What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Chasing Fast

The Central Governor hypothesis proposes that our brains ultimately governs how hard we’re willing to ride, so it makes a great target for manipulating to improve our performance. How might we practically use this ability to ride faster?

Central Governor Review
My May Toolbox article discussed the importance of the psycho-physiological relationship in determining performance. Ultimately, the main tenet of this “central governor hypothesis” is that the brain-body relies on both physiological cues (e.g. lactate levels, muscular fatigue, temperature) and also psychological cues (e.g. motivation, knowledge of performance, self-confidence, distance to finish) to regulate how hard we’re willing to ride at any point in time.

Rigging the System
The big implication from the central governor is that the brain can be messed with, in a good and ergogenic way. The critical component of this is that the brain is told something different from what is actually happening.

Physiologically, we might achieve this by keeping our neck and head area cooler through the use of ice socks or pouring cool water over our heads. This can help to fool our brain into thinking it’s cooler than it really is, which may help us be willing to ride harder. NB. This can be risky at the extremes of hot temperatures, as this might lead to working too hard and risking heat illness.

Psychologically, one way towards “rigging” the central governor is through different sport psychology interventions, which I will leave to Jim Taylor and our other Toolbox crew. The other way is through altering your real-time feedback so that you’re thinking you’re performing different than reality.

Stone et al. 2012
We dissected an article in my May Toolbox where the focus was on lying to the participants that they were going faster or slower than they actually were. In large part, the results were inconclusive and did not find any difference between the accurate, faster lying, and slower lying conditions. The basic conclusion then is that it doesn’t matter what you tell your athlete about how they’re performing, because they will just ride to their own desires and self-knowledge.

But as expected, it’s rarely as simple as that, and it may be possible to trick your brain.

In the March 2012 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a UK group tested whether you can gain improved performance by chasing someone who’s going faster than you realize (Stone et al. 2012).

The analogy to think of is seeing a rider in the distance ahead of you. That innate competitive nature we have as cyclists and athletes can drive us to ride faster than we think possible in order to chase down that rider.

With that general idea or context in mind, let’s check out the study details:

• Nine trained male cyclists did four 4000 m time trials on a Velotron cycle ergometer.

• The first trial was a familiarization ride, and the second was the Baseline (BL) trial.

• The Velotron avatar that is available as a racing partner on the 3D software was then set to exactly replicate the BL performance in one test condition (accurate or ACC trial).

• In the fourth condition, the Velotron avatar was set at 102% of the wattage during the BL trial (deception or DEC trial). The 2% improvement was a balance between being too big a change to be sensed by the riders, and also what would constitute a significant performance gain.

• The deception occurred in that participants were told the study aims were to test the consistency and reliability of performance.

• Feedback consisted only of riding versus the avatar and distance completed.

The Truth Comes Out
So the basic goal or thrust of the study is to see whether, when the focus was externalized towards an opponent, the competition can draw out a stronger ride. In comparison, the Wilson et al. (Wilson et al. 2012) study I discussed in May was more of an internal challenge and manipulation without the same competition focus. What happened with the deception and racing against someone?

• First and foremost – the DEC was quicker than BL.

• ACC was also quicker than BL, and intermediate between DEC and BL.

• The same pattern was seen with ratings of perceived exertion. DEC > BL and ACC > BL.

This is interesting in that the improved competition provided by the presence of an avatar, and also a faster avatar drove the participants not only to a higher power output but also a higher perceived effort. So here is excellent proof that competition pushes us – willingly – to harder efforts than we’d be able to ride solo.

• The improvement in DEC trial seemed to come from a greater anaerobic contribution to power output.

This also supports the contention that better competition pushes us harder. Furthermore, this suggests that we all have a latent physical reserve that only gets really tapped when we become highly motivated, such as when we’re competing.

I really liked the design and execution of this study. Having recently published two studies myself where deception was critical to the design (Hartley and Cheung 2013; Hartley et al. 2012), I know how hard this may be to achieve but also how important it is to properly understand the impact of psychological factors on physical performance.

There are some big messages from this study, which I have hinted at above:

1. If you want to improve, you can push yourself physically so much harder by riding in a fast group or competing. You may be able to better control your efforts when riding solo, but it is mentally so much more taxing to do those hard efforts solo. So don’t be a slave to your power numbers. Instead, mix your solo interval workouts with hard group rides, club races, and actual races. They will give you a terrifically hard workout without draining your mental batteries as much.

2. To get the most out of those hard group rides, ignore what your power or heart rate monitor is saying and just RIDE! Don’t use your known power profile as a crutch but instead live in the moment. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you’re able to hold 300 W or 330 W for 3 min. The only thing that matters is closing that wheel or sprinting for the line!

3. The other way to get the most out of those hard group rides is to ride with/against people faster than you. Fighting in that harder environment to hang on in the hills, contribute to the paceline, etc. is going to push you harder than riding against a weaker group.

4. No matter how hard you may think you’re pushing yourself, chances are that you physically still have more in reserve. How much you’re able to tap into that reserve may be what separates the winners from the dropped. So no matter how perfect your physical training, do not ignore the psychological side of training, because that’s going to be your key to unlocking the last bits of your potential!

Ride fast and have fun!


Hartley GL, Cheung SS (2013) Freely chosen cadence during a covert manipulation of ambient temperature. Motor Control 17:34-47

Hartley GL, Flouris AD, Plyley MJ, Cheung SS (2012) The effect of a covert manipulation of ambient temperature on heat storage and voluntary exercise intensity. Physiol Behav 105:1194-1201

Stone MR, Thomas K, Wilkinson M, Jones AM, St Clair Gibson A, Thompson KG (2012) Effects of deception on exercise performance: implications for determinants of fatigue in humans. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 44:534-541

Wilson MG, Lane AM, Beedie CJ, Farooq A (2012) Influence of accurate and inaccurate ‘split-time’ feedback upon 10-mile time trial cycling performance. Eur J Appl Physiol 112:231-236

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 70 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at [email protected] .

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