Most coaches give out training zones one through five plus a Max Effort or N/A category. The 6th zone transcends all the others. Training in Zone 6 indicates that you are training your brain and unlike the other zones it can be done during any workout at any time. Of course by definition, any time you are pedaling the bike, the brain is working, learning and adapting but Zone 6 indicates an intentional focus on changing thought patterns, breaking down old negative beliefs and rebuilding new, positive truths for yourself.
So to mark the coinage of this new term, here is a little re-hash of the mental training tips I have laid out over the years in a variety of articles. These have never all been published in one place so this piece will also serve as a handy reference guide.
Breathing and Progressive Relaxation
Spend 5 minutes a day doing a breathing exercise. Inhale through your nose. Feel your chest and belly expand. Hold the breath for a count of 3. Exhale through your mouth. Hold the exhalation for a count of 3. Repeat. Imagine the air coming into your body is blue and healing and full of positive energy. Imagine the air going out is brown and full of toxins and negative energy. With every exhalation, focus on relaxing a specific muscle. Start with your feet, relaxing one body part at a time, all the way up to your scalp. They say it is impossible to have an anxious mind inside of a relaxed body and since being both physically and emotionally relaxed on the bike is crucial for energy conservation, supple bike handling and quick decision making, this exercise should be one of the cornerstones of your training program.
Set concrete and specific goals for yourself. Your mind will not know how to effectively steer your body towards an objective if there is not a clearly marked X on the map to indicate what the destination is. Make the goals lofty and challenging but not unrealistic. In addition to the goal itself, give yourself a why. Human beings operate best when there is a tangible reason for doing what they are being asked to do. Strengthen the resolve of your ambition by writing it down. Strengthen it further by sharing it with friends and family. A goal that only exists in your head can easily be dismissed but one that goes out to all your friends on Facebook, must be reckoned with.
Try a weeklong mental detox. This is a sort of cleanse but, instead of purifying your body of toxins, you are purifying your mind of negative thoughts. The repetition of negative, depressive thinking creates channels in the brain like the groove on a record. These negative thoughts sink contentedly into these well worn channels and create a sense of comfort to the point that they can even create cravings like an addiction. This is why listening to sad music can feel reassuring when you are down. During the mental detox, you resolve to ban all negative thinking from your mind for a period of 7 to 10 days. This means any time, even the most remotely negative thought comes to mind, you immediately replace it with a positive affirmation. The first few days will be very uncomfortable as you will yearn for the old, comforting, negative thoughts but soon, the old channels will be erased and replaced with new, positive thought channels and that will become your new addiction.
Affirmations are the cornerstone of my own mental training program and are one of the most effective ways to quickly and powerfully create new, positive thought patterns. The first step is identifying the negative mantras that repeat in your conscious and subconscious mind so that you can create positive phrases that directly counter them. This is not always so easy because the negative perceptions are so deeply imbedded that it is hard to separate the thoughts from reality. If you go under the assumption that thoughts become beliefs and beliefs manifest into reality then you can also assume that all beliefs, whether they are based in reality or simply exist because of negative experiences or self doubt, can be improved upon through mental training.
Once you identify a few specific negative phrases that you find floating through your mind more often then they should, come up with a few positive phrases that directly counter them. Repeat the affirmations at night before you go to sleep, in the morning while looking at yourself in the mirror and most importantly for at least 10 minutes on every ride you do. Say the affirmations out loud and with conviction.
All the other elements of the mental training program thus far have been pretty non-specific. Sort of like base training for the mind. The visualization is where you can focus in on a specific event and mentally prepare for it in a very precise manner. Once you pick a peak event, sit down at your computer and write out a script. The script will describe the way the event would play out in your absolute perfect world. Get into as much detail as possible, describing sights, sounds and sensations. Don’t be afraid to get specific about how you want things to happen, even though they might seem beyond your control. For instance, if you think a 5 man break on lap 10 would lead to your best possible chance for victory then include that in your script. You will be amazed at how a properly rehearsed script can seem to influence reality in ways that seem impossible. Learn the script backwards and forwards and take yourself through it every night before you go to sleep. Start with a 5 to 10 minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise to create a trance like state. As you go through the script, experience every moment of it as if it were actually happening. Do this every night for at least one week before the event and you will be astounded at the results.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com.