By Kristen Dieffenbach
Sixty down, twenty long miles to go. Caught up in the rhythm of the peloton, you have floated to mid pack. Suddenly you realize that while your mind has momentarily slipped out of ‘race’ mode – while you were ‘out’ fishing, figuratively speaking – an attack launched. The realization comes too late. You jump but it is too little too late. The race is over. You finish tired, frustrated, and disappointed. You know you have the power and the skill, so how did you miss the break?
Quality training and racing is more than the sum of miles and power output. Peak performance demands the ability to remain engaged and alert for prolonged periods of time and to be able to regain focus when faced with distractions. Often the ability to remain focused over the course of a race is what separates winners from pack fodder when riders of similar physical and technical ability compete. Despite countless hours of off-season saddle time, few athletes make a concentrated effort to develop and strengthen world class concentration skills.
Bernard Hinault – world class concentration skills.
Aside from paying attention to traffic and the occasional enthusiastic dog, day to day training does not require the high level of concentration that racing demands. Training plans often fail to develop focus with the same intentional and systematic precision given to physical skill development. This may be an oversight or it may be due to the common misperceptions that either you have this skill or you don’t or that, come race day, the race environment itself will be enough to ensure automatic engagement.
Focus and concentration is not simply a switch to be flipped on at will. If it was, missing the break or a turn on the race course would be far less common. Quality concentration is a valuable mental ‘muscle’ that riders need to learn how to flex and strengthen. Once harnessed, the powers of focus and concentration will enhance your ability to stay engaged across the span of a race, push through fatigue, and regain control when distractions occur.
Flexing Your Focus Muscles
Off-season or winter training is one of the best times to begin to work on developing focus. As mileage climbs, the natural inclination is often to ‘get in the groove’ and ‘just ride’. Obviously there is no need to maintain a hyper vigilant focus throughout a 4 hour training block. However, consistently letting mile after mile slip by unnoticed does little to help ensure that your powers of continuous concentration will be ready and available come race time. Here are a few key ways to incorporate focus drills into routine training to help develop focus skills this winter.
Intervals are a staple in every endurance athlete’s training diet. Early in the season and within long steady rides, focus intervals are periods of time in which the goal is to practice staying engaged and in the moment. The effort need not be particularly hard or challenging, it just needs to have a target power, heart rate and/or cadence windows to maintain.
Practice staying within the prescribed limits and try to keep your mind from drifting off onto other topics like the post ride meal, errands you need to do, or getting absorbed in the song pumping through your ear buds. This can be really challenging, especially since the effort of focus intervals should not be particularly hard.
Identify the things you should be connecting with both within yourself, (how you feel), as well as externally, (road conditions) and for the duration of the focus interval, intentionally move your focus efforts among those key areas. Early focus intervals may only be 4-6 minutes at a time, but see if you can work up to larger chunks of time where you maintain control over what you are focusing on without drifting.
As your training season progresses, focus interval work can be combined with tempo, steady state, and criss-cross efforts to enrich the physical efforts as well as to continue to strengthen your mental skills. Determine the key things you need to pay attention to during these intervals and practice remaining mentally engaged.
One important note – while most athletes use computer feedback to help target intervals, it is important that focus efforts go beyond just watching numbers and require actual mental engagement. In other words, this is a great opportunity to calibrate your mental perceptions of effort with actual effort, so that you can reliably sense your power or effort even without seeing your bike computer.
Developing the ability to stay in touch with the physical sensations associated with different efforts is a crucial element for quality consistent performance. Learning to connect with hard efforts helps athletes ride as close to the fine line between red line and implosion as possible without going over.
This focus skill can be honed through developing a personal ‘diagnostic systems check’. Create a personal focus pattern or roll call to assess breathing rate/quality, how your legs feel, heart rate (not just numbers but also feel), and other important physical parameters. The goal is to rotate your focus through these different areas and to associate these feelings with the amount of effort you are putting out, how fast you are going, and how hard you are working.
Practice associating the sensations of hard work with the speed, power, and hard efforts of training rather than with physical discomfort. Learning to interpret the physical feelings with hard work rather than with fatigue will help you maintain focus when you feel these things in race situations, rather than be distracted by them.
Finding Your Way Back
One of the most common distractions that disrupts focus can be physical discomfort. At some point in any hard effort it is going to hurt. When your legs begin to burn or when your lungs feel like they are going to explode the natural tendency is to think “awful”, “terrible”, or “toast”.
While nobody looks forward to this type of pain, successful athletes use positive focus practices such as cue words or phrases to help refocus on the task at hand and bring them back into the moment. You might choose a cue word or sound that you associate with power and speed (e.g.: “push”, “boom”, “power”, “go”). During interval efforts practice using your cue word to focus on the physical push of effort and intensity.
It is not realistic to expect perfect on point focus throughout the duration of an endurance based cycling event. Between the rhythmic nature of pedaling, the long stretches of time and the many many distractions on the road, it is inevitable that your focus will wander or that your concentration is broken. This is not a cause for concern unless you are unable to re-focus or get back into the moment. Incorporating intentional focus practice drills into training a few times a week will help you become more aware of where your focus is and when it is drifting. This awareness is the essential part being able to call upon these skills when they are needed.
Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., CC AASP is an associate professor of Athletic Coaching Education at West Virginia University and an Association of Applied Sport Psychology certified consultant. In addition to providing peak performance education and support for coaches, athletes and teams through her company Mountains, Marathons and More, Kristen is a professional coach with Peaks Coaching Group, specializing in working with developmental and Espoir cyclists. She is the co-author of Bike Racing for Juniors and has written over 20 chapters on sport psychology topics for peak performance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org