"My Legs Hurt!" What are your thoughts really telling you and how can you turn it around to your benefit? Explore the psychological factors which can influence endurance performance and discover simple strategies to strengthen your mind and gain an advantage over your competitors.
12 years ago, when I first began writing for Pez, I was a racing cyclist and had recently moved to France to pursue my dream of becoming a professional cyclist. I soon realised that I wasn't the most talented athlete, but I used my growing interest in science and technology to optimise my performance.
At that time, I had a mechanistic and principally physiological view of human performance. I saw my body as a machine, my food as fuel and my brain as a computer over which I believed I should have complete control, especially with regard to those pesky emotions which kept popping up in my psyche.
Achieving Optimum Performance With An Integrated Approach
Today, I'm a long-retired racer and now work as a Performance Coach. Over the years, my approach has developed. I'd like to think I have a more nuanced and compassionate perspective on the human condition, on and off the bike, than I did in my racing days.
I've come to appreciate that the body and mind are more complex than I ever imagined. Through exploring the evidence and testing it in practice, I now believe that optimum performance can only be achieved with an integrated approach which takes into account a rider's body, mind and environment.
There is a growing body of evidence to support this integrated perspective and the powerful influence of the mind on endurance performance. For example, in March 2015 McCormick, Meijen and Marcora published a paper in the journal 'Sports Medicine' entitled "Psychological Determinants Of Whole-Body Endurance Performance." Their article shares a number of useful perspectives which we'll explore in this feature.
Mental Fatigue Can Increase the Perception of Effort
Studies have demonstrated that mental fatigue can significantly increase the perception of effort. Consequently, ahead of competition or demanding training sessions, athletes should avoid activities and situations which are likely to be mentally draining. Practically, this could mean adopting some simple strategies and tactics, such as scheduling study time or challenging work so that there is a sufficient time window before you need to be at your physical best. Ideally, schedule mentally fatiguing tasks on a different day. Or, if that's not possible, prioritise 'breakthrough' sessions by completing them early, leaving difficult cognitive tasks until later in the day.
Suppressing Negative Thoughts May Decrease Performance
At one time, I believed that the best approach to overcoming thoughts and emotions I perceived as 'negative' was to suppress or control them. However, a growing body of research suggests that thought stopping or suppression may have a negative impact on performance. This may be related to a concept called 'ego depletion', the theory which suggests that the psychological 'work' of managing our life and environment is paid for with a single inner-resource.
This theory has been supported by a number of studies which suggest that demanding emotional tasks can compromise the mental energy available to apply to physical activity. The more we try to control our emotions, the more we deplete our budget. Consequently, rather than trying to control and suppress, some psychological approaches suggest that accepting our emotions, before engaging in pre-planned behaviours which reflect our values, could be more effective in terms of performance. For example, you could choose to re-frame pre-race nerves as a message from your mind that you are ready to race and embrace the challenge of the sport you love, as opposed to trying to force out or control anxious thoughts.
Verbal Encouragement & Self-Talk
Team FDJ Director Marc Madiot is famous for hanging out the window of his team car, bellowing motivational monologues to his riders during races and individual time-trials. Evidence summarised in the 2015 McCormick et. al. paper supports the efficacy of coaches' use of verbal encouragement to facilitate the maximum effort of their athletes in competitions or hard interval sessions. In the same vein, in 2015 a study by Barwood et. al. recruited 14 athletes to carry out a series of 10 km cycling time-trials after being trained in two forms of self-talk behaviour.
The athletes were instructed to speak out statements from a list in response to negative self-statements that may enter their mind. However, the athletes were split into two groups. One group was provided with a list of neutral statements such as "my favourite colour is green" which they told themselves in response to negative thoughts such as "my legs hurt." The other group selected motivational self-talk statements such as "I can manage my energy until the end" and used these statements in response to thoughts such as "I've worked too hard."
Before the self-talk interventions, there was no significant difference between the performance of the groups. After the interventions, the performance of the neutral self-talk group remained similar whilst the motivational self-talk group improved their performance over the 10 km distance by between 13-71 seconds. In addition, even though the motivational self-talk group rode faster, their perception of effort remained the same, indicating that they did not find the higher power-output any harder to sustain.
In practice, this study demonstrates both the efficacy of self-talk in improving performance and making efforts feel easier. Also, it highlights the importance of using intentionally motivational statements, rather than neutral distractions, to enhance performance.
Whilst we wouldn't advocate it out on the road, many people find that listening to music whilst riding on the home-trainer can ease their pain and elevate power output. Substantial evidence supports the use of music to elicit positive feelings and reduce the perception of effort, particularly in efforts below lactate threshold. As many of us enter autumn and face the prospect of some long hours on the trainer, take some time to prepare your playlist!
Many studies have demonstrated how effective placebos can be in improving performance in a wide range of activities. In fact, placebos still seem to work, even if we know that the intervention is a placebo!
The implications of this are clear for coaches and athletes. As coaches, it's important that we communicate in a way which inspires belief in the sessions and practises that we recommend. Personally, I rarely use placebos in my coaching practice. However, inspiring belief in a training session or supplement offers an enticing performance enhancing opportunity.
Essentially, prepare a plan, then commit to and believe in it!
In 2011, Castle et al. conducted a study requiring subjects to carry out 30 minute cycling time-trials in a range of temperature conditions. However, the researchers deceived the riders by providing incorrect feedback on the room temperature, tricking them into thinking that the room and their body temperature were lower than they actually were. The control temperature for the study was 26.0°C. When the room was heated to 31.6°C, the rider's performance dropped. However, the subjects were asked to return to the lab to repeat one of the trials. In this case, the room temperature was controlled at 31.6°C, but the riders were told it was 26.0°C. Despite the room being 31.6 °C, the riders performed as if it was 26.0°C, simply because they believed it was. The researchers summed up their findings as follows:
"Deception improved performance in the heat by creating a lower RPE [Rating of Perceived Exertion], evidence of a subtle mismatch between the subconscious expectation and conscious perception of the task demands."
So if you want to improve your performance in the heat, try convincing yourself it's 5°C cooler than it actually is! More practically, on hot days, perhaps change the display on your bike computer to ensure that you will not see the ambient temperature whilst riding, as being aware of high-temperatures may inadvertently cause performance to drop.
Also, use a fan whilst using indoor-trainers as simply feeling cooler is likely to improve performance, regardless of the efficacy of the fan! It's also important to note that, whilst interventions involving deception show promise for improving performance, they may also present a number of ethical considerations in the future.
SummaryThere is clearly much still to learn about the complex interaction between the mind and body. With promising research, emerging evidence and when most of us are already maxed out on training load, given other constraints on our time and energy, investing in psychological skills training could provide some effective tools to improve your cycling performance.
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