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  Last updated: 1/15/2016

Your Psyche and Exercise

The concept of a mind-body connection is well accepted in the medical literature. It is well known that your state of mind can aggravate or minimize various medical diseases. But your state of mind is also intertwined with your training and riding program. Psychological factors play a definite role in competitive cycling, giving the rider that winning edge, and attempts to modify them are a part of all training programs.

Overreaching and overtraining are the down side ofoverzealous riding. There is a strong physiologic component to overreaching/overtraining, but the associated negative attitude can have just as much of adrag on your performance as the use of positive mental imagery has to give youthat performance edge to achieve your best.

If a rider believes they can't put out any extra effort, they subconsciouslylimit their effort (see pacing below). Likewise they may misinterpretpain as a sign that they are about to blow up and pull back whenin reality they are simply riding hard. They frequently believe that they are the only ones that are suffering. They may see a mental picture of crashing just before they need to make a move. All of these lead tohesitation and the potential to miss the key break.

Mental preparation is often undervalued. This is a particular problemwith the training programs of less experienced riders.Here are a few thoughts, but remember to apply them with moderation and common sense. Riders should not spend significant amounts of time doing visualization during a race, for example. Nor should they ignore real dangers and take foolish chances. However, thatbeing said, mental preparation can make the winning difference.


Visualization or Mind Pictures. I suspect many of you have heard of "inner tennis"or "inner golf". Using visualization and mental imagery to optimize physicalabilities. And this is not mind pictures as if you are watching someone else.That won't duplicate a race experience. You need to visualize the race as ifyou are in it - and that means through all of their senses including sights,sounds, breathing, and discomfort. Good visualization is a skill that needsto be learned and practiced. The better your visualization, the better youwill stick to your plan in the heat of competition.This recent online article in Bicycling is a nice summary from a real world competitor.

It's important to understand the difference between productive visualization and day dreaming. Seeing yourself feeling good and cruising easily to victory is generally useless and won't prepare you for the race because that's not how it will be. The visualization has to be realistic. It is essential that you really believe in it. And its success is based on getting into a real race situation, and feeling like you've been there before and were successful.

Routines. A regular routine before a ride, or competition, helps torelax you as well as helps focus on the challenges ahead. The challenge is toprevent this calming routines from crossing the line to superstitions.

Positive Self Talk. Key phrases can be very useful during times of stress. These are typically positive, upbeat phrases that the athlete has developed and practiced during training. Part of their purpose is to build the rider's confidence with their positive nature. Most importantly, if the mind is occupied with positive thoughts, there is much less room for negative ones. As with negative mind pictures, trying to block negative thoughts without replacing them with something better is usually unsuccessful.

And key phases can again help you to focus on and remember your plan for the ride. For example in a team pursuit event, this might include the phrases: POWER for the start, FORMATION so you remember to get into line, SETTLE so you get comfortable asap, and CONTROL so you don't kick too early,

Break up long rides into shorter milestones. When confidence is lost, it is often the result of worrying about what may happen much later in the race, or the finish,and not what's happening at the moment. This is a particular problem with long events. Although riders should be concerned about what's going to happen later on, obsessing about it and developing a sense of dread will sink them in a hurry. You're much better off focusing primarily on what you should be doing at the moment. So break the ride up into shorter segments,and focus on each milestone along the way.

Keeping Perspective. Or if you want to say it another way, setrealistic goals based on your past performance and training.Beginners, in particular, tend to put their egos on the line every time they race. As a result, a negative outcome can become embedded as an expected outcome. They need to understand that getting dropped is common in bike racing and nothing to be ashamed of. Coaches can help them set realistic goals and objectively evaluate their performance. Even elite riders lose perspective at times, treating training races like the World Championships.

And perspective becomes even more important as we face the challenges of aging. Aging can give us perspective and enjoyment beyond charging up the hills and racing to the next power pole. I think this author says it very well. "I'm enjoying riding and racing more than ever before. I'm still mixing it up in the club hammer sessions. I'm riding on much nicer equipment now than what was available (or what I could afford as a poor starving grad student). I get to share my joy of cycling with our two boys, and I have the perspective of enjoying cycling as a lifelong activity that the young 'uns just don't have."

This articlefrom Bicycling online is a nice summary from a successful real world competitor.


I always enjoy articles about cycling's greats. This is a well written article focused on the comeback of Greg LeMond as he struggled torecover from a hunting accident. His final sprint down the Champs de Elysee is oneof the legends of the Tour de France. But beneath the cover story you are given aglimpse into the mental focus and toughness that are a big part of the success ofthese elite athletes. And these strategies will also work for you and me, and indeed atall levels of competition. What are a few of the points? The quotes are directly from the article.

"....humans cannot sustain maximum intensity exercise longer than about 30 secondswithout exceeding the highest level of perceived effort they can tolerate."So for extreme exertion of greater than 30 seconds some form of pacing is needed."...when an athlete starts a race that he knows will last longer than 30 seconds,he holds back just enough that his perceived effort limit is not reached until heis at the finish line."

And this pacing is to a great degree unconscious. "...they held back justa little without even realizing it. These results suggest that the limit ofmaximum perceived effort tolerance is so impenetrable that athletes are notpsychologically capable of even trying to sustain a maximum exercise intensitylonger than approximately 30 seconds."

As you work to find your own optimal pace, having a number goal to achieve,an explicit, quantitative number, is a key strategy. "Some of the studentswere given a non-quantitative goal to 'do their best.' Others were givena quantitative goal to better their performance in the initial test by acertain percentage. Even though all of the students did the same training,those who pursued quantitative goals improved their performance significantlymore when the muscular endurance test was repeated after eight weeks."

It is important that the quantitative goal be seen as achievable. "...theamount of effort that an athlete puts into a race is influenced by her perceptionof the attainability of her goal, a concept borrowed from Jack Brehm's theoryof motivational intensity. If the goal seems to fall out of reach at anypoint during the race, the athlete is likely to back off her effort. If the goalseems attainable, but only with increased effort, the athlete is likely toincrease her effort..." This is where personal bests and past achievements providea helpful tool. "By keeping track of, and aiming to improve, personal besttimes for specific race distances, athletes can exploit this phenomenon to tryharder than they would otherwise be able to." A several second improvement isseen as achievable, and drives the athlete to do better each time out.

But there are risks using past performance based goals as well. "The influenceof clock watching on endurance performance is two-sided. The same timegoal that enhances performance when it is perceived as a target constrainsperformance when it is perceived as a limit. The potential for timestandards to become performance limiters is most apparent at the elite levelof endurance sports. There have been many noteworthy cases in which aperformance breakthrough by one athlete triggered a widespread revolutionin performance and thereby revealed that previous standards had beenholding the sport back."

Bottom Line: The challenge for us is to understand effective pacing strategiesto improve our performance. "In consideration of the two-sided nature of time'seffect on endurance performance, it is tempting to ask what sort of timegoal would have the best possible effect on performance. Such agoal would need to seem reachable, but barely so. (Indeed, in the Ben-GurionUniversity study I mentioned above, students given a 'difficult/realistic' goalimproved more than those given either an 'easy' goal or an 'improbable/unattainable'goal.) This ideal goal would also need to be sufficiently well defined to pullthe athlete beyond past limits, yet somehow vague enough that it did notplace an artificial ceiling on the athlete's performance."


Nutritional practices may impact athletic performance by modifying anxiety and arousal levels.

Supplements of vitamins B1, B6, and B12 have been reported to lessen anxiety in pistol shooting and may have some applicability in events requiring high concentration.

Caffeine's benefit in physical performance may be related to its effect on the riders "state of arousal".

Branched chain amino acids have been reported to modify central fatigue mechanisms, but their role in improving athletic performance is unproven.


Ask anyone who exercises regularly, and they will tell you they feel much better after a ride (or going to the gym). In fact many will force themselves to get some exercise to improve a down mood. Scientists performing mood tests on 20 subjects before and after 30 minutes of pedaling at 55-70% VO2max found a definite improvement compared to a control period of resting for 30 minutes that left their mood unchanged.

On the other hand, too much of a good thing has its negative effects. Overreaching and overtraining, the result of overzealous training and riding, will negatively impact your state of mind.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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