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Is it all in your head?

The image I’m sharing in this post is quite profound and possibly one that you may have seen before. Although it features an animal the same instincts that are stopping this donkey from doing what it wants to are the same forces that often prevent many of us from achieving our goals or maximizing our potential.

Often it is anxiety and uncertainty caused by a lack of confidence or the need to remain in our comfort zone which ultimately limits our growth. Growth only occurs when we feel uncomfortable. For the endurance athlete this might take the form of hard training, the sort of efforts that cause you dread before the session - but more often it’s the other end of the spectrum and not taking it easy and having a day off, that’s probably even more uncomfortable for some. I’ve definitely been guilty of this in the past.

The typical mindset of a dedicated athlete is that more is better, and sometimes that might be correct, but only up to a point. As organic creatures we can only absorb so much stress before that stress can no longer be tolerated and we either stagnate, plateau or worse still become overtrained.

Rest and recovery is whole other topic and I’ll cover that in another post, but you can see that mindset and our psychology dictate our behavior that can often be to the detriment of achieving higher levels of performance.

This is where the power of self-talk can help improve our mindset and how we approach our training and racing. There’s a ton of literature out there on things like mental toughness and mindfulness. Maybe ask yourself what is it to be mentally tough, I’d be interested in people’s opinions.

I’m also a big fan of visualisation, particularly before a challenging session or big race. It’s something that needs to be practiced but there are studies like this one that have proved there is a tangible benefit.

Below is something you might want to employ as part of your weekly schedule.

· Find a place where you won’t be distracted, I often use this tactic when doing a relatively easy session, it’s akin to meditation on the bike and helps combat the boredom of a steady state indoor effort. However it could be done at any time.

· Try and picture the environment where you will either be competing or from a past event where you felt good, you want to try and replay this effort in your mind and think about the sensations that you were experiencing.

· Now really focus on those muscle movements and try to get back in that moment, you might find your heart rate responds which is a good sign this is working as the brain triggers the involuntary response.

· You can also think back to situations where you didn’t feel so good or your performance wasn’t what you had hoped for, how did you feel in that moment and what would you do differently second time round, try and replay the different scenario in your mind.

There’s no doubt a myriad of ways that such techniques can be developed and probably best for each individual to find what works for them.

As we are now into the offseason (unless you race cyclocross) it is a great time to start trying to employ some of these techniques so that come spring or race season it’s bedded in and ends up being systematic - you basically find yourself doing it without even thinking.

It’s this time of year that we can also look to cross train and perhaps work on some of our weaknesses, this can provide a mental break from the endless hours pedaling and also increase confidence as you look to improve your overall physicality. I’m a big fan of strength training and actually used to do a lot of this in my earlier years before I got heavily into cycling. The benefits of strength training for the endurance athlete shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you are getting old like me. Sarcopenia is the medical term for age related skeletal muscle loss and once you are in your 40’s the decline is linear, with potentially up to half of your muscle mass lost by the time your 80.

The good news is that this decline can be slowed down and in some cases reversed if you haven’t previously lifted weights or done much exercise generally. In the context of most endurance athletes the point I’m making here is that fundamentally we need muscles to move our bodies be that walking or riding a bike. The more strength you have in those muscles the more work you can ultimately do before fatiguing i.e. time to exhaustion. There are a whole host of other benefits such as increased bone density, injury prevention and an increase in economy.

So I highly recommend getting out the iron and start lifting over these winter months and beyond, not too many reps though as its strength we want not big muscles.

Hopefully you found this post interesting and please feel free to comment, I’d welcome opinions on these or any other topics.

Cheers for now.


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