How to Mountain Bike at Your Highest Capability Level

By BetterRide Founder Gene Hamilton

In a culture of more, now, faster, we all want to improve quickly. In mountain biking this means we want to corner faster, climb faster, bunny hop higher and be able to ride technical terrain better, now! As a mtb racer and a coach I am always looking for ways to improve my riding and my coaching too and like you, the faster the better. The funny thing is, we ignore, gloss over and just don’t want to talk about the thing that really holds us back from reaching our goals in all aspects of life. Our focus tends to be on the physical; “what are the mechanics of a j-hop?”, “what should my body position be in a corner?”, “will these lighter wheels will make me faster?”, when it is our mind that is holding us back. We subtly sabotage our efforts with negative and often flat out BS thoughts. I have posted on this before, but I was wrong about the best way to get ourselves to actually perform at the highest level we are capable of.

In our camps and previous posts we have focused on positive and negative “self-talk” and how powerful both are. Negative self-talk (“I am a decent descender, but suck at climbing”),  is probably the number one thing holding most riders back. In the past we have stressed the value of positive self-talk (“I am a good descender and getting better at climbing with practice.”) which is far and away better than negative self talk, but turns out not near as good as interrogative self-talk. Interrogative self-talk is asking, “Can I do this?” which changes your self-talk from declarative statement, “I am a great climber” to a question, “Can I climb this?”. The first statement, ”I am a great climber” will give you an emotional lift but the question, ”Can I climb this?” will lead to a response, “Well I climbed a steeper, rockier hill in Moab last week.”. Then you are likely to remind yourself of how you have prepared for just such a climb, “Of course I can climb this, I have increased my power by 15% in the last two months of training and I have have been practicing my climbing techniques…”. Then you are likely to give yourself some advice, “last week in Moab I resisted the urge to try and sprint the lower part of the climb and maintained a slower cadence which really helped my balance in the loose stuff”.  Positive self-talk makes you feel good and possibly confident while interrogative self-talk prompts you to come up with ways to accomplish the task.

Before or during your next ride, instead of declaring your abilities with positive self-talk simply ask yourself, “can I do this?”. The best time for self-talk is before a ride or when you have stopped to either rest or access a trail feature. A lot of self-talk while riding leads to not being in the moment which can cause mistakes and crashes.

For more information read: “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form Simple Future Tense,” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (April 2010), Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi .

 

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11 replies
  1. Jon says:

    Great article!!!! I. myself am this guy… I woudl let my mind tell me I couldn’t do something and because of that, it would come true. I spent spring break this year in Moab with a good friend, who is a more aggresive rider than I am and found that I can ride harder than I thought. I can ride downhill faster than I thought, I can take some drops I didn’t think I could…. I spent 4 days there and changed my mindset and I am a better, more confident, faster rider. And most importantly, because I have more confidence, I am having more fun. And that is why I choose to mountain bike in the first place…

    Reply
  2. Fernando says:

    Well, I usually ask myself ‘How can I do this?’ or ‘what if…?’ leaving everything negative behind, tending to have a ‘can-do’ attitude rather than having chance to decline it.
    Positive thinking proved to be a mind and attitude builder , every time.

    Reply
  3. It'sMe says:

    I find I do the most self talk on the slower parts of the trails. The more difficult parts are full of concentration on the terrain itself rather than on introspection. This may or may not be distracting me from relaxing and letting my body act and react to the trail in the way I have tried to train myself to. I fear crossing the line into being distracted by self talk and reaping the result of being distracted on the trail.
    Having said all that, I have found the value in positive self talk during grinding climbs. There is a wide clear path up a long steep hill on a trail I often ride. It does not require anything more than fitness and resolve to get to the top and every time I am on it I find myself wanting to get off and walk.
    I find myself questioning why I do this to myself, why I want to be winded and wrung out when the other side of the hill calls. I answer with another 15 seconds and I will be past the point where I quit last month… another 30 seconds of hard pumping and I can stop for a drink of water at the top.
    Recently I stopped having to measure my progress by where I used to quit and walk. I know I can make it all the way up. Now all the talk I need is just to remind myself how good it feels to get that victory drink while enjoying the view. Positive self talk, determination and training have made a difference for me and I think it will for anyone who pursues it.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hey Scott, Sounds like you have made a lot of progress in your riding and fitness. Congratulations! You made me realize I left out something, specifically when to do the self-talk. As you said, in the tougher parts of the trail you are too focused to have any self-talk, that is good and what everyone should strive for! The best time for self-talk is before a ride or when you have stopped to either rest or access a trail feature, a bunch of self-talk while riding leads to not being in the moment.

      Keep on progressing,

      Gene

      Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hey Scott, Sounds like you have made a lot of progress in your riding and fitness. Congratulations! You made me realize I left out something, specifically when to do the self-talk. As you said, in the tougher parts of the trail you are too focused to have any self-talk, that is good and what everyone should strive for! The best time for self-talk is before a ride or when you have stopped to either rest or access a trail feature. A lot of self-talk while riding leads to not being in the moment which can cause mistakes and crashes.

      Keep on progressing,

      Gene

      Reply
  4. Tom Conlon says:

    Hi Gene,
    I find that my main self-talk while riding is: “Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling….). It seems to help get up those rocky stretches!

    Reply
  5. Gary says:

    Hello I recently had a pretty significant wreck, today was the second time I road since I broke my helmet. I found myself talking more than usual. I was positively telling myself what I needed to do on a very familiar trail. I think I was trying to keep the don’t wreck thoughts out. Only one time I found myself holding back and trying not to wreck. I figure this will go away with the bruises and cuts.

    Reply
  6. Si Frith says:

    Great !

    The techniques that you mention are clinically proven in a great deal of different ways and a solid method of both self improvement and also healing practice. The brain is super mailable and takes your personal dialog very seriously, essentially acts on command. The book the Healing code by Dermot O’ Conner goes into depth on the subject and makes for great reading.

    Great article, many thanks.

    Reply
  7. Nick T. says:

    positive talk not only helps on the trail, but everywhere in life. thx again for the reminder…

    Reply

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