PezCycling News - What's Cool In Road Cycling : Psych it Up! Mental Suffering

What are you thinking about when you are on the rivet? More specifically, how good are you at “suffering”? Yes, I’m talking about the common cycling expression used by pros and amateurs alike to describe their ability to endure the more difficult moments of a race. Can you suffer and firmly lock your concentration on the wheel in front of you? Or do negative thoughts emerge into your conscious stream of thought?

Mental Capacity
You may be able to substantially improve your performance by developing your own personal mental routine to improve your “suffering”. Because the popular cycling adage “races are won by the cyclists who can suffer the most” is simply another way of phrasing the winner had the greatest mental capacity.

In preparation for this article, I spoke with renowned sports psychologist Bruce Gottlieb. Bruce who has worked with athletes in many sports including several NBA and NHL teams explained, “The difference between Michael Jordan and the twelfth man on the bench of the Denver Nuggets is their mental capacity”. Wow!

The training and the gear are only two sides of the triangle, and will crumble to dust without a strong mental game to match

Golden Triangle
Bruce’s triangle illustrates the three components of athletic success: 1) the athlete’s “innate physical talent” 2) his or her technical skills and 3) their mental capacity. Just as you train your body you must train your brain. Maximizing all three of these components will lead to your greatest performances.

Maximizing your mental capacity doesn’t just happen overnight, rather it is a culmination of hard work and good ‘ol fashioned practice. You’ve heard the expression, “practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect”? Well, you are going to perform exactly how you train so bring the same race intensity to your interval workouts and all your training. Develop a mental routine, practice now and when it’s crunch time you can call upon your mental strength and conquer “that” hill, make the break, or crush your PR.

Practice Practice Practice!
Each day practice your mental routine when you are out on your bike training. Practice relaxing your shoulders and releasing the death grip you have on the handlebars. Concentrate on a relaxed upper body and focus all you strength on pedaling powerful round circles.

Breathe! In and out. When your shoulders are scrunched up and your head is cocked to the side, refocus. Relax and imagine each breath bringing oxygen to your muscles and removing carbon dioxide from your lungs. You have to try it to see for yourself.

Develop a “mantra” -- a 3 to 5 word expression you can repeat to yourself while you are suffering. Practice saying this mantra over and over as you train. Along those same lines, consider developing a positive self image. Personally, and this may be no surprise to you all, I envision myself as a cheetah: the fastest land mammal in the world. To me, a cheetah conjures up images of how I like to race: aggressive, agile, and with a killer instinct. Alternatively, use your heroes as positive roles models and pretend you are Lance Armstrong giving Ullrich the “look”, or Oscar Freire unleashing his wicked sprint.

Refocus and Practice Some More!
In training, as your intensity increases remember your goal and why you are committed to achieving it. Focus on round pedal strokes and your breathing. Refocus when your mind wanders to the pain in your legs. Refocus when you begin to stress about work and family. The more time you can spend focused the better you will perform. The better you become at recognizing you aren’t focused and the sooner you refocus the faster you will go. Ironman legend Dave Scott was famous for focusing solely on technique throughout the Ironman.

Now this is much easier said than done and focus during competition takes an enormous amount of practice. One of the coolest things about mental training is that you can train your mind even when you are not riding your bike. This opens up a huge opportunity for your inner bike geek. In the office, during your commute home, on the yoga mat, whenever you have a chance to focus and relax. Visualize yourself out in front, climbing with power, or crossing the line first. Go ahead and daydream a little! You will then be able to draw from that mental well when the going gets hard.

As your goal approaches, work on your mental routine in early season training races. Review your mental performance after each race. Did you recognize that you weren’t focused during the race? Were you able to refocus? Was your mantra helpful? When the break went up the road were you concentrating on getting up there or were you afraid of blowing up? Again, I can’t say it enough, a mental routine takes practice. Make it a part of your training. It takes a tough cookie to dig in and suffer.

Sport Psychology
Lastly, as I realized earlier in the week, our Toolbox series on sports psychology is the tip of the iceberg. Use what we’ve written as a catalyst to seek out the help of a professional sports psychologist. These are the men and women with years and years of professional experience and expertise committed to helping athletes unlock the power of their mind.

If you’ve been training for years, racing hardcore, doing intervals upon intervals, mental training can take you game to the next level.

Psych it Up! The Start Line

Psych it Up! The Mental Game

Competitive Edge

PezCycling News and Frank would like to thank Bruce Gottlieb, LCSW of Competitive Edge for his time and thoughtful conversation. If you are in the Colorado Front Range area, consider spending a session with Bruce. I know I am.

Frank Overton
Frank is a full time professional USA cycling certified Expert coach committed to bringing his athlete’s to their next level. Please visit


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