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by Matt de Neef
March 14, 2018
Photography by Ashley & Jered Gruber and Kristof Ramon
When it comes to improving on the bike, we all know the basics. Ride more, train hard, eat well, lose weight — so much of the focus is on physical development. And while this side of the sport is undoubtedly vital, many riders overlook mental and psychological development.
Some of that will happen automatically as you improve on the bike. You’ll start to realise that your mind is stronger than your body and that you can push beyond the point where things start to hurt. But beyond these gradual adaptations, there are also psychological strategies we can employ to make sure we’re getting the most out of ourselves on the bike.
Among the most beneficial strategies is self-talk — talking to yourself, either internally or externally, to motivate, to allow you to push through pain, and, ultimately, to produce better performances.
The idea of talking to yourself to improve your cycling might sound crazy, but it works. In fact, there’s a raft of research from a range of sporting disciplines showing that positive self-talk can bolster mental toughness and allow athletes to take their performance to another level.
Seth Rose is a sports psychology researcher at California State University, Fullerton and the author of a master’s thesis on the use of self-talk among elite cyclists. He told CyclingTips that the benefits of positive self-talk are clear.
“The way that you talk to yourself, self-talk, positive self-talk, has been proven to be more beneficial than any other mental strategy that there is when you look at sports psychology as a subject in the whole.”
And there’s plenty of research to show that it works in cycling specifically, too. For instance:
– A 2007 paper from Canadian researchers that showed riders who used “self-regulated positive self-talk” in an experiment had an average performance increase of 23.4%.
– A 2014 study from English and Dutch researchers that found self-talk can significantly reduce a rider’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) and enhance endurance performance.
– Another study from 2014 by a group of British researchers that found motivational self-talk can lead to an increase in rider power and improved time trial performance.
When Rose was starting his master’s thesis, he realised that while there was plenty of research on the use of self-talk among amateur cyclists, there was a real dearth when it came to elite riders. He set out to fill that gap, testing a handful of Category 1 and 2 riders to see whether their performance could be improved through the use of positive self-talk.
In the first of three lab sessions Rose tested each rider’s VO2max, tracking their heart rate, power output and RPE along the way. With their VO2max and functional threshold power (FTP) determined the riders came back in for a second session where they rode for 45 minutes at 70% of their FTP, before a 15-minute all-out time trial.
Four of the study’s eight riders became the control group — they were told to go away for two weeks, train as normal, then come back into the lab for follow-up tests. The other half would become the experimental group.
“I spent about 30 minutes with the experimental group — so half the participants — and we went through a two-week intervention,” Rose told CyclingTips. “So I teach them what self-talk is, what it means to have positive self-talk, how they can create their own statements and we actually created four applications to use during training and then ultimately to use during the test when they come back.”
After two weeks of using positive self-talk in training, the experimental group also came back into the lab and repeated the same test as a fortnight earlier. Perhaps surprisingly, Rose found that those within the experimental group didn’t go further in the time trial, nor did they have a lower RPE.
“When they came back into the lab there was no significant differences across the board – the motivational self-talk was ultimately not effective with these elite level cyclists for that test,” Rose said.
Pro cyclists might have less to gain from self-talk than amateurs.
So what should we make of this? Why do amateur riders seem to benefit from self-talk but elite riders don’t? For a start, as Rose acknowledges, the study had some limitations, including the number of athletes taking part.
“Given the nature of elite level population and the timing of the study, sample size was lacking due to the intense training and racing schedules of high level athletes,” wrote Rose in his thesis.
Furthermore, the riders seem to have been expecting the same test they’d done two weeks earlier — 45 minutes at 70% of FTP then a 15-minute all-out time trial. This meant they were better able to pace themselves than in the first trial, a factor that might have skewed the results.
But there’s another, potentially bigger issue at play here too: the fact that elite riders are simply able to get more out of themselves than amateur riders. This isn’t just in absolute terms, but also relative to their maximum potential. Putting it another way: elite riders are elite for a reason.
“If we look at sport there’s four components: physical, technical, tactical and mental,” Rose explained. “In any sport in amateur or semi-professional [ranks] there’s a lot of emphasis on the physical, technical, tactical and not a lot of emphasis on the mental. So to get to that next level there has to be something different.
“And there could be genetics, it could be nutrition, it could be just the amount of training that they’ve been doing for years. But they might already have mental strategies — not self-talk — but mental strategies in general that they already have set in place that gets them to push past that limiter.”
So self-talk might not work for elite cyclists. But given the research shows considerable benefits for us amateur riders, how can we use self-talk effectively? Is it as simple as saying to yourself “I can do this!”?
The first piece of advice Rose has is to keep things positive.
“There is research that shows that negative self-talk is effective but it’s negative statements on yourself that would then … be positive in nature. So it would motivate you in nature,” Rose said. “You cuss yourself out — sometimes people just get motivated and they push harder. But for this [study] we were really trying to keep it motivational and positive in nature, so keeping things present, positive, process-oriented.
“A lot of people were saying ‘You got this! or ‘Let’s go!’ Some people repeated to themselves ‘Strong legs. Strong legs.’ And then others were saying ‘Almost there.’ That one was kind of questionable if that’s really motivational, but like I said: self-talk is so subjective.”
Interestingly, the research seems to show that keeping affirmations in the second person is more effective than in the first person. That is, “You’ve got this!”, “You can do this!” and “You’re stronger than this!” are more effective than “I’ve got this!”, “I can do this! and “I’m stronger than this!”. Why might that be?
“If you have a coach, and if that coach is there with you saying things to you or yelling at you to push you to go harder, you’re going to want to go harder,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of old research that just shows that if you have other people around you, that you’re going to perform better. Social facilitation theory.
“If you’re running down the street doing a light jog, exercising, and if you see a couple people walking on the other side of the street, you might almost feel like you’re gliding or all of a sudden you’re going a little faster because somebody is there.
“It’s almost the same premise. Self-talk all comes down to conviction and self-belief and if you don’t believe that you can actually do it, then you’re just saying those statements just to say them.”
So is it simply a case of saying “You’ve got this!” when things get hard during your weekly club race? Or is there a benefit in using self-talk in training as well?
“Well let me ask you this: If you were training for a race and if you only showed up to race day without training do you think you’d do well?,” Rose asked. “This is called mental training and mental conditioning. It’s not mental magic. With sports psychology and specifically with self-talk there’s going to be a learning curve for those that have never done it before.
“If you’re on the trainer and you’re doing hard intervals, when you get to that point where you are pushing and you know that you’re red-lining it or you’re trying to hit your power numbers or whatever the case may be, that’s where you practise those statements.”
As Rose seemed to show with his study, the benefits of self-talk appear to tail off the stronger and higher through the ranks you get. But thankfully, for the vast majority of us, there’s plenty of room to grow.
So try positive self-talk, use it, and you might just be surprised at the results. Go on: you can do it.