Four Mental Skills You Need For Cycling

I posted a brief account on my club’s bulletin board about bailing on yesterday’s ride. My friend Judy responded: “Yes, that windy hill was a killer.  I had to really dig into my mental reserves to finish that.”

I guess what’s bothering me most today as I look back on the ride was that I didn’t dig deep enough into my mental reserves. The last rest stop turned out to be about a mile past where I quit. If I had been able to get to that stop, I’m sure I would have been able to stoke myself up enough to finish the ride — which ended only eight miles farther on.

Lately, I’ve only been concerned with the physical side of training. Overcoming the layoff imposed by my knee injury, gradually regaining strength and speed — those are things that I’ve been working on.

But I also need to get to work on my mental preparation for longer rides.

A lot of the material written about the mental aspect of cycling is geared toward racers. I think recreational riders can gain a lot from it, too.

British cycling coach Christine Jacklin says a cyclist must learn these mental skills:

Concentration. The ability to focus and stay focused. We lose concentration when we allow ourselves to become distracted. Sometimes the distractions are within ourselves. In my case, I rode with a minor saddle sore, and the long time in the saddle made it hurt more. It was easy to quit the ride, because I knew that would end the pain. Other times, the distractions come from without. A guy in a recumbent bike caught and passed me on a hill. I was stunned. Recumbents aren’t supposed to climb hills well, I thought. He pulled away and soon disappeared. It was demoralizing.

Motivation. The ability to focus on a goal and work toward that goal. My goal is to finish the MS 150 next month. I forgot to give equal weight to finishing the 65-miler yesterday.

Getting up for the ride. A little stress and pressure can be a good thing, and force us to perform at a high level. I’m afraid I went into the ride looking at it as a fun thing, but not appreciating the challenge of riding 65 miles when the longest ride I’d done this year was only 36.

Self-confidence. This may be the most important mental skill of all. It’s your belief that you can do it. A rider with self-confidence will give 100 percent, focus on the task, and keep going. It’s good to remind yourself that you’ve done long rides before. During the ride, I turned that around. I remembered my first metric century, and how I kept going despite the discomfort of a poor-quality saddle and a clunky old bike. But instead of using that experience as a spur to keep going, I asked myself why the discomfort I was feeling today was so much worse. Apparently, a lot of riders have similar feelings — especially where hills are involved. “Oh no, not another hill!” was a common refrain throughout the day. In one case, I was able to pass two college-age girls who otherwise should have blown my socks off, simply because they let themselves be overcome by the prospect of having to climb yet again. I should have used that experience to bolster my confidence, and not give in to other distractions.

Okay, so I’m going to start riding with a nod to the mental side of things. Today was a good start — the wind was as brutal as yesterday’s, but I didn’t let it get me down. Whenever I caught myself easing off, shifting to an easier gear, I immediately shifted up and pumped harder. It was a good ride.

Oh, and one more tip: Smile when it gets tough. Some coaches say that can trick your brain into thinking you’re having fun.


  1. says

    Yeah, almost hit a wall Friday night…was supposed to do a quick 15 miles with a couple of guys from the shop…turned out to be wicked cold and WINDY. Legs seized within the first few miles and I seriously considered turning around and going home. Couldn’t make up my mind till halfway through the 15, so I gave everything I had and finished the ride at a decent 15mph pace. My legs were so cold I just sprinted up one of the last hills so I could get home faster.

  2. says

    Great post. I think I’m guilty of all of those. Seeing folks pass me, especially those who have no business doing so, really breaks my concentration and affects my self-confidence as well. Riding with hills is still somewhat new to me (being from Florida) so I still have problems with them. I have found that I do best with them when I welcome the hill and focus on getting to the top. I’ve learned to basically accept that the wind here in Texas sucks and don’t give it much thought anymore. I need to do the same with the hills.

  3. oldguy says

    I like the tip about smiling. Few months ago I got caught in some nasty rain. At one point it got so ridiculous I just started laughing out loud. That really gave me a boost.

    Great post!

  4. tracywilkins says

    On the other hand….

    One of the times I did the ride across Kansas, everyone was marveling at Wanda, who was 82 years old and still having the time of her life on the bicycle. After a particularly grueling day of heat and wind, I heard somebody ask her how she did that day in the horrific wind. Her answer was “Hell, I’m old but not stupid! I rode until I got tired, then caught the SAG!”.

    Sometimes wisdom dictates that it’s better to stop rather than keep pushing. Only you can determine if that’s the point you were at the other day. If you were at that point, don’t second guess yourself!

  5. says

    Great post, Ray. I was glad to find this. Just yesterday I realized I was feeling the mental and emotional toll of 5 days out of the past 8 riding up steep hills with a headwind. This is quite a ramp up for me from about 40 miles per weekend on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m still just a baby rider but my first 80 mile week and the mental burn out the next day surprised me. Learning the power of recovery days. And being gentler on myself scheduling rides. I don’t have to get there in one month. That’s the hardest lesson of all!

  6. RamonH says

    I can sum it up best with something that happened to my cycling crew a couple of weeks back. The plan was to put in 75-miles and the forecast had 10% precipitation chance. About 55-miles into the ride, we get caught into a nasty rainstorm with 30mph wind gusts. Needless to say, this was demoralizing. However, I just loved what the newest and smallest rider said:

    “Quit your whining about the rain. We are already here, so might as well finish the 75-miler”.

    And after a deep sigh, we did :)

  7. says

    Confidence is king. The problem is it moves up and down all the time. If we remained confident for long periods we can achieve anything. For me during a ride I always hit a confidence block at some point where I begin to question my ability to keep a certain pace up, or get up the next hill, it’s a constant internal dialogue.

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