What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Mind Games

Much of our training for cycling revolves around what we do on the bike. However, without a strong brain and psychology, the strongest body can be like a sleek and aerodynamic time trial bike with the front brakes rubbing hard against the rim. To unlock your cycling potential, it pays to spend some time this off-season thinking through the mentality that can make you faster on the bike…

First the Disclaimer
The above example DID happen to me. Back in my Vancouver days, I was starting 30 s behind an older pal of mine in our weekly Thursday night 15 km TT. Knowing our respective abilities and prior times on the course, I was anticipating catching him about ј way through the race. I felt awesome the first stretch but for some reason couldn’t see him anywhere in sight. That got me flustered and in an increasingly bad state of mind of insecurity, frustration, and negativity, to the point where I was cursing myself near the end and worried more about being mad than about being fast.

End result was that I beat him by only about 5 s. Walking back to the car, I realized that the front wheel was barely moving, and must have been like that since I hit a hard bump in the first kilometre!

How to Drive a Car
What my story hopefully illustrates is that, you can have the fastest bike and the form of your life, but that really is only half the battle. Without your psychology being at the top of its form, the podium will rarely be within your grasp. Professor Tim Noakes from University of Cape Town in South Africa, a leading proponent of the “mind over matter” idea underlying how exercise and effort is ultimately controlled by the brain, likes to use the following analogy to explain his “central governor” model.

How fast can the fastest F1 car go?

However fast the driver is willing to drive it!

In other words, you’re the one who ultimately decides whether to keep riding. Sure, there is definitely a lot of physiology involved in determining whether you can keep up with the peloton or join in the attack. However, every successful cyclist talks about the mythical willingness to suffer, and much of that comes down to your motivation at that critical juncture of the race:

Are you willing to suffer to hold off the hard-charging chase in the final 9 km of Il Lombardia like Oliver Zaugg did to win his first ever race?

Johan van Summeren spending a long time in a breakaway, then riding the final kilometres of Paris-Roubaix with a flattening rear tire and with Fabian Cancellara breathing down your neck. Do you stay confident and focus on getting to the velodrome first, or do you say screw it and succumb to Spartacus?

Are you able to hang on to the pack through the hills so that you can unleash your strong sprint at the finish line? Will you be like Cav and suffer through the Alps so that he can go for the win on the Champs Elysees?

Do you go into the last TT of the Tour like Cadel Evans, fully prepared to win despite failing in final TTs in 2007 and 2008 to snatch victory?

Reward vs Effort
The common theme in all of the above examples is the simple idea of ”Reward” versus Cost of Effort. This concept was highlighted in a recent review paper in the journal Brain Research Reviews (Boksem & Tops 2008). This may not be a typical “sport science” journal, but a great example of inter-disciplinary research and why scientists, coaches, and athletes should bring ideas in from as many avenues as possible.

The review paper does not focus solely on exercise or sports, but more broadly on the concept of physical and mental fatigue. This is a major issue in business and occupational settings, as work productivity, absenteeism, worker satisfaction and retention, and workplace insurance issues present significant issues for research and application. Obviously, a happy and satisfied worker is much more likely to be a productive and creative worker than someone who is dissatisfied with their work situation and pessimistic in general.

The premise of the reward vs effort model of fatigue is quite simple. Common sense dictates that the longer you work on a demanding task, the more fatigue you will feel. However, workplace studies suggest that’s not really the case. Rather, fatigue can be experienced after even a short stint of work; conversely, working for long periods does not necessarily cause a progressively increasing fatigue.

The big proviso here, of course, is that the “reward” must be appropriate and sufficient to sustain the high workload. Reward can be defined in many ways and is likely highly individualized. For some workers, rewards are primarily financial; others define it as appreciation by friends/peers/family; and still others may define reward as purely internal.

The second half of the equation is the “cost” of that effort. That cost may be purely physical or physiological (e.g. 300 W average for 5 min to catch that break 30 s up the road). It can also be pain, or more accurately pain avoidance or aversion (e.g. how much is it going to hurt to bridge that 30 s gap?).

Many will by now recognize this argument as analogous to the “cost-benefit analysis” often discussed in business settings. Simply put, you assess how much an effort is going to cost in all its many ramifications, then match it up with the potential payoff. If the rewards outweigh the costs, chances are high that your motivation and performance will continue while fatigue will not occur or else not as quickly. On the other hand, if the costs becomes too high and outweighs the rewards, then your motivation plummets, fatigue (mental and/or physical) results, and you slow down.

Fatigue is a Many-Splendoured Thing
Judging from what has been presented above, there are many variables to consider in this rewards vs cost model, and many ways of tipping the scales one way or the other. Some of these are physical and training-related, but many others are based upon improving your mental fitness.

Improving your fitness. Well, that’s pretty obvious! But the central governor model of fatigue revolves around your brain assessing information from your body (e.g. lactate in muscles, breathing frequency, heart rate), calculating how hard that effort feels, and then adjusting its workload to avoid damaging yourself. So it’s how painful an effort feels that drives whether you continue an effort or not. So in the earlier example of needing 300 W for 5 min, if your functional threshold power (FTP) is only 250 W, that effort is going to hurt a lot more than if your FTP was 325 W. So overall, the fitter your are, the less physical/pain cost of any particular effort.

Drop your fear of failure. As our resident sport psychologist Marv Zauderer has written, anxiety can be our greatest enemy. We may fear getting dropped or not making the podium because of the effect it may have on our self-esteem or feeling of self-worth, such that it makes the “cost” of risking that effort much greater. However, if we learn to be comfortable with the possibility of failure (hey, even Philippe Gilbert’s season for the ages still involved losing >50% of the races he entered!) or the psychic effect it may have on us, then the cost of risking that attack becomes much less.

Re-evaluating and enhancing your reward. Besides “decreasing” the cost, another way to tip the balance is to increase the reward, possibly by changing your value system. Money can certainly be a valuable motivator, as we often read stories of pros having to win to pay the rent, or dipping into their credit cards to fund their racing. However, prize money is often irrelevant for recreational racers. But if “winning” means more than one thing to you, that can make the reward much richer and more important than if it only meant one single thing to you.

Your support network. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your fear of failure up above may be because you fear disappointing your family, friends, coaches, etc. On the other hand, your support network can also lift you to greater heights, knowing that they share or are committed to your cause. Therefore, assess how you interact with your support and make it a positive relationship, which should both enhance the reward and decrease the cost at the same time.

This is kind of a first for me in my nearly ten years of writing and editing Toolbox, as it’s pretty much the first non-physiological piece I’ve written! If a hard core quantitative physiologist like myself can devote an article to appreciating the mental and psychological issues associated with cycling, what I hope it achieves is that you too will spend some time this off-season thinking about how to improve your cycling in all its possibilities.
Ride safe and have fun!

Boksem MAS, Tops M (2008) Mental fatigue: costs and benefits. Brain Research Reviews 59: 125-139

About Stephen:

Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. He has just published the book Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology dealing with environments ranging from heat and cold through to hydration, altitude training, air pollution, and chronobiology. Stephen’s currently writing “Cutting Edge Cycling,” a book on the science of cycling due out April 2012, and can be reached for comments at [email protected] .

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