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Get up and go: the science of motivation

Michael Donlevy
13 Jan 2016

There are proven ways to wring out that extra ounce of performance and go beyond. Cyclist delves into the art and science of motivation.

Motivation is a complex aspect of performance, in that it’s governed by emotions rather than your physiology. Neither the highest level of fitness nor the trickest bike will automatically lead to cycling success unless you have the will to push yourself when it matters.

‘Motivation is not about the material things – it’s about your mental state,’ says coach Ian Goodhew. ‘Maybe around 5% of it is about having a nice bike, winning prize money, getting points to go up the rankings or doing a job for your team, but 95% is about self belief. That means having confidence in your training and staying in the right frame of mind, and there are a few techniques for this.’ 

The power of the crowd

Few things in life are more motivating than being cheered on. If you race regularly or take part in well-supported sportives you’ll understand the power of encouragement from friends, family and complete strangers. 

‘The effect of crowd noise is both innate and cultural,’ says sports psychologist Jeremy Lazarus. ‘We hear a cheer and associate it with happiness and approval, so we assume the people cheering are happy.’ This emotional connection has a direct knock-on effect. 

‘Our response is controlled by the limbic system in our brain, specifically the amygdala,’ says Sarah Cecil, sports psychologist at the English Institute Of Sport. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions and motivations, as well as controlling our fight or flight response. ‘You get a surge from the crowd and it changes your mood,’ says Cecil. ‘Your brain determines how you feel physically, and that is very closely linked to your emotions. When you feel happy your body generally feels less discomfort and your performance improves.’

Before the 2012 Olympics Bradley Wiggins said, ‘I think racing at home makes the whole occasion a bit more special. Performance-wise you train to perform wherever, but I don’t think you can underestimate, especially in the road events, just how much the crowd is going to roar us up Box Hill nine times and round that time-trial course.’

It worked, of course, and he won gold, but you don’t have to be an Olympian to feel the benefits. Using a technique called ‘anchoring’ it’s possible to recreate some of the positive effects of a cheering crowd even when they aren’t there. ‘Think of a time when the crowd was cheering you and associate it with a physical trigger, such as squeezing the handlebars,’ says Lazarus. ‘You can then use this trigger when you need a boost.’

Take a look at yourself

Lazarus has touched on a powerful tool for motivation: visualisation, a technique that athletes have been using for years to prepare for competition. ‘When you visualise a movement your brain simulates you doing it and sends signals to the muscles – signals that are only slightly weaker than if you’re actually doing what you’re visualising,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘The brain can picture what each part of your body is doing and it can lead to massive improvements because the signal in the brain gets stronger. Training your brain is a highly effective way of training your body.’

As well as rehearsing the physical scenarios that will be encountered, visualisation can have a big effect on mental focus and motivation. You gain extra confidence because you feel prepared for the physical and mental challenges ahead. You see yourself improving, then go out and do it. British Cyclist coach Will Newton says, ‘If you’re building to your most important event of the season, look at sections where you’re likely to struggle or where you’re likely to attack – and visualise yourself dealing with the situations as they arise. See it from the inside, because visualisation is all about the first-person perspective. If you repeat something to yourself in a powerful enough manner the brain thinks it’s happened.

‘You know it’s going to hurt but you’re choosing to deal with it,’ he adds. ‘So you need to visualise your attack – “What will I hear, see, smell, feel?” – accepting that it hurts but knowing that this is where you make a big difference. If you use it well, visualisation is incredibly powerful.’

And… breathe

Having prepared mentally ahead of time, the next step in pushing back personal barriers is to stay in the right frame of mind during the event, and the experts believe meditation can be an effective tool to maintain motivation.

‘It’s about focus,’ says Newton. ‘We often consider focus to be a “hard” thing – you have a laser focus, and you’re either focused or you’re not. But on a two-hour road race it’s impossible to have laser focus all the time. Meditation teaches us to use a softer focus and retain awareness, staying in the moment and avoiding unnecessary stress that might erode performance by allowing you to associate or disassociate as you choose,’ he says. An example of this is dealing with the seemingly never-ending suffering on a climb. Meditation can allow you to observe the discomfort, accept it and view it more dispassionately, rather than being possessed by it – thus avoiding negative thinking and the accompanying loss of motivation. ‘Cycling is a no-nonsense sport and some cyclists think meditation is airy fairy,’ says Newton. ‘But it works, and it allows you to perform better by relaxing the mind when it doesn’t need to be stressing.’

Turn on, tune in…

Visualisation and meditation are powerful motivational tools, but there are other approaches that fit certain situations. Sometimes it’s not convincing to think of a cheering crowd, especially when you’re plugging away on a turbo trainer during long winter months. This is where music can help, although we wouldn’t recommend using this on the road, and it’s banned in most events.

Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University is Britain’s leading researcher on using music to improve sporting performance. ‘Human beings are hard-wired to process music on both a motor and an emotional level,’ he says. ‘Music taps into something inside us in a way that’s not yet understood.’

By ‘motor level’ he means the fact that music makes us want to move – from tapping our feet to dancing – and this can help with exercise. ‘There are two important predetermined rhythms involved in this, usually supplied by the drums and bass guitar,’ says composer Roland Perrin. ‘Individually neither has much effect, but put them together and there’s an alchemy that makes us want to move.’

Turbo training

How you coordinate music to your riding is as important as the actual tracks you choose, according to Karageorghis. ‘There are three ways sports scientists use music to enhance athlete’s performance: pre-task, synchronous and asynchronous,’ he says. Pre-task is used to get you in the right frame of mind. It can be designed to fire you up (from heavy metal to thumping electronic dance music) or relax you (classical music, ambient), depending on the type of motivation you need to carry into the event.  

Synchronous music is designed to give you the right motivation according to your intended output. ‘This is something you listen to ideally through headphones with the intention of matching each stage of your workout to a specific track,’ Karageorghis says. This can build from a slow start as you warm up to maintain a steady rhythm before slowing down again as you cool down.

Finally, asynchronous music is less specific background noise that will enhance your mood but doesn’t tie into your workout and allows you to disassociate from the task at hand. You could view this as being like a combination of crowd noise and meditation. 

‘I use music sparingly, but it has a place,’ says Newton. ‘There are turbo sessions where I want to be distracted and music is a powerful tool for disassociating, but you can’t listen to music in many competitions, so if you always train with it and then remove it, you suddenly realise how much you were depending on it. When cycling hard for long periods you do have to be able to deal with boredom and manage your own thoughts.’

Wacky races

There is another form of motivation that may work for some but not for others – the desire to beat a friend or rival.

‘We’re motivated either by a sense of gain – if I work hard I’ll get promoted – or fear of loss – if I don’t go to work I’ll get fired,’ says coach Paul Butler (pbcyclecoaching.co.uk). ‘Most people are significantly more motivated by fear of loss. I’ve heard stories of a normal person lifting a car to save a child but none about them lifting one to win money.’

‘Competition can certainly be motivating,’ says Lane. ‘We’re social creatures and we learn from others, so if your training partner improves, you want to get better too. That creates potential for increased performance.’

This approach needs to be carefully controlled, though, to ensure it has positive rather than negative effects. ‘If your sole intention is to beat another person you’re under massive pressure that can mean you perform worse if things don’t go well,’ says Newton. ‘If that person has got away from you, your race is effectively over.’

Goodhew concurs with the need to retain a realistic outlook. ‘Motivation is multi-layered and you also have to be realistic – motivation can’t help you achieve the impossible,’ he says. ‘Someone like Andre Griepel is desperate to win a Classic, but he’s a pure sprinter and it’s probably not going to happen because the races are about an hour too long for him. But the fact he can’t do it is about his physiology, not his motivation.’

One way around that is to frame it slightly differently, by gauging your performance against a regular rival rather than simply trying to beat them. ‘You need to be able to ask, “What did I learn from today?”’ Newton says. ‘Every race is an opportunity to learn – what you did well, what you did not so well – but it’s up to you what you take from it. Most of us involved in sport like the idea of winning, but also improving and comparing ourselves to others. Maybe it’s better to say, “I want to be in the top 5%,” because then your target is to beat 95% of the field rather than one specific person, who may simply have a fantastic day and leave you in the dust.

‘You can have a moving target. Who’s 20m in front? Catch them, and then see who’s another 20m in front. This form of counting is a useful motivational tool because it breaks your effort down into a series of micro-goals.’ 

There’s also a final motivational tool that’s worth mentioning, and that’s the power of habit. Simply riding, at whatever intensity you choose, will give you more motivation to get out there next time and to keep improving. If in doubt, just ride. 

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