Riding a bike is a physical activity. It’s all about your body working with the machine and taking you places. Yet what goes on in our minds can have a profound effect of our bodies and it is well worth considering the psychology behind your cycling.
I love the physicality of riding my bike (well, bikes!). I need to feel fit to feel like myself. After I had my children I was desperate to get back on my bike because I just didn’t feel like myself without it. I knew that I had to find a way to find the time to ride.
I need to feel that my body has worked to feel like a day has passed. I love the feeling of tiredness that comes from a long ride. I love the satisfaction of getting up that long hill. I love the fact that I can get fit while getting to the places I want to go. The sense of satisfaction from hanging on to a bunch all the way to the finish line of my final criterium race last season was immense.
In the past, in my own cycling I only really thought about the physical – how fit am I? How far can I go? How fast can I go? What heart rate zone am I in? What power am I putting out?
But working with other people at all levels of bike riding has made me appreciate just how important our minds are. After all, it is our minds which tell our bodies to move.
I have come to understand that whatever you want to do on a bike, it is well worth thinking about the psychology of it.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway!
If you are reading this blog then chances are you are already a cyclist (or a person who rides a bike, if you prefer). But have you ever thought of doing something new on a bike, yet not done it?
‘I’d like to cycle to work but the traffic scares me…’
‘I’d like to have a go at mountain biking but I’m no good at anything technical…’
‘I’d like to try a sportive but I’m not sure I’m fit enough…’
‘I’d like to try racing but I don’t think I’m fast enough…’
‘I’d like to cycle to school with my kids but I’m not sure it’s safe…’
Ring any bells?
Perhaps you have been trying to encourage your friends to cycle because you want to share the joy you find on a bike and they want to, but they just don’t seem to get started.
All of the above boils down to fear. It can be scary and sometimes intimidating to do something new and it’s sometimes hard to know where to look to find the confidence to make that leap.
The answer to this one is going to vary slightly for different people. For me, I can often use my fear of regrets to overcome my fear of the unknown – what if I never do this and then it’s somehow too late to ever do it?
But even more powerful than that is this – find someone to do it with! Join a Breeze ride, become a ‘Breeze Champion’, join a coaching session, join a club, join a Facebook group, go to a talk, persuade a friend, drag someone along to stand next to you! There are loads of opportunities out there and the internet is a wonderful thing!
Coach Says You Can!
As a coach I spend a fair bit of time watching riders do things they tell me they are no good at. Those things tend to be climbing, descending, cornering, or a combination of the three. There are always tips and techniques I can offer to help them improve, there is sometimes an element of fitness levels holding them back, but beyond the physical, there is always an element of psychology to work on.
I see a lot of riders who tell me they are no good at climbing. They get dropped on every climb in a group, they feel that no amount of physical training gives them the improvements they want and they are resigned to the fact that they are ‘no good on the hills’.
It is exactly this resignation which is holding them back.
These riders will often try to hold as big a gear as possible for as long as possible up a hill, in the hope that they will keep up. Sooner or later, climbing in big gears hurts, and they drop down several gears at once, losing all momentum and all speed. If this is you, learn to love your gears – there are very good reasons why the pros don’t ride the Tour De France on single speed bikes any more! Use your gears to keep your effort levels steady and only shift down one gear at a time.
If you see a hill coming up and think ‘Oh no, I’m going to get dropped,’ chances are you will get dropped. If your brain tells your body that it can’t, then it can’t. Think about the physical response your thought provokes – you fear getting dropped and feel anxious about your ability to keep up. Anxiety and fear are designed to induce a ‘flight or fight’ response in our bodies and that means a raised heart rate and tense muscles – both things which will make climbing harder.
It is the same anxiety response of tense muscles and raised heart rate which follows the thoughts ‘descending is terrifying’ or ‘I’m going to get dropped on that corner.’ Your muscles tense and you suddenly find your knuckles are white, your arms are locked, your shoulders are somewhere up by your ears, and your neck is aching with the strain. Your bike starts to feel twitchy and you find yourself fighting it. When your hands and arms are tense, every tiny movement you make will travel through the handlebars and make your bike twitchy. This twitchiness makes the rider panic more and tense more, and a vicious cycle ensues.
If this rings a bell with you, you need to try to relax, and believe in yourself.
Easier said than done.
Start by paying attention to your hands, arms and shoulders – notice when they are tense and try to relax them. When you do you will feel your shoulders drop. And if you’re not yet ready to believe it when you tell yourself that you can…at least stop telling yourself you can’t.
The Twenty Minutes of Doom
When you race your bike, what goes on in your head takes on a whole new level, especially when you are starting out.
First there’s the start line, when you sneak a look across the line at everyone else…and you think ‘What the hell am I doing here?!’ All you can see is dark glasses and determined faces and everyone else looks so much more confident – and competent – than you. Here’s the thing though, the only way to tell who is more competent than you is to race – you’re going to have to wait until after the start before you judge that one. Also, you are not the only person on that start line who is thinking those thoughts. Mirrored sunglasses are great – they hide the fear!
Then there is the ‘twenty minutes of doom’. This is especially true of criterium racing, where the races are short so they start fast and stay fast. Twenty minutes into the race (for me it’s always twenty minutes into the race) all I can think is some combination of ‘this is rubbish’, ‘I can’t keep this up’, ‘oh my goodness, my legs are screaming’ or just generally, ‘OUCH!!!!!’. You HAVE to ignore this. If you give in to it, you will grind to a halt.
Again, remember that you are not the only one thinking this. Even pro cyclists have to deal with the same thoughts – remember Jens Voigt and ‘shut up legs’? For me, counting down helps. In a 50 minute criterium race, if I can just get to 25 minutes then I’m half way through, after that, it’s a count down all the way to the finish. In a road race I count down the miles in fractions – I’m a quarter of the way there, I’m half way there… If the going is really tough, I’m prepared to resort to twentieths!
This is a fantastic time to start thinking about what goes on in your head while you think you are concentrating on your legs. Start by paying attention to what you tell yourself about your riding, when you are riding. Listen to yourself when you tell other people about your cycling. Pick out the phrases when you are telling yourself you can’t do it. Then challenge yourself on it.
As the nights start to get darker (not yet, keep riding in the evenings for a good few more weeks yet!) settle down with some books and give it some thought. There are loads of great books about sport psychology and cycling psychology. You might find the ones listed below useful and if you have any recommendations, I would love to hear them.