Coach Hughes: Sports Psychology for Cyclists
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Mental

Sports Psychology Training for Cyclists

“Mentally Paris-Brest-Paris was the hardest thing I have ever done and I have been to war.”

by John Hughes
© 2012, John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

John Hughes is the author of Distance Cycling and many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. He is a veteran of Paris-Brest-Paris ’79, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’99, Boston-Montreal-Boston ’92 (course record), Rocky Mountain 1200 ’04, Furnace Creek 508 ’89 (course record) and ’93 (first place) and the Race Across America ’96.

Billy Edwards who finished the 1200-km (750-mile) Paris Brest Paris in 48:46 in August 2011 is an ex-Marine and pro triathlete. Afterwards he said: “I race Ironmans, but this was something else. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this. Physically, I trained hard, my equipment was perfect . . . but mentally this was the hardest thing I have ever done, and I have been to war. ” (VeloNews.com, August 30, 2011)

Paris-Brest-Paris Charly Miller finishers Billy Edwards, Brad Tanner and Justin Brooke with Melinda Lyon

Billy Edwards, Melinda Lyon, Brad Tanner and Justin Brooke
in front of the orginal start for PBP.

When we reach our 40s we often reach a physical plateau; however, we can continue to improve our performance by developing mental skills. We develop mental skills the same way we develop riding skills: practice. Most riders can gain more by investing an additional hour in mental training than in physical training.

Sports psychology has three fundamental principles:

  1. Your mind is like a TV. You control what you watch, i.e., the images, and if you don’t like the images you can change the channel.
  2. You get more of what’s on your mental TV. If you are worried about an upcoming event, you’ll get more worried. If you’re excited, you’ll get more excited.
  3. Our thoughts affect our feelings, and our feelings affect our thoughts. Negative thoughts, like “I don’t think I can do this, ” lead to negative feelings of fear, anxiety, tension and fatigue.

Building on these principles mental training includes developing the following skills:

Motivation based on self-assessment and goal setting. Think about your big picture goals and honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses relative to these goals. Then set training objectives for improvement that are S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-oriented, i.e., objectives for a specific month of training.

Focus by learning to relax fully and block out external stimuli. This is particularly useful to deal with nerves before events. We each have a bell-shaped arousal curve. As we get more excited our performance increases up to a point where we are too nervous and performance decreases. You can learn to relax by focusing on your breathing.

Power Thoughts and Images. Your thoughts affect how you feel and how you feel affects how you ride. You can develop and practice power thoughts and images in advance to help you at difficult times during an event. Look at your strengths and weakness and brainstorm a list of positive words that relate to how you ride (or the rider that you are becoming). Words that describe how you ride physically, for example “steady”, as well as words that describe you mentally, for example “aware”. Use this process to expand your power words and turn them into mental images.

Event Management. You prepare optimally for an event including effective training, dialing in your nutrition and testing your equipment. However, riding well depends on managing the event itself, staying in control of your pacing, nutrition, etc., even under changing circumstances. For an important event create three simple scenarios, riding:

  1. A great ride
  2. An expected ride
  3. A slow ride

For each ride estimate your time at rest stops or controls and make notes about how this would affect the clothing and supplies you might need, how you manage time at the stops and the effect on riding pace. You can improve your event preparation by visualizing your event.

Managing Pain During a ride you may develop a low-level pain due to growing fatigue or a sharper pain at one of the points of contact: butt, hands and feet. Pain obviously lessens your enjoyment and may decrease your performance. Pain often disrupts your rhythm, so start by focusing on your breathing to reestablish your rhythm. Then use your power images to help you ride through the pain. Top athletes usually associate with pain, using it to drive them harder “if I’m hurting this badly, think how they are feeling”. Other cyclists disassociate, consciously distracting themselves and directing their attention away from the pain. During training rides when you are pushing yourself hard, experiment with different ways of dealing with pain to see which works best for you.

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