Motivation, Mind Games and the Power of Failure

Ade's Road Cycling Blog

I’ve read a number of books on the subject of mental strength and self-improvement in my attempts to become the best amateur cyclist I can be.  Some of these have been profoundly useful whilst others less so.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t originally get on with “The Chimp Paradox” by Professor Steve Peters – he of British Cycling.  Not for me inner humans, chimps and computers the first time I read it.  In fact I stalled part way through.  However, the more I think about it, the more I realise I probably should give it a second chance and a re-read because it does provide methods to help cope with wider issues such as anxiety and unwelcome thoughts and feelings.  Maybe there is an irony in there – my inner chimp acted impulsively and got me to stop reading the book and now my human is taking control (this will only mean something to you if you read the book!)

“Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed is a good book but is really a different subject area – it is more about the process of improvement borne out of failure.  As somebody who has spent the last few years learning as much through my own trial and error it certainly resonated with my own experiences.

One other area where I’ve read quite a few articles and studies is the Central Governor Theory, where the brain is the limiter rather than the muscles.  I guess you could call this mind over matter.  Much of this theory is based around the premise that fatigue is simply the sub-conscious brain creating a perception or feeling in order to moderate the amount of damage you do to yourself – a bit like a valve.  This is where books like “Dig Deepest!” by Adam Topham and “How Bad Do You Want it” by Matt Fitzgerald come in, as they basically support this premise and then cover ways and means of pushing past it.  In the case of Fitzgerald, he refers to these as coping strategies.

At the moment my training is going quite badly, which is not where I really wanted to be as the season starts.  I have a stack of data that tells me it shouldn’t but it feels really hard.  I know, I know – training is meant to be hard.  The data includes figures that define my Chronic Training Load (CTL – it’s high ✅) and my Training Stress Balance (TSB – it’s positive ✅).  I should be flying.  But in terms of rate of perceived effort (RPE) my training feels harder than it should do.  And in addition my Heart-Rate Variability (HRV) has taken a worrying tumble (by the way, the last time it did that I was ill the week after so fingers crossed it’s just a blip).

So it is clear that physical conditioning is not the complete picture.  There is a massive psychological side to it as well.  And I don’t just mean during actual races.  To get yourself into the best condition requires great motivation and dedication to map out and stick to a plan at the macro level, but then during each individual workout you have to have the mental strength at the micro level to push through the discomfort (and yes, pain) to make the gains necessary to drive adaptation in physiological systems.  And it is that micro level that I’ve been struggling to sustain in the last few weeks as the intensity has stepped up.  My coping strategies in the past have included

  • Setting challenging goals
  • Remembering success and the feelings that come with it – repeat, repeat, repeat
  • Event visualisation – pre-riding a race in my mind, especially the last hard effort, with positive outcomes
  • Lying to myself – “One more minute and I’ll stop.  Okay, just one more minute…”
  • Fear of failure – use of social media (and this blog) to publicly state goals and intent
  • Reward – if I get to the end of this session then my reward will be…

Repetition plays a big part.  It’s important to repeat successful behaviour but also to avoid unsuccessful behaviour becoming a habit.  Just not bothering, or finding excuses for giving in can become habit forming, so I’ve always found it better to just get on with it and stick with the plan.

That all said, these last few weeks I think I’ve overreached a little bit as the strategies haven’t really been working, so I’ve decided to dial back the intensity a bit and rebuild some confidence.  You only really learn when things go wrong, so hopefully this will let me take one step back to then allow me to move forward again.

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