7 Ways to Increase Your Mental Strength While Cycling
What’s the best way to boost your cycling performance? Is it your training regimen? Your strength? Your speed? Your stamina?
What if we told you it was none of the above?
The most significant factor in your cycling is less tangible than any of these things: It’s what’s in your head.
Don’t take it from us, though; listen to Doug Roberts. We introduced you to Doug once before, and if anyone has some cred to talk about athletic performance, it’s him. A competitive swimmer in elementary and middle school, a marathon runner in seventh grade (yes, you read that right), and a competitor in over 100 triathlons, including the Hawaii Ironman, Doug Roberts has overcome nearly every mental obstacle anyone could face in athletic competition.
“Without proper mental preparation, all your physical and equipment preparation is not going to be worth very much,” says Doug. Why? Because without mental training, one setback in the middle of a race could completely change how you’re competing — or if you’re competing at all.
Don’t let this happen to you. Follow Doug’s seven tips on how to increase mental toughness while cycling.
Remember Your Why
When you hit a rough patch in your training or during a race, you need to be able to keep things in perspective. Why did you start cycling in the first place? Why are you doing these long rides? Why are you competing?
It might be to stay healthy, or it might be for the camaraderie. Or maybe it’s to push yourself. There are plenty of great reasons to ride, but only you know the ones that keep your wheels turning.
“Your purpose and your goal should be something that’s achievable,” says Doug. Keep it realistic, write it down, and revisit it regularly.
Know Your Enemy
The person most likely to beat you in a race is … well, you.
“It’s important to really start to be aware of your own mindset,” says Doug. “A lot of people don’t realize that all of the sudden they’re self-defeated or maybe depressed or something, and they’re not actually aware that they’re in this self-defeating cycle.”
Your self-talk will shape your attitude during an event, and that attitude can have a major impact on your performance. So, before a race, take a moment to listen to those voices in your head. Are they positive? Are they reminding you of your why (which you also just revisited)? Or are you sizing others up, comparing yourself and worrying about ways you don’t measure up? Conquer your greatest foe before the race begins.
Map Your Route
One way to increase your mental strength as a cyclist is to hedge against possible sources of anxiety. And not knowing where to go or what to expect on a course is a huge anxiety trigger for many competitors.
When Doug was racing in triathlons, he would often drive through the course the day before the event in order to become familiar with every twist, turn, uphill and descent.
“By going through it and actually touching it and sort of smelling it and tasting it, if you will, it helps to mitigate the potential of anxiety,” he says. Especially in a lot of small, local races, courses may not be marked very well. Don’t let the worry that you might not know where to go, or what course conditions are, distract you from the task at hand.
Dial It In
Other common sources of anxiety are your body and your bike. During a race, the last thing you want to be thinking about is whether your bike’s mechanical condition is sound, or you’re in good shape. By the same token, you shouldn’t be worrying if you ate right or whether you trained well enough.
Educate yourself on proper training and nutrition well in advance of the race. Learn the best techniques for preventing injuries. Keep your bike (and your touring saddle) well maintained. Take it in for a professional tune-up a few times a year. Preparing in these ways will ease your mind so you can perform your best.
Expect the Unexpected
No matter how well you prepare for a race, you can’t account for every possibility. Accidents happen, other competitors might do something to frazzle you, or the weather might cause issues. The possibilities are endless and, as Doug says, this is just part of racing.
“If you’re not prepared for the surprises mentally, then you could really be thrown off,” he says. “Some people will just throw in the towel.” He’s had friends bail out right in the middle of a race because they just found themselves discouraged.
While you can’t avoid these moments entirely, you can be mentally prepared to rebound when they happen. If you expect the unexpected, you’ll be more ready to handle it than if you assume everything will go smoothly.
Know Your Body
The toughest mental battles occur when you feel that your body is reaching its physical limit during an event. And at times, it may be. The trick is knowing when you can push it harder and when you need to pull back. Part of your training should be in learning the difference between your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. If you’re in the first state, you can keep pushing for a while. Trying to go harder in the latter situation will send you into anaerobic debt, and it will be very difficult to recover for the rest of the race.
In some ways, Doug says, this comes down to mental maturity. Less mature athletes often find themselves racing at a pace that they cannot sustain, “rabbiting out” in front of the field to a big lead at the beginning of the race, only to find themselves surpassing their anaerobic threshold and burning out prematurely.
Nowadays, you can use objective tools to analyze your heart rate and power output at different workout levels. This ties your subjective feelings to objective metrics, so you know what your body is telling you in training and also during a race.
For a final tip on how to increase your mental strength while cycling, Doug comes back to perspective.
“Many people can slip into a state of discontentment because they haven’t actually willfully or even prayerfully expressed an attitude of gratitude,” he says. Consider the fact that your body is healthy and strong enough to compete in the first place. “You actually have a choice to go out and do an athletic event. That, by itself, is sufficient reason to pause and be grateful.”
It may not come to mind as a key part of your training regimen, but consider adding simple ways of practicing gratitude into your routine. See what it does for your mental state on your next race day. It might one of the most potent ways to improve your mental performance.