Scientists study 25 National team cyclists to put a number to the link between mind and body, but the value is in realizing the relationship and how to use it to make us better.
The psychological influence on cycling performance and endurance are fascinating. When young in our competitive, or not-so-competitive, cycling careers, the improvement is significant, and we feel like it will go on forever. However, the performance gains begin to wane as time goes on despite our best efforts in steady and sensible training.
The improvement curve flattens out. Our less frequent exceptional results and PR moments are blips on the graph shown as an occasional deviation from the mean. Let’s face it. As the years pass, so does the opportunity for the consistent competitor to realize little more than marginal gains.
In addition, the non-performance ways to influence those improvements for athletes long in their careers become less frequent too. The situation is bleaker for the virtual cyclist.
Cutting-edge components and feather-light frames are virtual non-factors. Healthy weight loss can only take you so far before extreme dieting practices become detrimental and unsustainable. What’s left?
Your Brain May Be Filled With Untapped Potential
The Brain. If you’re like me, there isn’t much potential there. What is, though, is untapped! Or so it seems, but perhaps not.
How often do you think to yourself or hear a mate say, “I had a great race because I was motivated to persevere against the pressure and battle through the pain?”
You unwittingly recognize that both physiological and psychological factors influence your performance. The fascinating part? I can use my brain to make myself a better cyclist.
The Line Between Body and Mind Isn’t Clearly Defined
However, scientific research doesn’t clearly define the link between psychological factors and endurance performance. Psycho-physical resistance to fatigue generally explains success for endurance athletes, but researchers haven’t studied both together.
On the physical side, VO2 max (the performance of the cardiovascular and metabolic systems to set an upper limit for energy production) reflects an important and widely accepted determinant of endurance. Researchers use a psycho-biological model of endurance to explain the mental side.
The Psycho-Biological Model of Endurance
The model describes the psychological influence of effort-based decision-making on endurance performance. Motivational intensity theory, as scientists tell, says that endurance athletes determine their pace through the intermingling of effort perception and potential motivation.
At its base, when an athlete increases their motivation or reduces the perception of effort, improved exercise tolerance results. The less we think it hurts, and the more we want it, the better we do!
Definitive research supporting the psycho-biological model is limited to the mental and not the physical factors. There is extensive research into the significance of multiple performance variables, like VO2 Max. A December 2021 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science is one of the first to examine them simultaneously.
The Study of Twenty-Five National Team Cyclists
The scientists studied twenty-five athletes from the U17 Swiss Cycling national team to determine the link between psychological factors and VO2max on endurance performance. Despite the limitations of the small sample size and the challenge of establishing a clear cause and effect relationship, the results are intriguing and provide the opportunity to delve into the widely accepted facets of performance psychology.
The Five-Factor Psychological Spectrum
The researchers presented each athlete with a questionnaire regarding the five-factor psychological spectrum. The first, called mental techniques, comprises self-talk, imagery, goal-setting, and arousal regulation.
Athletes direct their thoughts to increase motivation or focus attention through self-talk. Through imagery, an athlete envisions successfully dealing with the perceived effort. Goal setting increases an athlete’s effort and persistence by focusing their attention on the task. Athletes use arousal regulation to reach an optimal performance state and remain motivated.
Self-compassion, the second psychological factor, is the athlete’s understanding and handling of weakness and error. Rather than getting down on themselves, athletes cope with adversity in a sensitive and less-critical manner. It better equips the racers to overcome adversity and react to emotionally challenging race situations.
The third factor is mental toughness and includes several qualities that make an athlete successful in pushing themselves to the limit. Mental toughness includes an unshakable self-belief, ability to rebound from failure, persistence or refusal to quit, dealing with pressure, and maintaining concentration.
Achievement motivation is the fourth factor in the spectrum. Athletes with high achievement motivation need success and strive for excellence. Such racers display a high level of perseverance and invest fully in athletic tasks. With a high level of ambition, the athletes seek challenging tasks and set lofty goals.
The fifth psychological factor is action orientation. Action orientation is the rapid and efficient refocusing after failure. In contrast, state orientation is the prolonged analysis of an error after it has occurred. Action-oriented athletes block regressions from their minds and concentrate on the task, while state-oriented athletes fear the future because of the past.
The Relevance of Mental Factors in Endurance Performance
Using these criteria, the scientist set out to examine the relevance of mental components in endurance performance in conjunction with the physiological factor of VO2max. The researchers measured VO2max using a step cycle ergometer test to exhaustion. Endurance performance was the dependent variable the scientists assessed with a 546-meter uphill time trial.
Not surprisingly, the researchers proved that VO2max was the primary predictor of endurance performance. Male and female racers with a higher VO2max did better in the time trial. The researchers didn’t stop there.
Perseverance is the Critical Element
The athletes with more perseverance, the persistent ability to push through a daunting athletic task despite adversity also had better time trials. Perseverance produced a four-times smaller effect than VO2max, but it was noteworthy.
The researchers assert that the subjective statements about athletes linking performance with a strong will or ability to dig deep are factual and justifiable. Athletes with extraordinary mental perseverance are more successful in performing at the limits of their physiological potential than their less persistent counterparts, and scientists put a number to it.
Relaxation Techniques Proved Poor Results
Interesting to note, athletes who routinely used relaxations techniques as a strategy performed poorer in the uphill time trial. While the researchers can only speculate, they attribute the lousy result to low arousal levels getting in the way of the all-in nature of a short uphill effort. The other psychological factors in the spectrum had no direct relationship.
Perhaps of most interest to note is not the result but rather the acknowledgment that the relationship exists and the steps to make it more straightforward for athletes. Yes, VO2max is a solid predictor of cycling success, but we shouldn’t overlook the mental element researchers proved to explain additional variance.
Conclusion—A Pot o’Marginal Gains at the End of the Mental Rainbow
Moreover, the study contributes to the topic by asking the question differently, and the answer provides the nuance of a varied perspective. The researchers posed the question of the joint influence the mental and physical play on cycling performance.
Further study clarifying the relationship and focusing on the most effective and efficient cognitive strategies will send us down the proper path. A minimal gains journey I am eager to take.
There may not be a boatload of untapped potential locked up in the recesses of my cortex, but it’s more than can be found in my legs. Thank you to the scientists and future research for not making me burn all of my mental matches to reveal what’s left.
Your Words of Motivation
What mental tactics do you use to make yourself the best you can be? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more great articles summing up cutting-edge research and the virtual cycling implications check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!