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Can I think myself faster?

Susannah Osborne
25 Jan 2019

By being more aware of your body and environment, you could become a better rider

Mindfulness is not new, but in 2016 you’re more likely to know someone who actually incorporates the practice into their life than, say, 10 years ago.

It’s a meditative technique that involves focusing on the present moment, and the concept really took off in 2012 with the arrival of the hugely successful mindfulness app Headspace, a 10-minute online routine practised by an estimated six million people worldwide.

Loved by celebs and stressed-out execs alike, it’s a phenomenon that has made its British, Buddhist monk creator Andy Puddicombe a multi-millionaire.

It may be tempting to dismiss mindfulness as hippy claptrap, but there’s evidence that it not only helps make you feel less stressed, but could actually improve performance on the bike.

That’s why I decided to put my natural cynicism to one side and see if I could use mindful techniques to get faster.

Back to basics

Before rushing off to buy an orange robe and some grown-up colouring books, though, I thought it would be useful to understand a bit more about the principles involved.

Professor Mark Williams, emeritus professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University and former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.

‘It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us,’ Williams says. ‘It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living “in our heads” – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.’

For cyclists this can be interpreted in myriad ways, from noticing how your feet feel when you’re pedalling, to the heaviness of your breath on a climb, to controlling your nerves at the start of an event.

Performance gains

In 2015 one of the first studies to use mindfulness techniques with cyclists focused on an area of the sport known more for demanding confidence than deep thinking – BMX.

Watching one of their top riders hesitate at the start gate of a race set the USA BMX coaching team on a journey of discovery.

They wanted to know how their athletes could better handle the anxiety and psychological rigours of competition, and to do this they turned to the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, set out to test how well the athletes responded to stress-related signals.

The stressor in this case was a mask that restricted the riders’ breathing. Breathing is a vital human function and any interference with it can produce an aversive reaction – usually people become anxious and stressed.

Each time the riders were shown a specific visual cue, the mask was tightened and their breathing was restricted even more.

Tactical training

After the initial tests the seven riders were given seven weeks of ‘tactical training’ (‘The athletes rolled their eyes if we called it mindfulness,’ said Lori Haase, who led the study) during which they focused intently on their bodies, consciously ignoring distractions from outside and practising breathing through straws to mimic the mask.

On repeating the breathing exercise the scientists noted that they were not only better able to recognise the potentially stressful situation, but also better able to control their physiological panic.

The conclusion, although it hasn’t been proven in competition, was that when athletes learn how to be more aware of their bodies they may also change the workings of their brains to become more resilient to stress.

All in the mind

But is deep thinking really going to make me, a recreational and occasional competitive cyclist, a better athlete? To work this out, I needed to dig deeper into the world of mindfulness for road riders.

‘Three key elements of mindfulness are moment-by-moment awareness, awareness of bodily and emotional sensations, and the acceptance of, or not being judgmental about, these sensations,’ says sports psychologist and cycling coach Tim Harkness.

Relating these ideas to our everyday lives is supposedly one way to lead a more balanced life but I wonder how this can help my cycling?

To elaborate, Harkness proposes a ride, but first there’s a pep talk: ‘An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience.

Ride in the present

It’s about freeing yourself from the past and future, allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly, such as enjoying the ride – the sensation of the wind on your face, smelling the flowers and handling the bike better on a descent because we are aware of balance and speed.’

We also discuss the way many cyclists now rely on technology rather than feeling to judge a ride. I, like many of my peers, am guilty of at times fixating on power, average speed or heart rate.

As a cycling coach, Harkness acknowledges that there is certainly a place for this kind of specific training, but by doing an impression of Chris Froome and staring at the monitor on your stem, it’s easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling when we ride.

Living by the numbers rather than noticing the physiological sensations we’re experiencing can produce a very different outcome.

To experience the concept on the bike, Harkness proposes a week of mindfulness training. Coming back from injury I feel unfit and untrained, so I’m uncertain how I might perform.

A new approach

As a rider I am admittedly a bit all-or-nothing – a touch ‘go hard or go home’. To me, I’ve failed if my average speed on a long ride is under 28kmh, but I haven’t ridden a bike for two months on account of injury and I’m intrigued to take a new approach.

With around 15 years of high-level training under my belt I can quote my power zones and heart rate zone off by heart.

I know my sweet spot from my anaerobic threshold but, as Harkness points out, to ride mindfully is to be in tune with your body, not your cycling gadgets.

He first asks me to elaborate on the physical indications associated with riding aerobically and at threshold – my maximum sustainable pace.

We discuss heart rate (but as a feeling rather than a number), the sensation of different volumes of lactic acid in my muscles and even how my facial expression changes as I work harder – the grimace is an obvious giveaway that the going is getting tough.

Data denial

The plan is that I use my Garmin bike computer to gather all the usual data, but that I don’t look at it during the ride. Instead I will attempt to ride on feel alone, judging my pace and effort with a view to better understanding how my body responds to different situations.

Never before have I ridden with my Garmin wrapped up in gaffer tape but this is how we are going to begin my week of mindfulness training.

Following Harkness’s instructions, I head to my local park to complete three laps of an 11km circuit, with the purpose of recognising the sensations associated with riding a bike.

I must focus on the feelings in my body, the forces in my muscles, the depth of my breathing, my connection with the bike.

It’s a test of my awareness and demands a stoic approach – I must not judge my performance or myself.

Keep cool

So, when I get overtaken by a guy with a bad attitude and the bike-handling skills of a wombat, I must avoid all temptation to blast past him making a two-fingered salute.

Why? Because this is not a mindful or clever way to ride – the effort will deplete my glycogen reserves, which is likely to mean I’ll bail early and not complete the session. I’ll also find it hard to recover quickly, which will impact on the rest of my week.

I concentrate hard on trying to relax and enjoy the ride but it’s hard to fight the urge to push myself. With my power output hidden from view I guestimate that I’ll average between 150-160 watts.

The ride includes a few short full-bore efforts and on a good day, when I’m fit, I’d expect to see something around 800W for these kind of five-second bursts, but given my two months off I reckon anything over 500W is good.

After I finish the ride, the unveiling reveals an average of 146W and a max of 556W. Not too far off my guesses and, according to Harkness, a sign that I’m pretty in tune with my body.

Climbs and punishment

For the second session I head to the hills for three repeats of a six-minute ramp.

Instead of smashing myself up the first one and then making two more slow, exhausted attempts (as I would usually do) I must pace myself, using my knowledge of my own body to ride consistently within my threshold.

Harkness advises noting markers along the route – a house, a hairpin bend, a particular tree – with the aim of perceiving the same physical feelings on each occasion.

I know I have to hold something back early in the ride in order to compete the three repeats at a consistent effort – but how much? ‘More than you think,’ says Harkness.

Each time I pass a route marker I try to unpick how I feel, how I’m breathing and the sensations in my legs.

I check in again at the same point on each lap to make sure the experience matches up, and largely it does.

Checking my Strava account I find out that the last time I rode this hill I smashed my way up at an average of 215W.

This time I see that I’m hovering around between 160W at the start and 190W at the top, which seems low, but I need to finish relatively fresh and looking forward to the week ahead, rather than knackered and declaring my lack of fitness as terminal.

I do this and feel pleased that I have something left in the tank.

Pushing the limits

The third session of the week is about threshold pushing – trying to increase the amount of time that I can ride before lactic acid floods into my system.

This is a good example of how to combine numbers with deep thinking. I ride until my legs start to burn, then back off and maintain the effort until the burn becomes unbearable.

I’m forced to engage with the physiological sensations I experience but at the same time work within set parameters. As the session progresses I feel smugly in tune with my body.

Unfortunately the numbers I’m producing are pretty awful. It ultimately turns out that I’m a good 30W off where I’d hope to be and I get increasingly cross and frustrated, forgetting the whole mindfulness principle of not judging myself. As such, I jack the session in early, feeling like a failure.

‘This is a good example of where mindfulness can be really useful,’ says Harkness.

If I’d accepted I was coming back from injury, that realistically I could never hit the numbers I used to and that I should therefore reassess the goal, the outcome of this session would have been very different.

I plainly still have a way to go before I can declare myself a mindfulness grand master.

Lessons learned

The last day is a revelation – I ride for fun, something I rarely do.

It’s easy to get caught up in the bravado of cycling and to live for the superlative – faster, harder, longer, better – but this is a punishing way to ride.

Instead I switch off the monitor, tell myself I have no time or distance targets, and just enjoy the sensation of turning the pedals. It’s something of a revelation.

I’d almost forgotten how pleasant it is to ride a bike without the need to punish myself or try to beat my previous best. I promise myself that I will do this more often and stop being a slave to the numbers.

Ultimately, my mindful riding experience didn’t make me instantly faster, but I did become aware that by riding mindfully I can be a calmer, happier, more clever cyclist.

And there’s a lot to be said for that. But I can also see how the techniques could be used to improve performance.

By raising your awareness of how you ride, how you use your muscles, of what’s achievable, and not being afraid to shift your expectations, even mid-ride, you will become a more efficient rider.

It’s a marginal gain that I’m certain Dave Brailsford would approve of.

What is mindfulness?

It may be the fashionable trend among stressed executives in the West, but the origins of mindfulness can be traced to the ancient meditative practices of Eastern religions such as Buddhism.

The emphasis is on taking the time to be aware of the present moment without judgement or further commentary.

This heightened awareness is said to reveal the ‘truth’ of the world around us and keep the practitioner more firmly grounded in this reality.

Various studies have noted the efficacy of mindfulness in reducing anxiety and depression, as well as improving general physical health.

Mindfulness in sport can be closely linked to the concept of a flow state – a psychological experience many describe as being ‘in the zone’.

It was first documented in 1990 by Hungarian scientist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who identified that an athlete’s peak performance can often occur when they focus on the performing of an activity itself, rather than the wider context surrounding the activity.

Take for example Chris Froome’s unique descent of the Col de Peyresourde at this year’s Tour de France.

In post-stage interviews Froome remarked that his method of pedalling while on sitting on the top tube was a technique that Team Sky had been experimenting with, and as such he was focused solely on his position on the bike and the sensation of descending, rather than worrying about time gaps to his rivals or its overall effect on the race.

Froome’s mindful riding helped put him into the yellow jersey, so who knows? Perhaps we’ll soon see teams hiring Buddhist monks alongside the nutritionists and sports scientists.

Mindful training plan

Ride 1: Focus on feeling

Warm up for 10 minutes, then ride a favourite route. Take time to be aware of sensations of breathing, pedal pressure, cadence, balance, muscle strength and muscle ‘warmth’.

For some time in this ride, seek to experience power and speed. Don’t look at your ride computer at any stage of the ride, but when you’re done have a good look at the data and compare it to previous rides.

Ride 2: Six-minute hill

Warm up with a progressive effort for 20 minutes, then do a strong effort up a six-minute hill.

Pace it so that you’re working hard at the end but have enough in the tank to repeat the hill twice more at the same effort. On all three ascents, pay attention to how you feel at set points on the hill.

Ride 3: Aerobic intervals

Ride easy for five minutes. Spend three minutes ramping up to the point where you’re breathing hard but can still talk in complete sentences.

For the next three minutes gradually increase the power until your legs begin to feel a slight burn.

Drop the power a bit and maintain this effort until the burn in your legs increases to the point where it hurts. At this point stop the interval and recover until your breathing slows enough for you to talk in complete sentences again.

Repeat until you get to 55 minutes, then warm down for the final five minutes.

Ride 4: Freestyle fun

Ride wherever, however and as far as you want. Just have fun taking in the scenery, feeling the bike beneath you and reminding yourself why you came to love cycling in the first place.

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in December 2016

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