One of the most common limiters to our cycling performance is the inner monologue we have with ourselves on the bike. We’ve got to get our nutrition and hydration right for sure but having a well-trained and fueled physical machine is no use if you talk yourself out of putting the pedal to the metal.
I recently worked with a recreational athlete who wanted to take his cycling to the next level. “I know that my mental game is my weakness” he explained to me, “but I have no idea exactly what trips me up and what to do about it.” So we put him through a narrative self-talk assessment to try and surface was what lurking below the surface in his mental game. We soon discovered what was holding him back. When approaching a climb, this cyclist was telling himself that he couldn’t climb that hill without putting a foot down. In fact, this record was stuck on repeat in his head for a good few kilometers before the climb even started. In his mind, the hill became bigger and bigger and more insurmountable. It was a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You’re unlikely to admit publically that you have these sorts of demons running around in your head while you cycle – we’re good at putting on that poker face while suffering right? The reality is that we all have an inner battle raging with our self-talk. I could go into the evolutionary neuroscience behind this and how certain networks in our brains are wired to identify threats and how we unrealistically amplify them, but it’s enough to know that you’re not alone.
So how do you get the upper hand on your negative self-talk so that you can improve your sufferability?
The first step is becoming aware of the negative statements that you have become accustomed to. They might sound like Ugh, this is hurting so much!, I can’t do this!, I’m feeling so tired, got no legs today, or I’m suffering here but this bloke next to me is idling. There may be some truth in them given what you’re feeling on the bike in that moment, but the key to unlocking the 18% gains of motivational self-talk proven by research is to not let them be reinforced by repeating them in your head. Don’t give them airtime!
The second step is to develop a set of motivational, positive self-talk statements that you can easily memorise. These should not be unrealistic, but subtly positive statements that turn the tables on what you’re feeling. Stay away from This isn’t hurting, or I’m not feeling the pain. Your brain is too clever to be fooled by something so patently false. Rather, try adopt statements like You’ve put the hours in, I can manage my energy to the end, Push through the pain, or I can AND will do this!
The third step is to actually use these statements when you are training or racing. When the intensity kicks up and you can feel the hurt locker looming, start saying these motivational statements to yourself.
The science behind this strategy shows that you can extend your time to exhaustion by up to 18%. That’s a massive boost. Why wouldn’t you want that? The additional benefit, as shown by the research, is that your perception of effort will reduce as well. In short, you will be able to push for harder and longer with motivational self-talk, while making the same level of suffering feel easier than before.