Toolbox: Sports Confidence
When cycling, we are all seeking the Holy Grail of peak fitness and form, that “no chains” day where riding seems effortless. But besides optimal physical preparation, the other important and often overlooked ingredient is effective sport psychology, and the role that confidence plays in peak performance.
Quick commercial blurb: Stephen’s book on the science of cycling, “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” written with Hunter Allen, has hit the bookshelves as of late April 2012. You can order a copy signed by both authors through Peaks Coaching Group.
Cycling is almost always fun and enjoyable, but sometimes the training can be hard work. The payoff, though, are those few days a year when it seems like the bike has no chains and you’re riding with absolute ease. Ideally, these also coincide with your peak event days, whether they be a century or your peak race.
I had one of those days these past couple of weeks, and can certainly vouch for how amazing a feeling those peak days are, along with their addictive effects. It came on the heels of the fabulous week of cycling we had in northern Italy with Pez’s 10th anniversary party at the end of May and start of June. Coming off the (literally!) high of climbing the Stelvio, I returned to flatland and windswept Holland and an invite by our literary scribe Leslie Reissner to join him in re-riding the Amstel Gold cyclosportif 150 course. It was also a chance for me to ride in that region again, after last doing the Limburgs Mooiste (Limburg’s Best) sportif ride during my last sabbatical in 2005.
Well, we had a fabulous day and I had an amazing “no chains” day. I felt stronger and stronger as the day wore on, and honestly felt at 120 km in, with still the famous Amstel race climbs (Kruiseberg, Eyserbos, and Keutenberg) to come, that my legs were amazingly fresh and as if I had just clipped in for the day. As much as such a thing is possible, I danced up those climbs and almost laughed as I did so. It also wasn’t just my perception of being fresh and strong, but was borne out by my power profile and still being able to average a bit above my FTP for the 2-4 min duration of each climb.
In looking back at the day and my emotions to see if there were any clues to glean into my high level of self-confidence and emotional resilience:
• I had a couple of good weeks of riding prior to the Pez party, and could see a trend of increasing power levels in my riding over those weeks.
• Thanks to my buddy Eric (see below) and the Pez party, I had a few solid 5+h ride days, so I knew I could handle the distance.
• I knew from experience that I come off big “camps” with a huge bump in power and fitness for the next couple of weeks. From tracking my power files, I know that I often ride best in a slightly fatigued state (negative 10 TSB or so). Note that this is a double-edged sword, as this can also lead to pushing too hard for too long and a state of non-functional over-reaching.
• I know, again from experience in prior century rides, that I tended to get stronger past the 100 km mark.
• I had experience with the general intensity of the ride and the hills from 2005.
• If I had to sum up my mental approach, it was something like: “this is the greatest day ever to be on the bike and I’m going to enjoy it to the max.”
Less Happy Days
Now let’s compare and contrast this with one of my worst big rides in recent history. It came about at the very start of my time here in Holland in mid-May, when my buddy Eric invited me to join him and his friends for a ride in the Ardennes region of Belgium, over many of the climbs from Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
This ride was pretty much the anti-thesis of Amstel. I felt lousy and miserable throughout the day, like I was pedaling squares and my legs felt like wood. The climbs were definitely steeper and the roads rougher in Belgium, but the whole day was a struggle and I didn’t feel fluid or smooth once during the whole day. I wasn’t much fun for Eric to be around, constantly wondering if we’d be finishing soon and complaining about things.
Looking back, what were some of the contributing factors to my low emotional resilience and lack of self-confidence?
• I hadn’t been on the bike for 3+ weeks, relaxing in a villa in Tuscany with the family (yeah, tough life…)
• I had absolutely no idea about the course and the hills, and pretty minimal info about the plans for the day, distance, time, anything! Eric just told me we’re riding in the Ardennes and that was about it!
• I had just thrown my bike together the previous night and there were lots of adjustments bugs that I hadn’t worked out, like my rear brake being sticky and mysterious squeaks.
• Eric was on amazing fitness and form, as he was in the last month of training for the Alpe d’HuZES charity ride (6 times up Alpe d’Huez in one day!), and I got focused on that and exacerbated that by comparing it to what I felt to my own lousy fitness.
• I mentally spent most of the day counting down every single kilometre to the next time we’d circle back to the car, or else the number of klicks to the end of the day.
• If summing up my mental approach overall, it would be: “how do I finish (or get the others to finish the ride) with the least bit of embarrassment to myself?” along with “what the hell is wrong with my bike?”
Compare and Contrast
Comparing the two days, it really isn’t rocket science to see the diametrically opposite approaches and sensations between the two big rides. For LBL, my fitness was unknown, I was focused on comparing my ability to others, and I didn’t know a thing about the course. Plus my bike wasn’t tuned properly! Note though, that while both rides were long at 5+ hours, that the rest of the negative thoughts masked my inherent knowledge that I usually come good as the ride gets longer.
All these were essentially reversed for Amstel. I knew my fitness was good and that I had a past history of being good after a hard bout of riding and in the latter stages of a long ride. I knew the general Amstel terrain (and the distance and plan for the ride!). It was a positive cascade of one door of self-confidence opening up the next.
Sport science can be enormously complex and intricate, but it can also be stunningly simple. Give an athlete self-confidence, and a positive outlook and strong emotional resilience typically erupt into a positive spiral of mental strength. In turn, this mental strength hugely impacts the physiology, allowing the athlete to fully realize the benefits of the hard physical training they’ve been pounding into their bodies.
My suggestion, therefore, is for each of you to honestly evaluate what makes you tick psychologically. What physical cues or feedback do you need to have a high level of self-confidence? Is it actual race results? Is it training data? Do you like/need to compare yourself with others (this can definitely be a two-edged sword, if you don’t react well competing with stronger riders)? Is knowing the course or the competition well ahead of time important to you?
So sit down with a blank sheet of paper and go through your most and least self-confident experiences on the bike. Try to think back carefully and honestly evaluate how you were feeling and thinking leading up to it and during the ride. Everyone will have individual responses, and the important thing is to try to put systems in place to put yourself into the best mental mindset possible.
Ride fast and have fun!
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. 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] .