Words by Lisa Mazzola
“I was deep in the pain cave”, “shut up legs”, “sufferfest”; These are things that you hear often in the cycling community. Whether in a race, on a big climb, or during a long and grueling group ride, the ability to suffer is something that we bond and brag over. But how much of that suffering is mental and how much is physical? I know for myself, it is hard in the moment to distinguish what my real, true physical breaking point is, and whether or not I can “mind over matter” my way through. In competition, more often than not after an event, I would find myself asking the question, “Did I give it my all?” I often wondered if, at times, my race was decided before I even got to the start line. As someone who feels confident in their ability to push themselves to physical pain on the bike, I often fall victim to the voice in my head that tells me, “I am not as good as ‘X’." Inside me was a fighter, AND a self-deprecating doubter.
Most cycling coaches would agree that the mental side of training is as important and powerful as physical training. Many professional athletes work with sports psychologists throughout their careers to address these issues. But for those of us that don’t have access to these types of professionals, are there tools available to train ourselves mentally? And how far can they take us in the process of enabling our brain to move beyond the preconceived limits we establish for ourselves?
In my quest for understanding, I decided to read Matt Fitzgerald's book, How Bad Do You Want It, to see what sports psychology tells us about the topic. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the brain has its own answer to the question about if and how we can harness the power of the mind to override what our physical body is telling us. Fitzgerald's thesis is centered around “neuroplasticity”, which is is the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual's life. Contrary to previous beliefs that the brain develops in a specific time frame and then stays more or less the same, 20th-century researchers have found that our brains are more “plastic” and can be altered into adulthood. On one end of the scale this happens at the level of the neuron, and on the other, neuroplasticity can allow for us to change the mental patterns or “maps” that have developed and even make new ones. What this means for athletes, in this case, cyclists trying to push beyond their physical limits, is that although our mental limits are much greater than the physical, most of the time, our brains quit before our legs do. In this scenario, we can retrain the brain to continue working, even when the body starts sending signals to the brain that enough is enough.
As I was reading Fitzgerald’s book, I was reminded of the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we are deeply engaged in a process with complete focus, we enter into a state of optimal experience or what he defined as a “Flow” state. I first read Flow in the context of my work in art and museum education, but once I started coaching cyclists, the text was even more impactful. The concept of “Flow” helped me unpack the need and importance of mind/body balance on the bike in order to take on challenges and new experiences, whether they be a race or a new section of trail to clear. The concept of “Flow” makes perfect sense in the context of cycling. If we start to break down this idea in terms of practice and mindsets that need to take place in order to achieve this state, then we can see the link to neuroplasticity. If we know our brains can adapt and change, then we know our brains can be trained to move beyond self-imposed limits and bring us toward a state of optimal performance. And in that space of optimal experience, we can push ourselves while simultaneously feeling happiness and in some cases ecstasy, thus forging new neural pathways.
With this understanding, it would seem that "mind over matter" might be simpler than we thought. The hard part is making the choice and commitment to implementing a new training regimen for our brains. There are some practical steps that we can take to help start this process.
- Don’t tire your brain out leading up to a big event.
- Train to your best ability, have a plan for your event, and then execute on that plan.
- Decide that you will succeed before you get to the “start line” whatever or wherever it may be.
- Find your "Flow", and the rest will follow.
For me, I like to check all of my training boxes and go into an event knowing I am as prepared as possible. I have been lucky (or unlucky) to have been in situations where my body reached an extreme breaking point, but I chose to keep going. Because of that, I know I can continue to train that part of my brain to work with me and stay focused even when the old pathway starts to send signals that enough might be enough. No matter what happens, believe you're the athlete you think you are because positive self-talk goes a long way. These are skills that help us on the bike and in life.