A few failproof strategies will ensure cycling event-day worries won’t prevent your peak performance…
Event or race-day psychology is a growing field in sport and the reason why experts like Dr Steven Peters of Team Sky are viewed so highly. One of the mental factors focused upon by Peters and his contemporaries is emotion regulation. In other words, how you control your emotions to unleash your finest performance.
Emotions encompass three types of response: physiological, such as increased respiration and heart rates; cognitive such as the changes in attention, perception and information-processing priorities; and behavioural, such as aggression toward an opponent or displaying disgust at a decision.
Applying a negative emotional response to a common scenario should help you visualise this potentially destructive path. If you race you’re likely to be confronted with a peloton of fit-looking riders at the start line. Physiological response? Heart rate and respiratory levels rise, burning valuable glucose. Cognitive response? Your attention’s been pre-occupied by nerves and thoughts of mentally rehearsing the race – pacing [more to come], fuelling strategy… – have gone out the window. Behavioural response? Nerves have wrapped their tentacles around your shoulders, limiting your range of movement and making every pedal stroke a chore. The result? A slow, energy-sapping race.
But this doesn’t only apply to competitive settings. No matter how welcoming the atmosphere at your local sportive may be, most of us are familiar with such feelings when facing a big sporting challenge.
So what can we do to alleviate these nerves. Well, beyond not signing up in the first place (!), much of nerve-dissipation comes with planning…
Those of you who are religiously following this year’s Tour de France and the respective Twitter feeds of the world’s best teams might have come across Belgium team LottoNL Jumbo visualising the upcoming prologue in Dusseldorf. There’s nothing ground-breaking in that, of course, but rather than riders Primoz Roglic and Jos van Emden scrolling through a map with the directeur sportifs, they were using virtual reality (VR) units from the comfort of their Ibis beds.
VR is regarded as the next step in mentally rehearsing your upcoming race but you needn’t go that far. However, all of you should reconnoiter the parcours of your goal event, whether it’s in person – a practise ride in the weeks before – or via Google Maps and the event website. Know where the key parts of the route are, be it a stiff ascent or a technical downhill or simply where the food stops will be located. You can even do what the pros do and print out the key areas of the course on a thin piece of card and tape it to your top tube or stem. Knowing you’ve prepared and knowing what’s coming will reduce the feeling of the unknown – a common stimulus of nerves.
ORGANISATION AND PLANNING
Yep, this sounds incredibly dull but ensure you’ve planned your race routine to Team-Sky proportions. This is where a checklist comes in handy. (Three cheers for Microsoft Excel!) You should have one for all the gear you’ll need on the day, from suitable clothing (always take some form of jacket if competing in the UK, even in July and August) to the nutrition you’ll need.
It’s also worth writing down how your event build-up will play out, from what time you might need to leave for the hotel to what time you must wake for breakfast so that your porridge and jam has all digested come the start line. Other key things to note are car parks close to the start, any potential hold-ups (roadworks!) and how you’ll efficiently deal with a puncture. With regard to the latter, practise in training and carry spare inner tubes and a good mini-pump for swift recovery.
ACE OF PACE
Many riders suffer from the heebee-jeebies because they line up at the start and have no idea what speed or power output they’ll look to generate in order to reach the finish line. So make sure you have a plan.
Take the hills as an example. Obviously you’ll be going a lot slower so if you’re used to pushing a certain level of speed, you’ll have a shock if you try and keep to that speed on the hills. So say there are six hills, you might break the course down into those six components. Or two at a time. Or into thirds. And then pace them accordingly as blocks rather than seeing each as one big hill that you must go flat out on.
It’s very likely that you might be passed by a few other people. As long as you’re confident you’re at the right level for you, the whippets might go past you and that’s fine. There might also be people behind you who aren’t passing you because they’re not as strong as you. Ride at the right level for you and be okay with the suffering. A power meter, heart rate monitor and bike computer all come in useful here.
It sounds a touch trite but you can only control the controllables – in other words, what you do. You’re not racing for Sky and your professional livelihood doesn’t depend on it. Just remember that we all experience butterflies – we just need to ensure they’re flying in the same direction (toward the finish line!).