Have you ever heard an elite athlete say that success in whatever sport is mostly a result of mental drive and toughness and has a small percentage to do with the physical aspects? I think this is one of the most overlooked and disregarded observations about improving at bike racing and becoming a high level athlete! I believe that cycling success is 90% mental and only 10% based on physical ability!
I know that in the past, I have discounted this type of advice because I either didn’t know how to apply it or had the thought that “that’s easy to say with the talent that you have been given!” Can you relate to these thoughts?
Here’s what I’ve observed and learned first hand about the importance of the mental side of elite performance(I’m using elite to mean significantly better than average, not necessarily world class.) For almost all athletes, there comes a point early in their competitive career where they reach some type of plateau, where rapid improvement slows down and no matter how gifted the athlete, doubts about potential and ability to reach goals starts to creep in. They have reached a point at which the advantage of any raw talent starts to become less of an advantage. Basically, at a certain point, no matter what the sport, everybody at that level is good, really good, and success to move past this point, even if it requires fitness or skill, is much more about mental toughness, drive, focus, and dedication to training than about just being better or more fit.
So how does this translate to bike racing?
I don’t deny that it takes a certain fitness level to be able to compete in a particular race category. Fitness is just the price of admission to be able to compete. Bike races and overall improvements are much more dependant on your mental drive to improve, your willingness to suffer, and what you do with that fitness than how fit you are. If winning bike races had much to do with fitness, we would just do a fitness test on a trainer and see who was the strongest!
So by now, you’re probably thinking “that’s great, but how do I get better then if you’re saying that successful bike racing is mostly about my mental approach?”
Here’s how I see it playing out. There are three aspects to your mental approach that are important to winning.
First, your mindset and toughness will determine your approach to training. Do you have training discipline? Do you bail on workouts that you could do, when you would rather take it easy, or do a group ride instead. Do you finish workouts when they get hard, painful and unpleasant? Do you take it easy when you should be recovering? Training commitment, toughness and focus will help drive you to train harder and better and prepare you more fully for your event.
Second, Do you have the belief that you are able to compete and win. This is so vital. I have experienced being at a place where I thought that result would just come if I trained and was fit. It wasn’t until I started to expect results and raced like I was a winner that I started to get results. I approached races differently. In my mind, based on my training and preparation, I was a favorite. I wasn’t just reacting to other racers in the race, I was dictating the race tactics and outcome. The interesting thing about this is that once you start to have confidence from achieving some results, this gets easier to do. When you have a history of being able to win races or reaching your goals, you go to the start line believing that you are a favorite and expecting to have a good race.
Third, mental toughness and preparation overcomes obstacles that get in your way. Obstacles start to become just a stepping stone on the way to cycling success and winning. Obstacles don’t prevent you from reaching your goals, the just present a challenge. They are not an excuse for failure. A flat tire in a criterium is just a stepping stone to making the winning break away. Getting a bad night’s sleep the night before a major race is just a stepping stone. Preparation and toughness help you to quickly get past the obstacle and moving toward your goals. You don’t think “this must not be my day” but rather, “this is just challenge to overcome.” You don’t get upset or freak out or lose your focus. You set about the task of overcoming the obstacle and continuing to move toward your goals. You see this all the time in professional sports. Some athletes, true champions, rise to the occasion when adversity comes and others crack under the difficulty. In fact, for the elite athletes, it seems that adversity just clears up and sharpens their focus on the goal.
So how do you improve and strengthen your mental game? What do you do to get better and set yourself apart from all the other athletes you compete against?
Have clearly defined goals. Without a destination in mind, you won’t have a purpose for competing. This seems so simple, and yet it is one of the most overlooked aspects of bike racing.
You can’t just say, “I want to win this race” but not have a plan for how to do it. Whether you are a sprinter or a climber, or a breakaway rider, you have to plan how you will get to your goal. If you plan to sprint for the win, this means you have to be in good position in the final kilometers of the race. If you are going to break away, you have to be in position to do this and probably will have to be ready to try several times to get into the breakaway. You can’t just sit in the middle of the field or the back of the field at crucial times and expect to be able to reach your goals.
Use your goals to drive your preparation and training. If you are clear about where you want to get to, this will help you stay on the path that will get you there. It might not go exactly like you plan or envision, but you will have a focus and an outcome that you expect that this will help you to prepare fully and with a purpose instead of just in general terms. When there is a reason for what you are doing, it becomes easier to do the hard work, to finish hard workouts, to go on long rides when your legs are tired, to skip the dessert after dinner when you know that you want to achieve a certain race weight.
Finally, envision yourself not just achieving your goals, but performing on the path to them. For some crazy reason, when you do this in your minds, it makes you believe that you can do it for real. You then expect to do it and it becomes almost like second nature to perform up to your expectations.
When you see yourself riding into an ideal position for the sprint on the final lap of a criterium, fighting to gain and hold positions, when it comes to that point in the race, you have already been there in your mind and it becomes natural to just do it again. When you’re looking to get into a breakaway and you have spent time visualizing riding in position to attack or bridge across to another rider, doing so in a race becomes second nature.
Commit to working on your mental preparation and outlook for bike racing and I believe that you will see significant improvement in your bike racing results.
Are you looking to take the next step and prepare for a great racing season? Check out my cycling training plans and coaching. My training plans will help get you ready for the coming season. If you want help not just implementing workouts, but also getting in the right mindset to have greater success and reach your goals, a coaching plan is a great place to start. Feel free to contact me first if you have any questions about either.