You’re on the start line of your event – a race, a century, maybe that group ride that keeps kicking your butt. You’ve been working hard on your physical fitness, and you know your body’s capable of what you’re going to ask of it today. But what about your mind? Is it at its best, or in the way? By the time an event begins, the mentally fit cyclist has consciously created the state of mind that maximizes the likelihood of peak performance.
By Marv Zauderer
The final days, hours, and minutes before an event are unlikely to improve your physical fitness. But they can make a big difference in your mental state, and thus in your access to – or barriers to – your physical capabilities during the event. Knowing your target start-line mental state, and developing a strategy – a routine – that you can depend on to get there is a crucial part of mental fitness. Following onto last month’s installment of this Sport Psychology column, where we talked about improving your sleep, we focus this month on a variety of additional components of an effective pre-event routine.
Designing your pre-event routine starts with self-awareness, and the answers to three questions:
1. What’s your optimal mental state on the start line? Think back to an event where, at the start, you felt exactly the way you want to. Were you relaxed? Excited? Focused? Talking? Silent? Thinking? Spacing out? Feeling strong? Confident? Purposeful? Your thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors are the ingredients of your mental state, so take inventory of all four as you recall the memory. If you haven’t yet had the start-line experience you’re looking for, define a state that you think will be best for you. You can refine that goal later if you need to.
2. What helps you get there? Think about the week leading up to the event. What did you do that contributed to that feeling on the line, or at least seemed to? What involved other people, and what was solo? Which of your actions were in the days leading up to the event, and which were on the day of the event? Which were in the last few hours? The last few minutes?
3. What gets in the way? What happened during the week, hours, minutes leading up to the start that tweaked your mental state? How much was within your control? Think about what you could have done. Why didn’t you?
Record your answers to all of these questions in your training log or wherever else you’ll be able to find them later.
Next, at least several days in advance of your event, reflect on your goals for the event, and return briefly to those goals each day. And if you don’t have any, use your goal-setting skills to get some – fast. Wondering why that’s such a high priority? Having goals, and keeping them in mind in the run-up to an event, can be a great countermeasure against our old nemesis, anxiety. Without goals, you may feel less anchored, less solid, less focused than is best for you. Just the kind of mental state that anxiety loves to rush into! And the last thing you need on the start line, not to mention in the days leading up to the event, is too much anxiety.
Speaking of which, staying relaxed during the week leading up to your event is often a key part of reaching the start line ready for peak performance. Here are some steps that might help you do so:
• Have a plan for the event. Once you have goals, it will add to your confidence to have a plan to achieve them. It might be a race plan, a nutrition/hydration strategy for a double century, or a plan for how you’re going to win the town-limit sprint for the first time on that group ride.
• Make a point of taking care of yourself. Pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking; stick to what you know is best for you. As last month’s column pointed out, get the best sleep possible, and don’t worry if it’s less than great. Besides any necessary assessment of your competitors for your race plan, don’t over-compare yourself with others in the event; it can be toxic. Make sure the way you’re talking to yourself about the event is positive. If you have a spiritual or religious practice, stick to it – as you know, it can make a big difference in how you feel. And think about whether there’s any other way you need to support yourself.
• Organize any support you need. If you have a coach, talk about the event with him/her well in advance. Make sure you’re getting what you need from that relationship. Think about whether you need to reach out to teammates, other friends, or family.
• Consider visualizing all or parts of the event. Many amateur and professional athletes use visualization to reduce anxiety, sharpen focus, and increase confidence. Check out this column for tips.
• Ride! Riding at an appropriate level of volume and intensity the week before an event can have all sorts of benefits. It can maintain or even improve your mood, sustain your confidence, keep you from being too much “in your head,” and reduce stress. And, as my colleague Bruce Hendler points out, pre-riding the course itself, if possible, can do wonders for your mental state.
• Organize and de-stress your travel to the event. Create a packing list. You won’t have to think when you’re getting all your stuff together, and you won’t worry that you’re forgetting something. You may end up using the same list for every event. Also, plan out the driving, flying, hotels, meals or whatever else is involved in getting to the event, so you don’t have to stress about that stuff at the last minute.
Lastly, it is crucial to have a routine at the event itself. The key goals for your routine are:
1. Staying relaxed. Know how much time you need for your entire process, from registration to getting to the start line. Then add a few minutes of breathing room. Settle on a small number of things that will keep you relaxed. Are you going to socialize or isolate? Listen to music? Use a little positive self-talk? (Or maybe a lot?) Return to a brief visualization you’ve been using during the week? Use a breathing technique that works for you? And what kind of warmup can get your body ready to perform but also relax you? Staying focused, if you’re not overdoing it, can also help you stay relaxed; check out the column on concentration for tips.
2. Feeling your mojo. If you’re sufficiently relaxed, you’re more likely to be able to tap into your inner strength, your self-confidence, the strength you’ve been building in your body, the excitement you have about the event. Ask yourself why you’re there and have a good answer. Remind yourself of your goals and plan. Tap into your desire, your passion for what you’re doing. Use your warmup not just to jumpstart your body, but also your mind. Get psyched, but not too psyched; letting your will get out of control will likely work against you. If you’re still not feeling it, close your eyes, recall an experience you’ve had – in training, at a previous event, wherever – where you’ve found the mental and physical strength you’ve needed, and remember how that felt. Stay in that feeling. You’re proving to yourself that you can feel it again.
Once you’ve decided which elements you’re going to select for your pre-event routine – for the week of, day before, day of – it’s time to test them. Go through the entire process, including the event itself, and then debrief yourself afterwards. What worked? What didn’t? Why? What are you not sure about yet? Refine the routine, if necessary, making notes about what you’re learning. Then you’re ready for the next test.
Designing, refining, and settling into a pre-event routine is an important part of building mental fitness. Once you find a routine that works for you, it’s a double positive: it gets you into the start-line state that you want to be in, and you enter into the run-up to an event feeling confident that your routine will work. Along with your physical preparation, make your mental preparation a priority. You’ll be glad you did.