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How emotional intelligence can boost cycling endurance

Michael Donlevy
10 Oct 2018

Understand your emotions to train better and race faster

It sounds fancy, but it’s actually quite simple: ‘Emotional intelligence is about how well we can be aware of and understand emotions in ourselves and in others, and how well we can manage and utilise emotions to build relationships and get through all the situations that life throws at us,’ says Pete Olusoga, senior lecturer in sport psychology at Sheffield Hallam University’s Academy of Sport & Physical Activity.

It can help you perform better on the bike in ways that science is only just starting to understand, too.

Recent research at the University of Padova in Italy explored the link between emotional intelligence – or EQ, your ‘emotional quotient’ – and endurance, and the results showed that those who were better at identifying and regulating their emotions performed better.

The study involved 237 runners in a half-marathon (so not cycling but definitely an endurance-based event). The participants filled out a questionnaire, snappily entitled Trait Emotional Intelligence Short Form, in which they were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as 'Expressing emotions with words is not a problem for me' and 'I often pause to think about my feelings'.

The researchers found that the athletes’ scores in this test were a stronger predictor of race performance than either previous race experience or weekly training mileage.

Don’t get carried away. These were highly trained athletes whose training regimes didn’t vary wildly, so you’re not going to beat Geraint Thomas up the Alpe d’Huez simply because you tell yourself you can.

But the results do demonstrate why the power of the mind – and the ability to unlock it – is so important to sports psychologists and coaches.

First among equals

‘EQ plays a massive part in performance,’ says coach Ric Stern. ‘This is especially true when you’re looking at a homogeneous group of athletes.

'When all the athletes in a group have very similar physical characteristics, the ability to dig deep and keep going – especially in the face of adversity – makes a huge difference, and it’s governed by EQ and how you deal with challenging situations.’

‘There’s research to suggest that emotional intelligence can be beneficial for things that would certainly be useful for cycling: coping with pressure, managing stress, leadership, collaboration and cooperation,’ says Olusoga.

‘There also seems to be a link between EQ and positive mood and self-esteem, and research has found that athletes who perceive themselves as more highly emotionally intelligent make greater use of psychological skills such as self-talk and imagery.’

Pro cycling is littered with such examples, and it’s not even about winning.

‘Perhaps Philippe Gilbert used mental imagery in this year’s Tour de France to finish Stage 16 after crashing,’ says Stern.

‘He imagined he could finish no matter what. Positive self-talk is highly likely to help get you through a tough section of a race such as when echelons form in a crosswind or climbing an Alpine pass when you’re suffering greatly.'

‘Self-talk is important – even something as simple as telling yourself that this feeling will pass,’ says coach Will Newton.

‘If it hits you on a climb drop down a gear, sit up, drink and take a gel if you want to. Relax and focus on your breathing rather than that emotional response.

'Do what it takes to get to the top, then reset and carry on.’

Stern adds, ‘EQ is dependent upon five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

'Each component has different aspects that need training. So with self-awareness you observe how you feel at specific times – do you feel anxious? Why? It’s often about taking time to reflect.’

‘Emotional intelligence is a set of skills, rather than something innate, so we can learn to increase our EQ,’ Olusoga agrees.

‘As a starting point, take some time to think about what’s going on emotionally when you perform at your best.

'Think about a time you’ve performed really well and think about a time when you performed badly. What were the differences?

'Were you feeling or thinking any differently? Spending time on this can help you to develop an awareness of your ideal performance states.’

‘The most important thing for me is understanding the emotional component of fatigue,’ says Newton.

‘I think we can all remember a time when we felt so tired we wanted to cry, and although you don’t see it so much in bike races you do see people in Ironman races blubbing.

'If you ride for any length of time fatigue is going to hit you, so emotional intelligence involves developing pre-planned strategies to cope with that feeling of exhaustion.

'Even people with a high EQ can struggle if they haven’t planned for fatigue because it can come on so suddenly.’

Thoughts and feelings

Some riders are more in tune with their body – and mind – than others.

‘Not being in tune is, perhaps, down to being overly reliant on data and not understanding emotional as well as physical feedback,’ says Stern.

‘When I started coaching there weren’t power meters and riders would communicate how they felt both physically and mentally.

'The advent of power meters has meant some people only communicate via data, and can’t explain intangibles about how they feel inside.

'Group rides are great, but there’s too much noise. A ride in solitude where you think about your thoughts and feelings as you go along can be very beneficial.’

Olusoga adds, ‘Learning to focus intently on one thing for that long a period of time is really difficult.

‘For me, it’s not about remaining focused, it’s about noticing the things that distract us, understanding them and being able to bring our attention back to whatever it needs to be on.

'Having a mindful awareness of our own thoughts and emotions, and the flexibility to move our attention around as we need to, is really useful.’

Relaxation is important, too. In a 1998 study, a group of dental students agreed to have two wounds punched in the roofs of their mouths: one during holidays and the other just before their exams.

The holiday wounds healed in an average of eight days, while the exam wounds took 11. Other studies have found that people who reported higher stress levels took longer to recover their strength after performing a hard workout.

That means post-exercise recovery is an important aspect of emotional intelligence, whether that means having a massage or enjoying social time with your training partners to help ensure you’re primed for the next ride – and the next hard effort.

‘Most stress is hugely negative,’ says Stern. ‘Years ago when I’d get ill I’d end up very stressed – "I’ll be rubbish, I’ll lose my fitness" – and that just made things worse.

'It would prolong the illness. Now I understand what’s happening. I know that for a week or so I’ll feel rough and I don’t stress about things.

'The illness really does go quicker that way as well.’

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