Training the body but not training the mind is like buying an expensive wheel set, spending 3 days meticulously gluing tires on and not taking 5 minutes to pump them up before you go out for a ride. But that is exactly what we are doing when we spend hundreds of hours a year training our body, logging data, carefully tracking nutrition and hydration, while completely neglecting the mental aspect of training.
Research has proven over and over again that athletes who practice specific exercises such as meditation, visualization and positive affirmations have an undeniable advantage over those who don’t. Yet hardly anyone is willing to sit on their couch, turn off the Simpsons and work on their mental game? You don’t even have to put on funny shorts or suck down smog to do it!
The Cancer of Doubt
This is an issue that I face daily as a cycling coach. As a coach that is fairly active in the daily lives of my clients, I am able to see all the little stresses and doubts that prevent the hard work we do in training to materialize into extraordinary results on the road. From a simple phone conversation, I can hear the apprehension in a riders voice before a big event and I can tell whether it’s a good amount of helpful and constructive excitement or whether it has turned the corner into exhausting anxiety that will sap their energy and reduce their performance.
When on the bike, I hear them say such things as “I’m going to get killed this weekend” or “I’ll never be a climber.” I know that these are sometimes just playful quips, but they also represent a manifestation of doubt and negative self talk. These are insecurities that a rider has become so accustomed to that they have developed into actual truth. However, identifying these problems and pointing them out is not enough. A very precise and goal oriented approach needs to be taken to not just eliminate these negative self thoughts but to replace them with confidence and self-assurance that will result in more success and more fun on the bike.
The problem is that while most riders are very good at sticking to a detailed daily training program I find they often have a hard time getting their heads around something as broad and ethereal as mental training.
Periodizing the Mind
Just as with physical training, psychology can be strengthened through a periodized and structured program. The idea is to get riders to start thinking of it as actual training and to take that approach to it in terms of commitment and preparation. The program starts with “base training”. This includes things such as breathing and relaxation exercises to get the rider more focused and in touch with their mental strengths and weaknesses. Each successive step builds on the previous one until finally at the end, the rider can put it all together for a priority race or event. Having a clear task that must be accomplished each week appeals to the cyclist’s sense of discipline and organization which is why I’ve found this approach to be so effective.
Some people still might consider these concepts and ideas to be too “out there”. Others might be willing to learn more about it, but aren’t necessarily convinced that it can be effective or that it is a valuable use of their training time. While mental training is NEVER a substitute for actual training on the bike, it can be as powerful as any interval session or even performance enhancing drug. If you learn this stuff and practice it, you WILL see measurable results, not just in your training and racing, but also in your focus and success in day-to-day life.
In fact, there is one word that is so important to this process that it is improper that it has not been mentioned until this late in the article. That word is relaxation. In my research and in my experience both with my own racing and with my clients’, being relaxed is not only the key to success in cycling, but also success in life.
Tension and anxiety create a sort of mental tunnel vision that prevents a racer from “seeing the big picture”. When you are tense, you are only able to comprehend what is going on directly in front of you. When you are tense in a race, you see the other riders, you know how you feel and that’s about it. If you can learn to relax, your mind will open up and you will be able to take in more of what is going on around you. You will have a sense for who is in front of you and who is behind. You will not only be able to take stock in your own strength, but the strength of your competition around you.
When anxiety takes over, it is like you are playing a game of chess but only seeing one move ahead. By teaching your body to relax, you will be able to see every move in that game of chess down to the checkmate. This ability to see ahead is important, not just in developing race strategy, but when riding in traffic or with an inexperienced group of riders. By staying calm and focused instead of nervous and anxious, not only will your reaction time be quicker, (tension in the shoulders, arms and hands can actually slow the body’s ability to operate efficiently), but you will be better equipped to sense the driver who’s about to cut you off or the rider who’s about to swerve around a pothole without calling it out, before it actually happens.
Exercise #1 – Breathing and Relaxation
So up until now, I know that I’ve done exactly what I said I would not do, which is talk in generalities and not give any specific suggestions or training tips. However, it is essential that you buy into this whole-heartedly before we go any further. In the next article, I will get into more specifics on relaxation, negative self-thoughts and positive affirmations. In the meantime, I have one assignment for you to begin working on. It seems simple but it is the foundation for everything that comes next and it is absolutely essential that you do it every day and incorporate it into your daily training routine. So put it on your calendar, on your palm pilot, write it in soap on your bathroom mirror, whatever you have to do to remember.
Perform this exercise once a day starting with just 5 minutes and building up to 10 or 15. Lie on your back on your bed or on the floor or even sitting in a comfortable chair. Place an object like a book on your stomach or just place your hand there. Practice belly breathing. Take a big deep breath in through your diaphragm watching the book move up into the air and feel your body fill with relaxation. Imagine the air is pure and clean and full of energy and rich oxygen. Hold your breath for 5 seconds and then breathe out slowly and completely. Imagine the air you are expelling is full of all the toxins, lactic acid and pollution acquired from your day. As you breath out all the tension, anxiety and stress is released from your mind and body. Feel your body go limp. Now hold that breathe for 5 seconds. Repeat.
Psych it Up: Mental Suffering
Psych it Up: The Start Line
Psych it Up: The Mental Game
Self Hypnosis by Brian M. Alman, Ph.D. and Peter Lambrou, Ph.D.
Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Anxiety and Phobia Handbook by Edmund J. Bourne
Sport Psychology for Cyclists by Dr. Saul Miller and Peggy Maass Hill
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services check out contact Josh@liquidfitness.com or check out his website at