Power of Mental Suffering
Not only does cycling require physical strength and energy, it also includes a whole lot of mental power as well. If fact, the power of mental suffering can help you do things on a bike that power and strength could never do.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginning cyclist making your way up a small hill, or a seasoned pro who’d climbing the west side of Col du Tourmalet…..it’s your mental power that is going to get you to the top.
Well that’s my opinion, but I’m no cycling psychology expert….but I do know one. So I’ve enlisted the help of Carrie Cheadle who just happens to hold a Master of Arts degree in sport psychology. Oh, and she’s also worked with a whole bunch of cyclists and has been involved with many different cycling journals, including Cycling News, Bike Monkey Magazine, and Podium Sports Journal.
I asked Carrie a few questions on the Power of Mental Suffering and how it applies to cycling and here is what she had to say:
Loving the Bike: Is it true that when someone is really pushing themselves on a bike and they feel like they could never do this again, there is a reaction in the body that makes an athlete forget about the last time and allows them to go out there and do it again?
Carrie Cheadle: I would have to go and do some extra research to see if there is an actual phenomenon occurring, but here is what I do know; your brain likes to store memories of events that have a strong emotional reaction connected to them. If you think about all of your strongest memories, you can probably pinpoint some big emotions tied to each one.
If you are on a big climb and have moments when you feel like you can’t possibly make it to the top, whether or not you choose to tackle that climb again depends on your reaction to the situation and how you decided to catalog that memory. If you got to the top of a hard climb and felt elated, your brain will get the message “That climb sucked, but I did it and I feel amazing.” The next time you’re suffering on that climb, you’ll remember that you’ve been in this situation before and you have more in you than you think.
If at any point during the climb you mentally suffered, (meaning anything that elicits your stress response or challenges your ego) and experienced fear or anger, you’ll probably think twice before you consider doing that climb again. You could have hit a steep part of the climb and felt fear of falling over. It could have been harder than you anticipated and you felt angry that you aren’t as fit as you thought. If you don’t have any strong reaction, then it won’t be as strongly imprinted as a memory and it gets catalogued as “just another training ride.” If you did have a strong negative reaction and you decide to go for it again, then something about the experience was worth it – there is something in there that you value so even though you suffered, you decide to do it again.
Loving the Bike: Do you feel that mental power is more beneficial in certain circumstances such as a cyclist climbing a hill? Or is physical strength and endurance still more important?
Carrie Cheadle: You have to have both. You can be the mentally toughest person in the world, but if you haven’t put your time in on the bike you aren’t going to be the fastest one up the hill. You will be faster than the guy that didn’t do his training and isn’t mentally tough, but mental skills can’t make up for physical skills. However, that being said, you CAN take a guy that is a little less fit than the guy next to him, but has worked more on his mental game, and when it comes to climbing, he is just as likely (if not more so) to be the one crowned KOM.
Your thoughts and interpretations of the feelings of pain impact your experience of that pain. Any time you are putting out max effort like during a climb or a sprint, there is a psychological component involved in how well you do because your ability to tolerate the pain of exertion is as much mental as it is physical.
Loving the Bike: What is the best way for a cyclist to improve their personal power of mental suffering on a bike?
Carrie Cheadle: Your brain is wired to protect your body so if at any point, your brain questions whether or not your body can handle something (even if you are actually physically capable of doing it) you will feel the pain intensify in that moment so your body will slow down and therefore protect itself from harm.
One way to work on increasing your threshold is to push yourself just a little bit further in those moments when you really want to stop. Each time you do that you send that little subtle message to your brain that you have more in you than you think.
There are also different coping mechanisms you can employ in the moment to work on your ability to suffer. Here are a couple techniques you can try:
Distraction or Dissociation: Usually when people think about this strategy they come up with examples like singing your favorite song, imagining your favorite scene in a movie, thinking about your grocery list, having an imaginary conversation with someone, etc. But you can also employ the mental skill of visualization to help with this as well. Some people can actually visualize themselves as a machine or animal that the associate as being strong and others can visualize their ultimate goal and suddenly the experience of the pain they are feeling changes in that moment. Your body relaxes just enough to be able to tolerate the pain and keep going. Of course we’re talking about pain of exertion, not pain that signals an injury, and is your body’s way of telling you to stop.
Some people find that the technique of dissociation or distraction is only effective to a certain degree of effort. Once you get into the most intense efforts, you can’t really distract yourself from the pain you are feeling and you might try the next method instead.
Rhythmic cognitive behavior: An example of this coping strategy is to choose a cue word that you repeat to yourself as a mantra. For example, a cyclist might choose the word “smooth”. As they are climbing they may repeat; “smooth, smooth, smooth” to help them relax and remind themselves to use smooth pedal strokes. Or you might count pedal strokes repeatedly to a particular number and then start again “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8”. By doing this, you are giving your brain something else to do, different information to process instead of tuning into and processing the feeling of pain.
How is your mental suffering power? If you’d like to read more on this subject, Carrie has a great article on “Preparing to Push Yourself Through a Hard Effort“. If you have any specific questions on the power of mental suffering, please leave them in the comments below and we’ll pass them on to Carrie for you.