At the confluence of the contemporary world and the pre-historic sits the power meter and the human brain. A device that gives an accurate empirical measurement of how hard a cyclist is pushing the pedals allied with a 200,000 year old evolutionary alarm mechanism wired to warn of a sabre-toothed tiger attack. How can these potentially contradictory bedfellows be reconciled when it comes to training and racing on a bike?
In the 21st Century, the power meter coupled with a heart rate monitor, provides all the data needed to ensure physiological training is specified at the right intensity and duration. Heart rate supplies the input metric; how hard a rider is trying measured in beats per minute, and the power meter reports the results of all that effort measured in watts. This, occasionally brutal, data has revolutionised training and largely consigned cumbersome VO2 max and lactate threshold tests to history. In the, admittedly unlikely, scenario of escaping a sabre-toothed tiger attack on a bicycle the data would likely show a heart rate going from the 80bpm to 200bpm and power going from 0w to 1200w then rolling back to 400w or so over 45 seconds. After that the unfortunate pre-historic rider would slow down pretty quickly. If the tiger produced better performance data, it would soon be picking bits of Lycra out of its teeth.
The ancient part of human brain is well suited to the hunter gatherer existence of our evolutionary past but much less so to modern life. More relevantly for cyclists, it doesn’t like to expend energy when it’s not being chased by a tiger or under immediate threat. This burns precious calories and waste resources that could aid reproduction and survival. The brain’s limbic system controls the fight, flight or freeze response and becomes activated during exercise. It gets quite excited during moderate activity but maximal efforts without an immediate threat to life and the limbic system suggests, in no uncertain terms, the body knocks it off and helps itself to another slice of mammoth. This is why amphetamine use was rife in cycling for so long. It doesn’t alter the physiology; it blocks the signals from the brain and inhibits the automatic ‘kill switch’. The physiological consequences of consistently over revving a human engine are damaging at best and at worst, deadly. The only way the limbic system can be legally and safely challenged is by deploying the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls executive functions and rational thought, to persuade it of the need to press on in the absence of life threatening circumstances. This is tricky because the pre-frontal cortex is a relative newcomer in evolutionary terms, it’s much weaker and acts much slower than the fight or flight response. Coupled with this, the power meter now indicates what we should be capable of irrespective of how it feels.
The ability to manage this mental paradox effectively, to think clearly, calmly and rationally under stress, is one of the characteristics that separates exceptional athletes from the very good ones. Encouragingly, it is a learned skill and improving the ability to do it can have a positive effect on the sporting performance of anybody. In fact, the impact on amateur athletes may be proportionally greater because of an absence of previous exposure to mental coaching or sports psychology. How these techniques are learned and actualised has been framed in numerous ways depending upon which luminary is trying to flog a book at any particular time but the principles have merit. If we are to perform to the absolute best of our ability, we should take the time to work on the management chip. It matters to cyclists especially because we are often faced with empirical data from a power meter telling us we should be able to push harder but can’t or that we should be slowing down but don’t want to.
There are generic sports psychology tools but with the real time performance data produced by a power meter, they require some adaption to the make them more useful for cyclists training with data.
Goal setting is sports psychology 1.0 and with good reason. In order to train consistently with purpose and intent, a clear focus on why you are training is essential. The persuasive emotional part of the brain may not want to ride on wet a Sunday morning so a meaningful goal is needed to allow the pre-frontal management centre to drive the right behaviour at a point of potential failure. The SMART acronym is well known (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound) and any useable goal should try to contain these elements. However, an extra ‘M’ for meaningful could be helpfully added as the tendency towards measurability often overrides the imperative of relevance to the individual. Target culture is a modern malaise in business and sport, the making goals easily measurable whilst side-lining what is actually important drives the wrong behaviours. For example, using a power meter, an FTP target can be easily made to tick all the SMART boxes. It is simply measurable but may not be motivational in its own right. Power goals represent a hard target and it is tempting to view hitting or missing them as a binary pass or fail – if a training session or race isn’t within the power parameters it should be, does that mean it is aborted? Is a session a failure because the efforts are not in zone? The emotional brain might suggest so because it tends to catastrophise, but sometimes the real benefit may come from trying as hard as possible irrespective of the metrics. For an individual training session or race, the numbers on the screen can demotivate at the point of 'failure' when engagement with rational and positive thought around meaningful goals could ensure it is completed as best as possible before it is evaluated.
Take away: Establish meaningful goals, ones you can look towards when things get tough.
This is using the mind’s eye to create a mental picture to rehearse a technique, skill or event aimed at enhancing performance in competition or training. The brain likes pictures so mental imagery is potentially powerful and often works best with repeated technical skills rather than physiological effort. Chris Hoy managed to combine both. He is in the exceptional category and a great example of how mental discipline can separate the great from the good.
Getting the right imagery and being able to deploy it at the right time takes time, knowledge and practice. It’s worth experimenting to see what might work for you. It’s not a quick fix but properly guided and shaped works well for those prepared to invest the time. When sitting safely on the turbo trainer doing threshold or high Z4 efforts I sometimes draw an image of guiding a sprinter through a bunch towards the finish of a race. I find focusing on the mental image generates a feeling of responsibility mixed with excitement and away from the discomfort of maintaining a long, hard effort. If I ignore the power meter, I often find I’ve completed the efforts at or over parameters when reviewing the data. I coach a rider who, amongst other things, conjures up the image of checked board towards the last section of a time trial. Most people will have imagery that can be drawn from memories and experiences and used as a potentially powerful motivator, it may be worth thinking about yours.
Take away: Try ignoring the numbers and experiment with visualization, have a look at the data afterwards
This is defined as verbalization or statements athletes repeat to themselves prior to or during skill or effort execution. Left unaddressed, the internal ‘mind’s voice’ can manifest in the emotional brain talking an athlete out of doing something that involves what it interprets as unnecessary effort or risk. Once again, engaging the brain’s control mechanism to deliver some unspoken verbal reasoning to suggest whilst what is being asked of the body may be difficult, the intention is to pursue it nonetheless. By necessity this is likely to be delivered by a meaningful and powerful mantra of a few words rather than a reasoned argument over a nice cup of coffee if it involves intense physical effort.
Self-talk may help to address some particular challenges with real time heart rate and power data during training and racing. If an FTP is set accurately and HR settings are current, a rider should know how hard and how long a certain effort level can be sustained for. During tough training sessions or races, particularly time trials, there’s often a miss match. Most commonly, power is below the level you should be at and/or HR above it. There can be a tendency to catastrophise (this is rubbish, I’m rubbish, my equipment is rubbish, I might as well pack this in etc) resulting in a less than effective training session or a sub optimal race result. It may be worth examining your thoughts and feelings at the point of things not going to plan and look for a simple, positive mantra could motivate you to press on, as best as possible, from that point. However, do bear in mind there are just as many explanations about why a great result is a fluke and a one off as why as rider has suddenly become ‘rubbish’ off the back of one less than glowing race result. What you tell yourself at perceived points of failure and success can be important both for that instant and for the future.
Take away: Press on! Measure, evaluate and learn afterwards.
Arousal is defined as the level of physical and psychological activation, on a scale from deep sleep to intense excitement and how the feelings or effects of this may be moderated to control anxiety or enhanced to improve performance. The effects can be somatic (elevated HR, sweaty palms, muscle tension) or cognitive (anxiety) or, most commonly, a combination of both. The more pressure there is on achieving a particular result or performance, the higher the level of arousal is likely to be and therefore the ability to control it becomes proportionately more significant at or approaching important events. Obvious examples of these are the breathing techniques used by archers, shooters and golfers before taking a shot or the physical arousal of a weight lifter by hitting, slapping and shouting.
Worthy of consideration for those who suffer from pre-race jitters and when clear thinking under competitive pressure is required like sprint finishes in bunch races. Interestingly, the brain chemistry involved in anxiety (generally perceived as unpleasant) and excitement (generally enjoyable) is the same, it’s how the brain interprets the situation that determines enjoyment or angst.
Take away: Can anxiety be reframed as excitement to achieve more?
Effective mental focus is usually achieved through using a combination of the tools described here. The hierarchy tends to be based around having a meaningful goal and then using visualization and self-talk to focus and adjust arousal as necessary. It’s not simple but it is effective. The best performances are almost always achieved during racing or in a pressurised competitive environment. It’s hard, if not impossible, to train with the same intensity outside of competition and it's worth understanding why this is. The physiology of the rider is the same during training and racing, the muscles, the cardio vascular system and the blood hasn’t changed, only the perception of the environment. And perception is fully in the domain of the brain. Understanding this and being able to deploy a mental proxy of a competitive environment or to think clearly and positively under pressure, particularly in the face of real time performance data produced by a power meter, is a powerful aid to training and racing with purpose and intent.
Take away: Don’t let the real time performance data inhibit exceptional performances when racing and don’t interpret one or two sessions with poor data as a failure of training. Embrace the data, it's vital, but don’t exclude the power of the mind, it’s what makes a difference between the exceptional and the ordinary.
Rich Smith coaches UK and internationally based riders and has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 12 years. He is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a Psychology undergraduate with the Open University. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching in 2015.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...