration is the same part that controls your emotions. When you’re feeling anxious and uptight, your breathing becomes shallow and inefficient and vice versa.” “You can therefore address anxiety by changing your breathing. Try to lengthen your exhalations relative to your inhalations, to ensure you’ve emptied your lungs of carbon dioxide, thereby allowing maximum intake of oxygen on your next in-breath. This will take your mind off the perceived effort, as well as helping you stay calm and relaxed.” Controlled breathing is a particularly useful skill when things go wrong, such as when you get a flat tyre. “It’s amazing how stressed some people become when they get a flat. It’s really debilitating for them, because stress wastes energy. I suggest you prepare a “refocus plan” before every ride to help you to deal with all the situations that might go wrong in the event.” “For example, when you get a flat, the plan might comprise: acknowledge that it is annoying; take a few deep breaths; work through the process of repairing the puncture step-by-step; focus on what you’re doing rather than the consequences of the flat (which may include losing touch with the bunch you were riding in); and get back on the bike and work yourself back into a comfortable rhythm.”
“Focusing on rhythm and a smooth pedalling stroke is particularly important in an endurance event and produces much better outcomes than focusing on effort.”
The power of positive thinking was discussed in some detail by Jamie Glazier in Think Positive! (Bicycling Australia, July/August 2007). Dr Ievleva agrees that a positive mindset is a great asset. “It’s extraordinary how powerful our minds are when it comes to sporting performance,” she says. “At times they can trip us up, but if we learn how to harness that power, it’s a tremendous asset.” “One of the really simple techniques I share with riders is performance recall. Everybody has had days where they have risen to a challenge, whether in cycling or some other sport or activity. The key is to recall how it felt, what you were thinking and what you were saying to yourself at that time. Try and catch yourself when you are having these moments in training and really focus on how you are feeling. You can then apply the same mindset to an upcoming challenge. If you’ve done it in the past, you can do it again.”
Celebrating Your Achievement
While the ride might stop when you cross the finish line, the learning does not. What you do post-ride can have a big impact on your future performance. “I believe it’s really important to recognise your achievement,” says Dr Ievleva.“Take the time to reflect on your performance and celebrate with friends and family. You should be proud! A lot of people wouldn’t even dare attempt to attempt such a challenge.” “After the celebration it’s time to focus on the lessons learned. What worked well and what would you do differently next time? Think about these things and write them down in your training diary.
Most great athletes credit their failures with helping them to achieve and it is no different for amateur athletes, provided you take the time to honestly appraise your performance.” “Just remember there’s no shame in failing to meet your expectations. All big achievements come with potential setbacks and adversity. The measure of success is whether you succumb to the weight of these or you rise to the challenge next time.”