Mountain Bike Mental Game, Are you tough? Part 1

In mountain biking and other sports the most “talented” or “gifted” athlete is rarely the most successful. At the higher levels of competition most competitors have a similar combination of skill, talent and fitness. To out-perform competitors or simply ride your best you must be mentally tough. James E. Loehr, Ed.D, world renowned sports psychologist states, “Toughness is the ability to perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”. If you are not riding or racing to your potential it is time to get tough and work on your mountain bike mental game.

Being tough sets you for peak performance on race or ride day. Ever have your focus and confidence slip away on a race or ride day because of a previous crash, injury or the weather? How did you perform that day? My guess is you probably didn’t race up to your potential. Have you ever had a weaker and/or less skilled rider beat you or out ride you? Those are painful examples of not being tough. To have peak performance, you must reach what my snowboard coach called your “optimal performance state.” This is the level of focus, arousal, relaxation, and confidence where you perform best. Tough athletes can reach this state consistently and quickly return to it after a mistake or let down.

I consider Nicolas Vouilloz and Julie Furtado two of the toughest mountain bike racers. Nico faced very skilled competitors like Steve Peat, Nathan Rennie and Cedric Gracia. Week after week, he was able to out perform them. The same can be said for Julie Furtado. Her competitors Alison Sydor, Susan DeMattai and Paula Pezzo were all very strong riders, yet more often than not, Julie was on top of the podium. Julie and Nico didn’t simply dominate the competition by huge margins though; they won a lot of close races, had a few second and third places along with the occasional poor showing. What made them tough was their ability to be tough and come back from that rare bad race to win again.

Consistently performing at your peak like Nico and Julie is easier said than done. Life tends to send you with falls, injuries, emotional upsets and the stress of trying to train 10 to 20 hours a week and balance that with a career and a social life. Creating a healthy balance between the rigors of training and life challenges is a must if you want to get tough. Being tough requires physical strength and stamina as well as mental and emotional flexibility.

It is hard to be tough when you are exhausted. Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” He’s right—being fit, rested and ready for the challenge is very important. Most cross country racers are physically tough but some downhill racers could use improvement. Most downhill racers have trained their anaerobic system required for the five minute sprint of a typical downhill race, but they are often worn-out from the days of practice leading up to the race. To improve your ability to recover physically from training and racing be sure to develop a strong aerobic base in your training.

Controlling and using your emotions is an important element of toughness. Many different emotional states contribute to being able to perform at our best. Unfortunately, emotional stress takes away our focus and drive; emotions that have nothing to do with your competition like feeling sad because your dog passed away or feeling upset from a bad break up of a relationship can have a negative effect on your energy level. Dwelling on mistakes and negative self-talk lead to feelings of helplessness, despair and anger and put you in a less than optimal performance state. Being detached will protect you from emotional upset, but you will also miss out on the positive emotions that lead to and come from success. Emotional flexibility means being able to summon the emotions that you need to perform well while taking care of the ones that hold you back.

Can you handle the mental stress of training and competition? Mental stress can be just as tiring as the physical stress of racing or training.  The focus of riding tight singletrack, thinking about race strategy or visualizing your race can wear you out and take away from your performance. Consider the following —You are leading the point series and need to simply finish eighth or better in the final race to win the series. Thirty seconds before the start of the series final, your number one competitor (who is the previous year’s champion) says incredulously, “Oh, you’re using those tires,” and rolls his eyes. You may laugh while reading this, but it actually happened a few years ago.  What happened is a lesson in mental and emotional strength: the series leader had such a bad run that the title was lost. Being able to handle the mental stress and head games and dealing with competition is one of the toughest challenges to an athlete. In this situation the racer lacked the mental strength to control his emotions. Had the racer been tough enough to say (and believe), “of course I am using these tires, they hook up great and roll fast” the outcome would have probably been quite different.

The good news is you can get tougher. To get tougher you need to be able to handle more stress, physical, emotional and mental stress. You probably already know the training theory that by gradually increasing our physical workload combined with adequate recovery we will get stronger.  The same holds true for mental and emotional training.  Often cross country racers who do a lot of their training on the road aren’t subjecting themselves to enough of the mental stresses of trail riding to become mentally stronger.  Downhill racers have the opposite problem, riding downhill trails exposes them to a great deal of mental stress but they don’t effectively recover from the stress. One way to increase your mental toughness is to practice imagery  (visualization). Start with three, two minute imagery sessions followed by recovery (emptying your mind, reducing mental stimulation). Work your way up to three, ten minute imagery sessions while decreasing your recovery time between sessions.  Taking emotional risk through entering races and facing your fears creates stress.  Recovering from these risks strengthens your emotionally flexibility. Emotional recovery comes from having fun, laughing out loud, watching a movie or having a few beers with friends.

Mountain bike racing requires fitness, talent and skill. However, the racers who perform best are the toughest, the ones who can access and use more of their fitness, talent, and skill than their competition. Toughness is based on physical strength and endurance; it is hard to be tough when you are exhausted. The next component of toughness is being emotional flexible and in control of your emotions. A strong and resilient mental game able to handle the pressure and stress of competition is the final component of toughness. Your mental game and emotional flexibility can both be strengthened and I will focus on more ways to do this in Part 2.

Are you tough? part 2

In last month’s Dirt Rag I explained that talent and skill alone won’t help you race at you best.  To excel as an athlete you must be tough and I defined toughness as being able to perform at or near your peak no matter what life throws at you.  To do this you must be able to reach your optimal performance state (OPS) in training, before your race and maintain it throughout your event.  Your OPS is a physiological state that involves being relaxed, confident, challenged and energized at the levels where you perform best.  I’ll provide strategies for reaching your OPS and getting tougher in the three critical areas that effect it; mental strength, emotional flexibility and physical stamina.

The level of relaxation, confidence, challenge, focus, fun, control and energy required to reach your OPS is different for everyone.  Too relaxed and you are sloppy and not focused enough, too energized and you try too hard and lose your flow on the trail.  Finding the level of challenge where you perform best is a great starting point.  You must find the point where you are on the edge of control keeping you focused by feeling your skills match the challenge.  Have you ever cleaned the toughest section of a trail only to wreck in an “easy” section right after it?  Being on the edge of control in the tough section kept you focused but when you felt completely in control you lost focus.

You can experiment to find the right combination of confidence, challenge, focus, fun, control and energy you need to attain your OPS. The best way to do this is to use a set challenge (a short section of trail) and time your runs through it at different levels of the above variables. Adjust one variable at a time and you times will tell what levels work.  Another way to do this is with a “Past History Search” which is just as it sounds, go back in your mind and relive your greatest moments in competition. In a relaxed setting, such as a sitting in a dimly lit room by yourself pick your three or four most proud moments and really feel how you felt at the time.  Both of these exercises should give you a great idea of where you need to be mentally, emotionally and physically to reach your OPS.

Once you find your OPS you must be able to reach it consistently.  Everyone has race weekends when they didn’t get enough sleep, are jet lagged or just plain worn out.  To do well on those days you can’t let how you really feel get in the way of how you need to feel.  You must be able to summon the feelings needed to reach your OPS on race day, no matter how you really feel.  A great way to do this is to develop a second personality, your inner racer.  This is literary the person you become on race day (and in practice) and is completely separate from your everyday personality.  Your inner racer feels confident, strong, energized and relaxed despite how you actually feel. You do this by physically acting confident strong and energized the physiological response to acting this way is to feel this way.  Use a role model for this, copy the behavior of someone who is confident and fast.  I try to channel Cedric Gracia (chin up, chest out, looking people in the eye, smiling, standing proud) this makes me laugh (relaxing me) and feel confident.  You do this mentally by remembering and almost reliving in your mind the feelings after other successes in your life.  This process can be streamlined by creating what Sports’ Psychologists call performance cues, actions that help you become your inner racer quickly.  These cues are anchored to the feeling and emotions you need to feel as your inner racer.  A performance cue is typically a physical action tied with a thought or short phrase, such as making a fist and saying, “I’m the King!” or touching two fingers together and saying, “super fast”.  In relaxed setting, such as a sitting in a dimly lit room by yourself relive three past experiences where you felt the feeling and emotions that bring on your OPS, one experience
at time.  When you really start to feel your OPS do and say your performance cue and repeat this with each experience for a total of around twenty minutes.  All you need is 20 minutes a day twice a week and soon you will be able to move from any state to your inner racer instantly.  Using performance cues is also the quickest way to return to your inner racer after a mistake or crash.

Now that you have found out how to reach your inner racer at will you must be able to stay there.   Part of staying there is becoming mentally strong, not letting other people, events or things you can’t control affect your self confidence.  A clear cut goal of what you want to accomplish and confidence in your riding ability helps you stay tough by keeping things in perspective.  This really helped me years ago in one of my first Norba National races as a pro.  When John Tomac sat up his rollers on one side of me and current world champion Mike King started warming up on the other I was really nervous for a minute.  Thoughts like, “I don’t belong here” and “those guys are going to kill me” popped into my head.  Then I remembered that my goal was simply to have my best run and that I was racing the clock not these “gods” of the sport.  Johnny T. and Mike King both finished well ahead of me but by focusing on my goal I and not worrying about what I had no control over (the other racers performance) I was able to have my best performance to date.  So keep things in perspective, and eliminate worry; worry can rob you of energy and often worry has no basis in reality.  Remember your purpose and don’t worry about what you can’t control.

Learning from your mistakes will also make you tougher.  Many riders crash, cuss at their bike, then pick it up and keep riding.  This is a good strategy (minus the cussing) in a race because you want to lose as little time in as possible.  When you make a mistake in practice stop and figure out why you made the mistake and then decide how to handle the same situation better the next time.  This approach completely reverses the outcome of making the mistake.  Instead of getting angry and losing confidence you feel a since of accomplishment and more confident because you used the mistake to improve your riding.  Mistakes are part of the learning process so look at them as an opportunity to improve, not a set back.

Imagery is another toughness builder.  It is a lot easier to pass that racer who has beaten you the last few racers if you have already done it in your head ten times.  Image yourself experiencing bad situations that you may encounter (such as a flat or poor start in an xc race, or a crash in a practice run before a downhill race) and over coming them.  The more you practice these situations in your mind the better you will be able to handle them in real life.

Getting tough mentally and emotionally is just like physical training; you stress the system, recover from that stress and grow stronger. Find out how to reach your OPS and then work on ways to reach it more consistently.  Take care of the feelings that hold you back and keep things in perspective; after all it’s just a bike race. Imagine yourself overcoming obstacles and reaching your goals and you are likely to do so in real life.  All of the above exercises will make you tougher.  If this has interested you and you would like to learn more about improving your mental game I recommend reading:

The New Toughness Training for Sports by James E. Leohr, and

The Mental Edge: Maximize Your Sports Potential with the Mind/Body Connection by Ken Baum and Richard Trubo.

Side bar:  Different races require different levels of the components of OPS, example slalom vs. dh vs. xc.

You want to reach your Optimal Performance State in all competitive events but some of the components of your OPS may differ for different events.  Your level of relaxation, confidence, challenge, focus, fun and control should stay the same but your level of relaxation and energy can be quite different depending on the competition.  In snowboard racing I found that I performed best when I was extremely fired up.  My energy level was off the charts and it was a struggle to keep my muscles relaxed.  Knowing this was where I performed best as a snowboard racer I used this state of arousal for downhill races for years.  This had the unfortunate effect of taking away my flow and smoothness.  I was trying too hard, entering corners too fast, and exiting them slow, pedaling when I should of been pumping the trail and too tense to be smooth.  I know race in much calmer relaxed state which really helps me smooth it out, using less energy and going faster.
For races like mountain cross or dual slalom I still get fired up because the start is so important and the race is more of a short sprint.  In general the longer the event the more you will want to be mellow and relaxed while shorter events require a more excited state.

Interesting info on pedal stroke Efficiency

Just found an article that may help explain a little of the difference in using flat pedals vs. clipped (I say a little as this test didn’t test flat pedals and does not take into all the goals of pedaling a mountain bike which include confidence and control).

The article is worth reading but here is what I found interesting:

“In a 2007 study, Korff et al, looked at the effectiveness/efficiency relationship of four different pedaling techniques: pedaling circles, “stomping,” the riders own self-selected style and the classic “pull up” through the bottom of the pedal stroke approach.

Their study established that mechanical effectiveness is greatly enhanced by using the “pull up” technique; it ranked higher on an effectiveness index than pedaling circles, self selected or ‘stomping’ the pedals. Gross efficiency, on the other hand, was significantly lower using this technique. It took more energy to use the ‘pull up’ technique than to simply pedal in circles or stomp. Unfortunately, Korff et al, didn’t delve into the efficacy of the trade off. Is it worth the decreased efficiency to get the greater effectiveness?”

Which to me means clipless pedals might be a huge advantage in loose and or steep climbing sections as you can produce more power.  The reason I mention loose conditions is often a hard downward pedal can cause you to spin out.  I tested this yesterday on some steep and loose sections of trail at Bootleg Canyon and realized that I use a completely different pedal stroke in those conditions than any where else.  When it is steep and loose (or just really steep) I use a lot of upward pulling that I don’t use any where else.

The article, which also backs up my theory that just because a high cadence works for Lance it might not be best for you can be found here: http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/?pg=fullstory&id=8076

Again, don’t just agree or disagree with the article, experiment, find out what works for you.

Clipped In vs. Flat Pedals

Flat pedals vs. clipped in

I get some version of the following question at least once a month and as I have continued to ride and learn my feelings on this subject have evolved.

I do have a question, I’ve only been riding for 3 months, at what point do you think I should get clips? I’m not sure I am ready for them but I notice the people I ride with are all clipped in and they are so much faster than me. Is that a big factor in speed?

Thanks,
Ada

This is a great question.  First you never have to get clipless pedals.  Clipless pedals (the ones you clip into) are simply a different way of doing things, barely better in some ways, not as good in other ways.  I have heard from students who say that their local shop told them they need clipless pedals and nothing could be further from the truth.  A good set of flat pedals and sticky soled shoes is a better system for many riders.

Yes, I usually ride clipped in but it took me a lot of time to get used to clipping in and out and a lot of time to get used to riding clipped in.  The more I ride, coach and learn the more I see the advantages of flat pedals.  I have been riding flat pedals the last few weeks and each day I like them more.

Pros of running flat pedals

1. More Confidence! You can take your feet off quickly and easily making trying technical sections and learning important skills like track standing easier. I have a lot of friends who always ride flat pedals (for cross country riding) and like being able to put a foot down at will.  They say this enables them to try more technical moves and sections (especially going uphill) that they would be to scared to try clipped in.

2. Less fear for many riders (which allows the rider to stay in their comfort zone and relax!).  Fear and learning do not mix, you can not learn when scared.  Muscle Tension (which fear produces) and riding do not mix well either.

3. Flat pedals provide more feedback, giving you an idea of how you are riding. Because you are not attached to the pedals if you are riding stiff and relying on your suspension to soak up the bumps (instead of using your body) you will notice that your feet bounce all over the pedals. This is a sign that you should be more relaxed and supple on the trail.

4. Flat pedals don’t allow you to cheat when doing lifting maneuvers such as rear wheel lifts and bunny hops. This can be valuable when learning proper technique.

Pros of being clipped in:
1. I like clips for the “attached” to my bike feel (although they have made me less smooth because of this). When you foot lands with the heel on the pedal (instead of the ball of your foot) you lose the use of your ankle (which is a big part of your shock absorption) and you start plowing into the trail instead of floating smoothly.  So being attached to your pedal keeps you on the ball of your foot no matter how stiff you ride.

2. Being clipped does make pedaling a little more efficient.  Again let me repeat myself, a little more efficient, there have been no studies done that I know of.  If pedaling at 100% efficient vs. 99 or 98% efficient is more important to you than having a little more confidence clipped in might be for you. Remember, being efficient on mountain biking is more than just pedaling, smoothness, cornering ability and confidence will also help you become more efficient.

3. Being clipped in encourages you to corner with correct technique and body position and keep your feet on the pedals (usually when you take a foot off your pedals you end up in an out of balance position often causing a slide out). World Champion Greg Minnaar always uses clips when racing in the mud for this reason. He said in one of my camps, “with flat pedals you take your foot out instinctively, often when you don’t need to”.

Which pedal type should you use?  Experiment!  find which pedal system you fill most comfortable on and confident riding on.

After 18 years of riding clipped in 99% of the time I starting to really enjoy being unclipped!