Mind tricks: 10 motivation-boosting tips to power you through long rides
On a long-distance bike ride your most important muscle is your mind. Alpecin Cycling reveal ten psychological tricks to ensure you always fight to the finish
Cyclists spend hours training their muscles and their lungs, but on long endurance rides what really matters is the power of the mind. To survive a 90km training ride, or a 150km sportive, you need the mental strength to overcome periods of self-doubt, fear, boredom, anxiety and pain. Winning these mind games is a key part of any endurance challenge. And it is a skill which is much easier to master than you think.
Elite sports psychologists now teach professional Tour de France riders to build a ‘mental skills toolbox’. The idea is that over the course of a long bike ride you are going to need to pull out different mental ‘tools’ at different times. On long climbs, you need to know how to stay focused.
When you realise you still have 100km left to ride, you need to be able to maintain your perspective. And when your leg muscles are burning with pain, you need to know how to fight through and stay positive.
Here we reveal ten psychological ‘tools’ to add to your own ‘mental toolbox.’ Armed with these mind-strengthening strategies, you will learn how to think like a professional cyclist and conquer the distance every time.
A study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that cyclists who use ‘positive’ or ‘motivational’ self-talk experience a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which enables them to ride for longer. RPE is how hard you feel your body is working. By talking themselves into a positive mindset, the cyclists in the study were able to ride 18% longer than cyclists who did not use positive self-talk.
Positive self-talk simply means giving yourself motivational feedback as you ride. For example, you might say to yourself: “I have trained for five months and I am ready;” “I feel strong today;” or “I have cycled this distance before – and I can do it again.”
Positive self-talk is particularly effective in the first half of long rides when you have the mental energy and freshness to fuel this kind of positive motivational feedback.
It may sound strange but ‘negative self-talk’ is also a useful psychological tool on long rides. Research in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that some riders perform better when they give themselves ‘negative’ feedback. For example, they might say to themselves: ‘Stop riding so slowly, you can do better;” “You are being lazy today;” or “Wake up, it is time to push on.”
Negative self-talk provides a mental boost because you are, in effect, challenging yourself to do better, and inviting a positive mental response. Research suggests that negative self-talk is best used in the second half of long rides: when you are feeling tired and edgy, it is better to channel this negative energy into a more positive reaction, rather than trying to pretend you are feeling happy and fresh.
The third type of self-talk to use on long rides is ‘instructional self-talk.’ This means giving yourself clear technical instructions on how to maximise your performance. Instead of focusing on harnessing your mood – either positive or negative –focus instead on improving the specific technical aspects of your ride. For example, you might say: “Pedal smoothly;” or “Keep your back flat and your head straight.”
A review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that this method is most effective when doing complex skills, such as riding up a steep climb, navigating a fast descent, or riding quickly in a time-trial position.
The 2012 Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins and the 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas both shared the same psychological tactic. To help them stay focused on long rides, they would break down each stage into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Instead of worrying about the 240km of suffering ahead, they would think only of the next 1km.
When they had completed that 1km, they would then target the next 1km. This ‘breakdown’ strategy helps you to avoid the overwhelming panic when you think about the long distance left to cycle, and encourages you to see the race as a series of smaller, achievable goals.
It is impossible to get through a five-hour ride without periods of self-doubt. Will I be able to finish? What if I run out of energy? But you can counter these feelings with ‘cognitive displacement’ strategies. Cognitive displacement simply means replacing an emotional reaction with a rational one.
Instead of wondering if you will run out of energy, think about what you are going to eat, how often, and when, to ensure you make it to the finish line. By substituting an unhelpful emotional reaction with a helpful rational strategy, you will remind yourself what you need to do to succeed.
If you start to lose your focus on a long ride, try using ‘association’ thinking. This is the technical term for thinking about your immediate sensations and feelings, such as the rhythmic sound of your breathing or the cadence at which you are pedalling. Many pro cyclists also count their pedal strokes as they ride, as it helps to draw them into the present moment and narrow their focus.
A study of cyclists in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that ‘association’ strategies work best during high-intensity efforts, like battling up a steep climb or chasing the riders in front of you.
There are also times when it can help to broaden your focus with ‘dissociation’ strategies. Dissociation is the psychological term for focusing your mind on external stimuli, such as the beautiful landscape around you.
One study published in the journal Sports Medicine found that ‘dissociation’ strategies are very effective for blunting pain during the kind of low or moderate intensity exercise used on long training rides. You can also try thinking about what you will cook for dinner or where you will go on holiday. By thinking of anything other than the pain, you can distract your mind from the suffering while the kilometres tick by.
When your muscles are hurting, you need a ‘trigger’ word to boost your mood. Trigger words – such as ‘strong’ or ‘courage’ – are emotive words which lift your spirits, like a much-needed jolt of caffeine. When the pain kicks in, focus on your trigger word and use it to inspire you through the difficult moment.
‘Visual imagery’ performs the same function as a trigger word, but the difference is that you are conjuring up a picture instead of a word. This image might be an ice cube, which reminds you to keep cool under pressure; or a soldier, which inspires you to keep fighting. By focusing on this image, instead of the pain, you will get a surge of motivation when you need it the most.
The fun factor When you are covered in dirt and still have 50km to go, laughing at yourself will deliver a surprisingly powerful boost to your mind. A report in Essentials of Exercise and Sport Psychology found that humour can help people to deal with stressful situations. Laughing at yourself triggers an important cognitive change which refreshes your outlook and restores your perspective. An easy way to achieve this is to adopt a third-person perspective, so you momentarily see yourself through the eyes of someone else, who might smile at your wet and painful ride. You will enjoy a surge of feel-good endorphins which you can surf all the way to the finish line.