Ride on: The art of staying motivated on the bike

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Michael Inglis is a sports psychologist who’s worked with professional and amateur athletes across a range of sports, including cycling. In this article he tackles a topic that us cyclists can all relate to: motivation.

How can we stay motivated? Why can it be so hard sometimes? And what are some strategies we can use to make it easier to get out for those rides we’d really rather skip? Read on to find out.


You wake during the night and hear the rain pouring down outside. At that point you begin negotiating with yourself: will you get up for the planned ride in the morning? Or will you stay in bed, warm and dry? You defer the decision until morning, but hesitation has crept in.

The alarm screams, and you check your phone to see a) if there is rain falling, and b) whether the group has cancelled the ride so you are less responsible for the decision.

***

We’ve all been there. Some days we might decide to skip the ride. Others, we get up and ride in terrible conditions. So, what is it that drives us to get out there when the weather is not kind for our outdoor sport?

When people ask why psychological strategies are so important in sport and exercise, one of my favourite replies is this: “The mind drives the body”. The body does not make a move without the mind telling it to. So the more motivated we are, the more effort we put in and a higher intensity we direct the effort with. Many who have cycled for a while will realise the difficulties of sustaining motivation, how it ebbs and flows, but will cherish the rewards we feel on the bike when we are driven.

Types of motivation

Our motivation can be broken into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within us and is affected by our individual characteristics, our enjoyment of the sport, or the act of improving a task or skill involved. Entering a challenging event such as Cape to Cape or the Alpine Classic could be to test ourselves and enjoy the scenery. Most would say completing these events brings a sense of achievement that fulfils them.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of us and can include recognition, trophies and praise from other people. Joining Strava could be to compete against others, earn badges and watch yourself climb up the leaderboard. Strava recognised that when they added the competitive element to their business — they gained a huge increase in membership as a result.

Motivation in cycling

The most common forms of motivation in cycling are events/competition, social connection and health goals. All three have the potential to be extrinsic or intrinsic motivators. Do you enter races for the glory (extrinsic) or to test yourself against the best (intrinsic)? Are you trying to gain praise from others (extrinsic) or do you simply enjoy cycling with your friends (intrinsic)? Do you like to keep fit (intrinsic) or are you riding because your doctor has warned you are at risk of high cholesterol (extrinsic)?

Wherever you sit, know that your motivation is unlikely to be fixed. Rather, it’s best to view intrinsic and extrinsic motivators on a continuum, one at either end. Most of us are constantly sliding up and down, depending on what is driving us at the time.

“Good” and “bad” motivation

So, is it better to be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? And which is more sustainable? Ultimately it comes down to individual preferences, but both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators have their value. In my experience overall, intrinsic motivators are more sustainable over time. That said, extrinsic ones can provide short-term injections of drive.

Breaking intrinsic motivation down further, research demonstrates that the biggest drivers are watching ourselves become more competent and skilful in our chosen sport. That is followed by an enjoyment of the sport and a sense of belonging within the cycling community.

In short, we will be highly motivated if we are working on something specific to improve our cycling, enjoying the journey along the way, and doing so with friends or within groups.

Goal-setting and goal-getting

The mental skill we can use to increase our motivation is goal-setting. This is particularly true for those on the more competitive end of the riding spectrum.

Goal-setting is a well-researched and -utilised method for both the competitive and recreational cyclist. However, it also has its weaknesses, mainly that most only set goals and then struggle to stay attuned to them. It is goal-getting that then becomes the crucial skill.

Goal-getters are ones who billboard their goals, work towards a greater purpose, and review their goals regularly. Goal-getters see their goals every day and what they need to do each day and each week in a progressive manner. Taking a progressive approach allows us to persevere when we feel lethargic, increase focus on our training, and be more process-focused with our approach to cycling. Sounds like motivation to me!

Willingness

The other skill that can be applied is willingness. Willingness allows us to consider what we want to achieve to reach our goals.

All cyclists are committed in some particular way to riding their bikes, but what are they willing to overcome to reach the goals they so desire? Motivated cyclists will consider and account for barriers ahead that may interfere with their goal-getting plan. The discussion then becomes: What am I willing to endure, overcome or resist when these times come?

Typical barriers a cyclists may face are a fear of riding in bunches or a lack of belief they can sustain the pace of that bunch. Furthermore, time pressures from work or family could potentially restrict the time a rider has to train. Willingness is not wanting; willingness is accepting the discomfort involved on the journey to reaching one’s goals.

The mindset then shifts; it goes from “I want to ride up at the front of the bunch but I feel anxious about crashing” to “I want to ride up at the front of the bunch and I’m willing to tolerate my anxiety of crashing.”

***

It is dark, cold and raining this morning. The group ride has been cancelled and several people are suggesting we try tomorrow instead. However, tomorrow is my flat endurance ride and I’m working on my climbing. Today I am committed to 1,500m of climbing and I know just the place to find other like-minded individuals I can share this experience with.

It is there I can work on my descending skills that will assist me in keeping up with my regular group. I know I may feel uncomfortable at times but I’m willing to cope with the discomfort. I’ve visualised myself returning home wet and exhausted but satisfied in overcoming the challenge and I know I’m a better version of myself than I was before.

I’ll see you out there!

About the author

Michael Inglis is an endorsed and accredited sport, performance and exercise psychologist and has been working in the mental health field since 1999. Michael leads the sport and performance team at The Mind Room, a mental health and wellbeing centre he co-founded in Collingwood, Melbourne.

Michael works with athletes, coaches and teams to build and enhance performance, wellbeing and leadership skills. Some of the teams Michael has worked with include the Holden Cycling Womens’ team, the North Melbourne Football Club and the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team. He is a keen cyclist and father to three active boys.

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