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:

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?


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!

Skills Tips and Old Interview with Ashwin Amanna

The Following can also be found on Ashwin’s cycling blog , it is from 2006?

Ashwin: Why does it seem there is resistance to mountain biking skills coaching? People don’t think twice about golf lessons?

Gene: I think there are a few reasons for this. There is a big difference between men and women in this area. If a woman can’t do something as well as she would like to she seeks out a teacher. If a man can’t do something as well as he wants to he simply tries harder.

I have read a lot of books that cover this subject (why men don’t ask for directions) and it goes back millions of years. Men feel like failures when they can’t grasp a task well in front of others, especially loved ones. To ask for help is a sign of weakness. This is why men often rib each other about taking lessons and why a guy who won’t ask for directions with his wife will ask for directions when he is alone.

Secondly, almost anyone can “ride” a bike so they don’t often realize how much skill is involved in riding a bike off road. Riding over roots and rocks is quite a bit different from riding your bike down the sidewalk to school.

Thirdly, many riders think the only difference between themselves and the best riders in the world is fitness and / or fearlessness. These riders don’t realize how much skill is involved and how much time and energy they could save with better skills.

Ashwin: Plenty of people are fast riders. What makes someone a good teacher?

Gene: There are many aspects to being a good teacher. A good teacher must be able to break down what they are teaching into to digestible parts, he must have the ability to articulate what he does and why.

Experience and coaching education are two of big factors that help an athlete become a good teacher. In the 17 years that I have been coaching I am constantly learning how to do it better. I learn from my clients, from taking coaching courses, and from reading. A good coach realizes he doesn’t know it all and is constantly trying to improve his methods.

Ashwin: Why can’t someone just read about skills in a book?

Gene: Well you certainly can read about skills in a book. There is nothing wrong with that. Why go to a camp? Getting coached by a good coach is a much faster and more effective way to learn any sport. That is why top athletes in all sports have coaches. Learning from a book is limited by how well it is written, how well the reader understands the book, how internally motivated the reader is and how often the reader returns to the book.

Reading about something gives some people an understanding of a skill while coaching gives a 3d example of the skill and allows the student to realize how it feels. A good coach explains the technique, why the technique works, how to do it, how it should feel and what it should look like. Then the coach makes sure the student understands it on all of those levels.

In addition coaches can answer questions, explain things in different ways, physically adjust your position (many athletes are kinesthetic learners, i.e. they learn best through manipulating their bodies) and evaluate the rider and tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Often you think / feel like you are doing something correctly but are actually doing it wrong. Top coaches also inspire an athlete to perform / practice at their best.

Ashwin: How important is the mental aspect of skills training and how do you teach that?

Gene: The mental aspect of skills training is equally important as the physical skills. What good is skill if you can’t access it when you need it? At the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club I learned that sport is a metaphor for life, confidence gained in sport makes the athlete a more confident person. This is a circular pattern, as you get more confident in sport you get more confident in life as you get more confident in life you get more confident in sport.

I teach mental skills throughout my camps as a situation arises where a certain mental skill will help a rider. The mind is very powerful, Henry Ford said, “those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right”. As both an athlete and coach I have found Mr. Ford’s statement is true.

Ashwin: Your philosophy stresses fundamentals in a way that’s similar to the way other coaches talk about free throws and basketball. In a nutshell, what are the fundamentals for mountain biking?


Vision. Where and how to focus.

Balance and body position. How to stay smooth and balanced in all riding situations and conditions.

Braking. When and how to brake effectively, economically and stay in control.

Lifting the bike, (wheelies/manuals, rear wheel lifts, bunny hops, etc.) how to get over obstacles the fastest and most economical way.

Cornering, the purpose of cornering and how to accomplish it through vision, body position, braking.

Slow speed riding and switchbacks, this includes more balance, body position and vision techniques.

Bike set up, a bike set up correctly is much easier to ride. 😉

Ashwin: A majority of your drills are performed in a controlled environment like a parking lot. Why?

Gene: People learn best in a non-threatening environment. When people are concerned about their safety their instincts take over and they revert to old habits.

This often happens on trail where there are all kinds of penalty points for mistakes. It is much easier to learn in a safe, controlled environment then apply what you learned on trail. In all sports most of the progress comes through drills (which is why over 70% of most athletes time is spent on drills) not actually racing/competing. As an example; golfers, ski racers, football players and basketball players spend 60 to 90% of their training time working on skills and only 10 to 40% of their training time simulating competition.

Ashwin: What is the biggest mistake you see beginner mountain bikers making?

Gene: Not looking ahead correctly and looking down at the times when it is most important to look ahead.

Ashwin: What is the biggest mistake you see advanced riders making?

Gene: Confusing fitness with skill, many advanced riders muscle through trails instead of using skill. This approach is inconsistent and wastes energy.

Ashwin: What’s the best way to introduce beginners to mountain biking?

Gene: It really depends on their aggressiveness. Take an aggressive skier / snowboarder/kayaker to some fun, easy singletrack (such as Rustlers Loop in Fruita). Take less aggressive people to a dirt road. The goal is to get them having fun and gradually increase the skill level and fitness level.

Ashwin: There’s more than one way to approach a skill, right? How does someone approach two ways of performing a skill that may be conflicting with each other?

Gene: In most cases there is a best way, I teach techniques that work 100% of the time, not techniques that work well in some situations but not others. Such as bunny hopping, simply yanking up like many people do works over small obstacles with the right speed but bunny hopping correctly (what some people call the J hop) works better and in more situations (going slower or over taller obstacles).

Ashwin: They say you win XC races on the climbs. If that is true why should an XC racer devote significant time to skills?

Gene: Time wise, climbs are probably 70% of a race so climbing ability is very important. A racer should devote time to skills because there is a much bigger pay off per hour of training. Most XC racers are close to their peak fitness level but are far from their potential skill wise.

Improving skill (both climbing and descending) makes a rider more confident, more efficient, and quite a bit faster. Just this weekend at the Sugar, NC national a non-mountain biking friend of mine asked, “why are those guys walking their bikes, I thought they were pros”. We saw a lot of racers walking while skilled racers like Adam Craig, Ross Schnell, Mike West, and Ariel Lindsey were riding and increasing their lead (while using less energy) on the riders walking the tough sections.

Ashwin: What’s the right way to ‘practice’ skills?

Gene: To practice skills you must first understand the skill you want to practice. Simply practicing “cornering” without knowing how to corner correctly will get you really good at your bad habits.

So rule # 1 is: Perfect practice make perfect.

With this in mind quality is much more important than quantity. Coaches in many sports have found that your quality starts to decline after the third attempt at any skill/movement. These coaches have come up with the rule of threes, do something three times then move on to another skill. In doing something 10 times your last 5 times may do more harm to your technique than the first three attempts did good for your technique.

Rule # 2 is: Have a purpose.

Many riders simply go out and ride, some even with a plan to work on skills. But what skills? To improve you must have an exact purpose, i.e. “Today I am going to focus on braking before corners and exiting with speed” or “for the first 10 minutes of my ride I am going to focus on being relaxed with a light rip on the bars then focus on pumping and contouring the trail”.