Mental Skills for Bike Racing

This post has long been on my to do list. Truth be told, I was always cynical about the mental aspect of performance and how much of a difference it could really make. That was until I had to come back from injury, if felt like a massive mountain to climb and I wasn’t sure where to start or even if I’d be-able to do it.

I had to develop mental strategies, breaking the process down into steps and finding ways of keeping myself motivated. I’ve also applied this to Racing, learning to manage my emotions and change my mentality so as to perform better. Just to warn you, this is a long post, I have divided it into sections with this in mind. Anyway, lets begin.


Part 1: Response to Anxiety

It is perfectly normal to experience anxiety (i.e. a nervousness, apprehension and worry) before a race – healthy in fact. Different individuals will experience different levels of anxiety, I for example would describe myself as highly trait anxious – meaning I am naturally inclined to perceive situations as more threatening. Trait anxiety is a personality disposition – your level of trait anxiety will determine what is known as state anxiety, the anxiety you experience relating to a situation.

It is a myth that anxiety is always a bad thing – it is the perception of anxiety that makes the difference. Essentially, anxiety can either be viewed as facilitative or debilitative, the critical factor in determining which is that of control. If you feel in control (that is say, feel as if achievement of your goal is possible and that you can cope with the anxiety) – anxiety will be facilitative. Likewise, if you approach the situation with a more negative mentality (say “I’ll never stay with the bunch in this race”), your anxiety will become debilitative.

What is the point of all this? I hear you asking. Anxiety has both psychological and physical components. Hence the physiological response will differ depending on whether or not you experience facilitative or debilitative anxiety. With facilitative anxiety, you will enter a challenge state – this involves a number of physiological changes (i.e. increased cardiac output and improved bloodflow to the brain). In this state, you will perform better. With debilitative anxiety, you will respond by entering a threat state – this has a negative affect on performance.

It is also worth mentioning arousal levels. Arousal is defined as a blend of psychological and physical activation varying along continuum. Basically, it describes how “Pshyched up” you are before a Race. Individuals have different optimal levels of arousal, finding yours may take some experimentation. I perform best at a high level of arousal, when going into a race in a very relaxed state my mind will wander and I will be less inclined to suffer for the sake of doing well. Thankfully, achieving a high level of arousal before a race is easy for me – being highly trait anxious.

In summary, interpretation of anxiety has an effect on physiological response and therefore on race performance. It is natural to experience anxiety before a race and it is not always a negative thing. Arousal level is also important and the optimum level differs between individuals.


Part 2 – Positive thinking

After reading the above, you may now be asking yourself – how do I bring about this challenge response so as to perform as well as possible? From my own experience I can say that positive thinking is key, going into a race thinking you will do badly usually leads to just that. Sadly, I’m a natural pessimist – I can remember lining up for my first race, looking at the other riders and their expensive bikes and thinking “I can’t hope to compete with this lot”. To that end I have had to develop strategies to bring about a more positive mentality.

I am always full of self doubt and worry on the morning of a race. This won’t ever change, it is the same before an exam or any other challenge I am confronted with. I am careful to allocate some time to sitting down and going over a few key points in my head – bringing myself round to a more positive state.

Firstly I visualise doing well in the race – early in the season this meant not getting dropped in the first few laps, later on it meant a points finish. I focus very heavily on achieving success rather than worrying about failure.

Next I remind myself that the result of the race is not a matter of life and death. Failure is not desirable but it won’t be the end of the world either. I don’t ride my bike for a living – I train and race for the sake of challenging myself and having fun in the process. It is my choice to enter a given race, what is the point of paying for it if the experience isn’t enjoyed?

I then remember that there are things I cannot control. I can only focus on my own performance, there is absolutely nothing I can do if a competitor produces the ride of his life and goes on to win the race. I don’t get annoyed with myself anymore for simply doing badly in a race, only giving myself a telling off if I know I didn’t give it my all and failed to achieve my goal as a result. My fundamental goal for any race is do the absolute best that I can, no point in worrying about the performance of anyone else.

Following on, I think about what I have done in order to get to this point. For example all the miles I put in during the cold and wet winter when most others would have stayed at home and the lung burning interval sessions done in preparation for racing. Assuming I’ve prepared properly, this boosts my confidence. I find it helpful to think of my rivals neglecting their training and eating too much (I’m sure this isn’t the case in reality, but it’s a useful lie to tell myself). Thinking of the work I have put in also helps me to push myself that bit harder.

Lastly I use a cue phrase. Just before the flag is dropped I repeat it to myself. Upon hearing this phrase in my head, I know it is time to race – time to switch my focus to the task at hand. It is important to have an external focus when racing as a pose to an internal one. This means focusing on what is going on around you (i.e. the race itself) rather than looking inwards (i.e. thinking about what you are having for dinner tonight).

You might not need to develop a strategy as extensive as this, I suspect most individuals are far less neurotic than myself. It is just an example to illustrate the point. Think positively in the run up to a race and make sure your mind is on the task at hand once the event gets underway. The above involves a mixture of self talk and imagery, for more on these click here.


Part 3 – Goal setting

It is likely that you have a goal in mind when it comes to racing, be it achieving a podium finish or simply staying with the bunch. An effective goal setting strategy increases motivation and therefore performance. Personally, I find it difficult to get out the door and train if I haven’t got some kind of goal in place – especially at this time of year. For an explanation of why goal setting works, click here.

As per usual, I made a complete mess of it first time round. Back in January, I was very motivated to get back into Cycling. Unfortunately, I was a little overenthusiastic in the goals I set for myself – planning to go under the hour in a 40km TT, Ride a sub 5-hour century and Move up to 3rd Cat. For me, achieving all of these in the space of one season simply wasn’t possible. Eventually I had to go back and revise my plan – focusing only on the last of these initial goals.

A handy acronym when it comes to goal setting is SMART. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Action orientated, Realistic and Timely. Here is an example from my season;

Back in January my FTP stood at 260 Watts, I set a goal of increasing it to 275 by May. This 15 Watt increase was a specific task. I had a power meter, therefore making it measurable. I came up with a training plan designed to bring about this increase, taking action to achieve the goal. A 6% increase was a realistic expectation. I set myself the target of achieving this by May, giving the goal a time scale

Note that the above goal was realistic but also challenging, don’t fall into the trap of setting very easy goals – you’ll likely lose interest. Also be mindful that your goals need to be flexible, for example you may have to take a month off from training due to illness – in which case you will need to lower your season expectations. Likewise you might find you achieve a goal earlier than planned, in which case it is good to set a new one in it’s place in order to maintain motivation.

It is recommended that you set different types of goal. An outcome goal focuses on the result of a race (e.g. want to finish in the top ten). Performance goals relate to achieving a given standard, independent of competitors, for example increasing your FTP to 300 Watts. Finally, process goals focus on the individual components of performance that are required in order to do well (e.g. set a goal of increasing your average cadence to 80).

Beware of focusing entirely on outcome goals. As I mentioned previously, you can’t control the outcome of a race – a competitor might just happen to have a very good day. Day to day I focus more on achieving performance and process goals.

It’s a good idea to set goals for both training and racing. This year my main goal is go under the hour in a 25 mile Time trial by June, call this an outcome goal. Along the way I have set intermediate performance and process goals, for example increasing my FTP to 300 Watts by June and eliminating a dead spot from my pedal stroke by February.

As I have previously mentioned, at this time of year (Mid November at the time of writing). It is often difficult to motivate myself to go training, it feels like there is a very long period of time inbetween now and the point at which I want to achieve my main goal. To that end I set small goals for each week, such as getting in a certain training volume or achieving a PR on a favourite Strava Segment. If I achieve these goals I reward myself, normally with chocolate I will shamefully admit.

To summarise, goal setting is useful in helping to achieve a better performance. Set a main goal, then a series of smaller ones along the way in order to help you achieve it.

Part 4 – To finish with

Writing this post has been tricky. There is a vast amount of information out there about the mental aspect of Bike Racing (and sport in general for that matter). I have included the aspects that I have found most useful in my time as a Cyclist and which I feel would be relevant for anyone looking to improve their mental skillset for purposes of racing . If you’d like to know more I would recommend this book.

On that, it’s time for my supper. Bye all.

Ps Some some feedback on this one would be very useful – if anyone has any constructive comments in terms of length, content and format I would love to hear them.

4 thoughts on “Mental Skills for Bike Racing

  1. Another great post. I’m assuming, by your last request for comment, that you’re a little nervous about length. Suffice it to say, sometimes topics take a lot of words to explain properly. For those who care about racing and cycling, don’t change a thing.

    1. Thanks – very helpful. I do worry about making them too long and people losing interest half way through! I’ll take your advice and stick to the length I feel is necessary to get all the information across from now on. Much appreciated.

        1. Thanks again, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to – no point in writing something so short that it doesn’t make sense & leaves you with many questions.

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