Breathing Techniques

We are affected not only physically, but also mentally, by the mechanics and efficiency of our breathing while cycling. The mentally fit cyclist knows how to use conscious breathing techniques to retrain breathing when necessary, reduce on- and off-the-bike stress, and pave the way for improving core mental skills.

By Marv Zauderer

We’ve covered quite a bit of road over the past year in this monthly column. We started with the 5 Core Skills of mentally fit cyclists: Goal-Setting, Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration and Communication. (For those of you new to Pez, words in blue are links. And welcome to Pez!)

Then we moved on to more advanced skills, built on the core skills, that you can use in Responding to Adversity: Increasing Tolerance for Suffering, Recovering from Injury, Sustaining Motivation, Handling Pressure, Beating the “Winter Blues,” and, last month, Balancing Self-interest and Cooperation.

Today we begin a new series on Integral Elements: the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills.

This week, at the beginning of Black History Month, I was touched by the story of African-American David Sylvester. Since 2002, David has cycled 20,000 miles across three continents in memory of a friend killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Although he’s giving the money he raises to charity, I was struck by how much David has received from his experience; how much he has been transformed by his journey. His mantra: “Any given moment can change your life.”

Is there anything more fundamental to our moment-to-moment experience, consciousness, and awareness than our breath? Consider the word “psychology.” Carl Jung, who contributed significantly to psychology’s definition and practice, pointed out that its root word, psyche, comes from a Greek word meaning “that which breathes.” And, psyche was used interchangeably by the Greeks to mean soul, spirit, mind, and breath. Going even further back, the biblical Hebrew word neshama meant both soul and breath. And let’s not forget the thousands of years of meditation traditions, in which following the breath is so often seen as the path to well-being.

In cycling, our mental fitness is often most evident at, or immediately after, specific moments in training, a ride, or a race: reaching or exceeding our limit for suffering, initiating or responding to an attack, getting anxious in the pack, believing in ourselves, getting down on ourselves, avoiding a crash, having a conflict with a teammate or coach, confronting another winter session on the trainer, and so many other “moments of truth.” In these moments, our breath can be our strongest ally.

Pay attention to your breathing now. What do you notice? Is it shallow or deep? Is it in your chest or in your belly? Through your mouth or your nose? As you pay attention to it, do you feel more relaxed? More anxious? Neither?

I first became interested in the effects of breathing techniques on athletic performance after reading John Douillard’s fascinating book, Body, Mind, and Sport. In it, Douillard makes a compelling case for nose breathing. Mouth breathing, he argues, is a “learned response triggered by emergency stress,” first used by the infant when natural nose breathing is obstructed. (Are all of you parents remembering your kids’ first colds?) In nose breathing, the nasal passageways swirl and treat the air to make it optimal for the prevailing conditions. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, is the “direct, emergency route” for “cold, dry, unfiltered air” to enter directly into the lungs. Douillard notes that mouth breathing appears to activate the fight-or-flight (ie. survival) response in the sympathetic nervous system, which tends to increase heart rate and adrenaline. Intuition suggests that this may have been “wired in” for us animals: if a predator is about to eat us, having a burst of heart rate, blood flow, and adrenaline seems like a good idea. But if there’s not such a threat, then “crying wolf” to our mind and body over and over again is going to be a big waste of energy, not to mention unnecessarily stressful.

Douillard also points out that many of us practice chest breathing, which typically only inflates the upper lobes of the lungs fully. Diaphragmatic breathing, with the resulting inflation of the lower lobes, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your mind and body. While a natural, unconscious mouth breath tends to be a chest breath, a nose breath tends to be slower, allowing the diaphragm time to pull air into your lower lobes. Plus, as your heart rate decreases, the blood spends more time in your lungs, which increases time for oxygen exchange, and thus increases the efficiency of your breathing.

I’m not suggesting that nasal, diaphragmatic breathing – or anything else, for that matter – is going to transform you into a stress-free athlete. To the contrary, many athletes (and effective public speakers) will tell you that a certain amount of stress enhances performance. (Dr. Hans Selye, a pioneering stress researcher, famously said, “complete freedom from stress is death.”)

What I’m suggesting is that the Anxiety Family – stress, anxiety, fear, tension, pressure, worry, nervousness – is the primary adversary of the mentally fit cyclist. When your anxiety (and its siblings) exceeds your threshold, it can skew goal-setting, fuel negative self-talk, make emotions harder to manage, derail concentration, and impede effective communication. Breathing techniques evoke the calming forces in your body, reducing anxiety and giving you easier access to the energy, knowledge, and self-confidence within you.

Experimenting With Breathing Techniques

So for some of us, long-used patterns of breathing have separated us from some of the natural strength, calmness, and energy we have within us. For others of us, we might simply use our breathing more effectively to help us seize (rather than, say, seize up in) a given moment. Here are some things you can do to take advantage of the natural power of your breathing:

1. Integrate nasal breathing into your on-the-bike training.

Start with a short, low-intensity section of a ride. See what it’s like breathing only through your nose. Your anxiety may rise a bit, linked with a sensation of not getting enough air. Dr. George Dallam explains, in the latest issue of Performance Conditioning Cycling, that the slower and deeper nasal breathing elevates carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which creates urgency to breathe. However, he points out, our carbon dioxide receptors adjust to this in time, and the urgency disappears. So use the nasal breathing in your lowest-intensity riding until the anxiety disappears, then start using it at the next level of intensity, and so forth.

Both Douillard and Dallam report that it is possible to extend nasal breathing to the highest intensity levels in endurance sports, and that they have seen increases in performance as a result. Intuitively, this makes sense: breathing is more efficient, and a given power output is generated at a lower heart rate.

2. Use your breath when your stress level rises.

When you’re suffering on a hard climb, or feeling anxious on a fast descent, or having an argument with your coach, or in any number of other stressful situations that affect your cycling performance, focus on your breathing. Take a couple of breaths in and out through your nose. Or take one big, deep breath from your belly. Or, if you’re using mouth breathing, try switching to nasal breathing for as long as you can. Sometimes, even a tiny respite from stress can create just the opening you need – to reach that next 17% grade sign on the climb, to stay fast and safe on the descent, or to keep from losing it with your coach.

It’s certainly natural to become anxious before an important ride or race. Whether it’s for a few seconds, a few minutes, or even a half-hour, paying close attention to your breath can help you get to the start focused and relaxed. Rather than cranking Metallica in your warmup, make your breath the anchor for your concentration.

3. Develop a regular practice of conscious breathing.

It might be a few minutes upon waking and before bed, once daily, or a few times each week – whatever frequency you choose, cultivate a closer relationship with your breath. I’m not suggesting you think about your breath more or try to control it. I’m talking about being more fully in the experience of breathing – really feeling the sensation of your breath going in and out of your body.

Dennis Lewis’ book, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life is a terrific reference. It has a wide variety of breathing exercises, most of which take very little time.

In practicing conscious breathing, you’ll start to undo any patterns of inefficient or stress-producing breathing. In addition, you may regularly elicit the relaxation response, the body’s natural antidote to the stress response. By increasing your experiences of relaxation, you may decrease your baseline stress level, and will then likely become less triggerable by stressors over time.

And for some of us, truly contacting with our breath is one of the best ways to locate our consciousness, our moment-to-moment experience, more in the body – to tilt the balance of our experience more toward our body rather than living so much in our minds.

4. Learn yogic breathing.

Many cyclists practice yoga as a way to increase flexibility, improve alignment, and enhance recovery. (The yoga handbook developed by accomplished cyclist, coach, and yoga teacher Dario Fredrick is a simple, inexpensive tool that you can use at home.) Tony Briggs, founder of Turtle Island Yoga in Marin County, California, describes the breath practice of pranayama as having the potential to enable “a high level of bodily health and mental clarity.” So check out Tony’s instructions. If pranayama practice seems like a good fit for you, you might do as the Talmud says (we’re ecumenical here) and “find thyself a teacher.”

During Black History Month we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1966, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh persuaded Dr. King to oppose the Vietnam War publicly. The following year, Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. To Thich Nhat Hanh, breathing is “a stable, solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather – our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions – our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend.” How wonderful to have that friendship when you reach for “any given moment” – in cycling and beyond – that can change your life.



Improving any aspect of your mental fitness starts with self-awareness. Thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, sense memories, behaviors – all are raw material for the growth of the mental side of your game. The mentally fit cyclist makes ongoing self-awareness a priority, and uses it to strengthen core mental skills.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, I began our series on Integral Elements, the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills, by describing how Breathing Techniques can help you improve your mental fitness. This month, I reflect (!) on Self-Awareness, explore how it contributes to mental fitness on the bike, and suggest ways you can strengthen your self-awareness for better cycling performance.

In contrast to other animals – although I suspect our cat, Whizzy, would disagree – we human beings have the unique ability to be self-aware: to reflect on our moment-to-moment experience. When you invoke your self-awareness, what do you find? Joy. Fears. Guilt. Passion. Beliefs. Judgments. Values. Self-talk. Physical sensations. Sense memories of experiences. Habitual reactions. Mindful responses. And much, much more.

On the one hand, self-awareness can be overwhelming at times. Particularly after reading the front page of the newspaper, my wife is fond of gazing wistfully at our wonderful dog, Finn, and dreaming of what it would be like to have his unfettered consciousness.

In addition, the quest for increased self-awareness may, at some point, have diminishing returns for some of us. As the great singer-songwriter Caren Armstrong says in her song HeartStrings, “Well we may never know why we’re alive/But Buddha said that understanding is the booby-prize.”

And on top of that, increasing your self-awareness can be very difficult. In the words of philosopher Alan Watts: “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”

But knowing yourself better – by definition, a lifelong process – can pay big dividends in your cycling.

In psychiatrist Arthur Deikman’s view, what we call the self derives from four ways in which we experience ourselves:

• The Thinking Self. This self “seems to be in charge”: planning, solving problems, controlling our immediate activities. It gives us our idea of who and what we are – according to others, and in our own, private view.

• The Emotional Self. This self comprises all of our feelings, and “at times …seems closest to the core of our being, for nothing seems to be more completely our self than our emotions.”

• The Functional Self. This, according to Deikman, is our awareness of our ability to affect the world concretely: we “do things.” (Hmmm. I wonder if he rides.)

• The Observing Self. This is “the transparent center, that which is aware.” For Deikman, “no matter what we experience, nothing is as central as the self which observes.” Deikman contrasts Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” with an updated starting point for selfhood: “I am aware, therefore I am.” By extracting the observing self from that which is observed, the “observed world of emotions, thoughts, and sensations becomes correspondingly less compelling, less dictatorial, and unquestioned.” In other words, our mind – when necessary – can get the heck out of our way.

Let’s look at some examples of how self-awareness contributes to the five core skills of mentally fit cyclists.

1. Goal-Setting. In the article on goal-setting, I discussed Peter Drucker’s SMART objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. In the articles on sustaining motivation and recovering from injury, I discussed the idea of using SMART goals to give cycling the right role in your life. Your self-awareness is key to knowing what the right goals are for you.

2. Concentration. As I noted in the article on this skill, knowing when you’re focused – What does it feel like? Sound like? Look like? – along with knowing your dominant focus style, are critical to improving your concentration.

3. Communication. Relationships affect performance in sports, and communication is central to relationships. If you have more self-awareness, you’ll tend to communicate more effectively, whether it’s with your teammates, coach, competitors, family, or friends.

4. Positive Self-Talk. What kind of coach are you for yourself? How aware are you of how you talk to yourself before, during, and after rides/races? Strong voices – parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors, siblings – tend to stay with us. Like the proverbial fish which has lived only in water, and thus doesn’t “know” that it’s in it, some of you may have had the same negative voice in your head for a very long time, and may not always notice that it’s there.

5. Managing Emotions. How and when does stress, fear, or anger affect your performance on the bike? What do you do when these emotions come up? Do you always know when they do come up? Increasing your skill in managing your emotions starts with being aware of your feelings, being aware of how they can “trigger” automatic reactions in you, and being aware of the tools you’ve already collected to manage them.

For the article The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, published during the recent Tour of California, I interviewed three pro cyclists who have made mental fitness a priority. Notice the self-awareness in these excerpts:

• Katheryn Curi Mattis (Webcor Builders): “When I’m having a bad day on the bike, I try not to beat myself up about it. I’m mindful of it instead – ‘OK, you’re hurting’ – and can be OK with it.”

• Steven Cozza (Slipstream/Chipotle): “What’s most tough about a stage race like the Tour of California is that it’s long. It’s challenging to stay focused and stay alert. You’re getting tired, and it can be really frustrating: some guys are stronger at the beginning, and some guys are stronger at the end. You have to be careful not to say to yourself, ‘Ugh, we have another five-hour ride today.’ I try to live in the moment, and take every stage like it’s a one-day race.”

• Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell): “In the stages I’ve won, the opportunities just present themselves rather than me planning for them. My confidence in my preparation, and this ‘mental Zen’ I’m describing, maximizes what I have to throw down when those opportunities arise.”

These cyclists have worked to strengthen what Dr. Deikman calls observer consciousness. How can you strengthen yours? Here are some ideas:

1. Courageous Self-Reflection. Things within us that are hidden from our awareness are often hidden because they make us feel anxious, sad, or angry. It’s part of the human condition, at least at times, to defend ourselves against discomfort. So on and off the bike it can take courage to reveal and confront what we’re truly thinking and feeling. James Hollis has written wonderfully and concisely on this topic, as have many other authors.

2. Breathing. As I discussed in last month’s article, our breath has been seen by many over the years as the royal road to what’s essential within us.

3. Meditation/Mindfulness Practices. Any of these traditions can increase your awareness of what you’re experiencing in a given moment. Many of them, not coincidentally, focus on the breath. The work of Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn are examples of places to start if you’re interested in exploring this area further.

4. Solo Travel. We humans have a long history of “getting out of our element” as a way to know ourselves better: The Native Americans’ “vision quest,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” backpacking from hostel to hostel in Europe….Have you been telling yourself that you’ll get around to this? Just do it.

5. Creative Expression. Whether it’s art, music, dance, writing, or just expressing your creative spirit more fully in your job, creativity can reveal things about yourself that you didn’t know were there. Sometimes it takes getting it outside of you to know that it’s in you.

6. Spiritual/Religious Life. Organized religions and an immense variety of other spiritual practices have been connecting us better with ourselves for thousands of years. Parenting, for example!

7. Personality Typing. At the risk of “pigeonholing” you, self-tests such as Meyers-Briggs and the Enneagram can provide catalysts and raw material for your own honest self-evaluation – the only opinion that truly matters.

8. Being of service. Helping others – in your job, as a volunteer, with your friends and family – is a wonderful way not only to make a difference, but to discover in yourself what you experience in others.

9. Therapy/Counseling. If you’ve never done this before, and you’d like to get a sense for what it can be like, Irvin Yalom’s books are good places to start.

10. Ask someone you trust. Most of us, if not all of us, have our blind spots. If you’re wondering about yourself in some way, ask someone who knows you well and will be honest yet compassionate with you. And remember: they might not be right.

11. Ride lots! Eddy Merckx’s advice is deeper than it first appears. Cycling offers us not only opportunities for fun and good health, but also provides challenges that are a crucible for our growth as human beings.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius prepares his son, Laertes, for a journey by directing him to commit “a few precepts to memory,” including: “This above all/to thine own self be true….” Wise direction for a lifelong journey.

Building Self-Confidence

If Yogi Berra were a cyclist, here’s what he’d say: cycling is 90% mental, and the other half is physical. Yet with enough self-confidence, our minds tend to stay out of the way, and we have the freedom to perform to our potential. The mentally fit cyclist knows how to assess, maintain, and build self-confidence to improve fun and performance on the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, I continued our series on Integral Elements, the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills, by describing how managing your will to succeed can play an important role in your mental fitness and cycling performance. This month, I explore Self-Confidence, perhaps the most important element of every athlete’s mental fitness.

For the article The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, I asked pro cyclist Steven Cozza of Slipstream-Chipotle H3O about mental skills that have been challenging for him. He didn’t miss a beat:

“Confidence. It’s a huge thing in cycling. I was even told by some people,‘consider a career change.’ You can improve so much by believing in yourself. You can say, ‘I should be at the front of the race, I should be top 5.’ You don’t have to be cocky, but if you’re not confident, you don’t stand a chance. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

Confidence. Some of us seem born with it. Some of us are lucky enough to grow up among family, friends, and mentors who help develop it in us. But for many of us, at least in certain aspects of our lives, it’s an ongoing challenge.

As I noted in the article on Goal-Setting, much of what we’ve learned about self-confidence in sport builds on the work of psychologist Albert Bandura of Stanford University (home of the current national champion road cycling team — defending their title this week!). Bandura defined self-efficacy as your belief in your “capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” Roughly translated: Your belief that you can achieve your goals.

Bandura identified four sources for self-efficacy:

1. Mastery experience: When you succeed, you’ll (tend to) believe you’ll succeed in the future.
2. Vicarious experience: You see someone doing something, and you think, “I can do that, too.”
3. Social persuasions: The encouragement (and discouragement) you receive.
4. Physiological factors: How you interpret the feelings and sensations you experience when attempting to achieve your goals.

According to Weinberg and Gould, researchers built on Bandura’s work (among others’) to identify nine sources of self-confidence specific to sport.

1. Mastery: Developing and improving skills in training and competition.
2. Demonstrating ability: Having success in competition.
3. Getting the breaks: Seeing things going your way.
4. Seeing others perform successfully.
5. Physical and mental preparation.
6. Social support: Encouragement from family and friends.
7. Belief/trust in your coach(es).
8. Body image: Feelings about body, strength, appearance, weight.
9. Environmental comfort: Feeling comfortable where you’re performing.

Let’s examine how you might get more from some or all of these sources by seeing how self-confidence fuels – and is fueled by – the 5 Core Skills.

Self-Confidence and The 5 Core Skills

First, let’s look at Goal-Setting. Supported by self-confidence, you’ll set appropriately challenging goals for yourself. If your goals are too easy, or worse, maniacal, you may erode your self-confidence.

You’ll certainly set outcome goals – winning this, completing that – over which you have some, but limited, control. You’ll also set process goals – preparing well for competition, overcoming your anxiety on descents, holding your form on steep climbs – over which you have much more control, and which help you add to your experiences of mastery and success. And in managing yourself to your goals, your experiences of follow-through will add to your self-confidence as well.

Next, the core skill of Concentration. If you’re self-confident, your mind will more likely be at ease. Then, you can more naturally draw on everything within you – physical, psychological, spiritual – when you’re riding, rather than having to fight your mind to do so. And that experience of tapping into your full potential, of being “in the zone” on a ride or in a race: that builds self-confidence. In contrast, if you’re distracted, you may be missing opportunities to build skills, have success, or just plain feel good on the bike. Check out the article on Concentration for tips on how to improve it. Yogi said, “I can’t think when I’m concentrating.” Ah, the pleasures of an uncluttered mind.

How about the core skill of Communication? When you’re self-confident, you’ll tend to speak up. You won’t be thrown off-center by conflict, or another person’s opinion, or their unskillful behavior. But still, relationships affect performance in sport at times. If you’re struggling at all with self-confidence, be sure you look within, but also assess whether the key people in your life – in or out of sport – are supporting or eroding your self-confidence. In particular, if you have a coach, ask yourself these four questions:

1. Does your coach really “get” you? Does s/he truly see your abilities, skills, strengths, weaknesses? If not, your coach’s expectations of you – and behavior toward you – may be misaligned with who you actually are.

2. How does your coach talk to you about your successes? Does your coach say they’re the result of things within your control or outside of your control, and what effect does that have on you? As the U.S. Olympic Committee points out, the self-confident athlete sees successes as having a significant “permanent, personal, and controllable” component, eg. “My training paid off” vs. “I was just lucky.” Which side is your coach on?

3. How does your coach talk to you about your setbacks? In a way that’s just plain wrong for you (eg. making harsh comments about your personality) or are you just taking it too hard? Does your coach see your setback as permanent (look for words like “never” or “always”), personal, and uncontrollable? Or does your coach see the setback as temporary, due at least in part to things beyond your control?

4. Does your coach truly believe in you? And is your behavior and performance confirming their expectations?

If you don’t like your answers to these questions, it may be time for a heart-to-heart with your coach. If you do like your answers, it may be time to tell your coach. (Or, at least deliver some chocolate!)

Now, on to the core skill of Effective Self-Talk. What kind of coach are you for yourself? Ask yourself the four questions above. (Alert readers may notice a Passover theme here.) Sufficient self-confidence tends to fuel self-talk that supports and adds to, rather than detracts from, your performance. A lack of self-confidence can fuel a view of yourself (not to mention others) that is negative, judgmental, and pessimistic. And that tends to erode self-confidence. The degree to which you encourage yourself, support yourself, visualize yourself succeeding, acknowledge your progress and successes, and just plain stop any negative self-talk: all of these – and more – are reflections of your relationship with yourself.

There may be people in your life who you would like to relate to you more skillfully. Sometimes the best way to influence that is to do the same for yourself. To paraphrase Gandhi: Be the coach you want to see in the world.

Next, the fifth core skill: Managing Emotions, particularly the athlete’s #1 nemesis: anxiety (and its siblings: stress, nerves, fear, tension, worry, and pressure). Self-confidence evokes positive emotions, which are often wonderfully effective counterweights to anxiety, and tend to make it easier to manage anxiety when it arises. And when you feel the sadness, frustration, or disappointment of setbacks? Self-confidence helps you handle and metabolize those feelings. On the other hand, lower self-confidence can open the door for more anxiety, and a sufficient amount of ongoing, debilitating anxiety can wear away self-confidence. Plus, if the afflictive emotions from setbacks are getting “stuck” in your system, that may erode self-confidence as well. Go back to the article on Managing Emotions, and perhaps the articles on Self-Awareness and Handling Pressure, for some ideas on how to improve your skills here.

Going Deeper, For Intrepid Self-Explorers

There’s one other source of self-confidence I’d like to mention, and it’s not for the faint of heart: self-worth.

I recently read Bill Strickland’s harrowing and ultimately redemptive new book, Ten Points. With deeply moving, edge-of-the-saddle writing, Bill explains how he used his cycling to help him overcome the shame created by an abusive childhood. An excerpt:

“I fought the thing inside me and rode when I could, as much as I could, as much as a responsible husband with a new daughter and what felt like an important job could manage. And when I couldn’t ride, I was terrified. I could feel something stirring in my chest, awakening from the sleep that cycling fatigued it into.”

He later names it:

“Simple shame, that was all. That was the unbearable thing that had destroyed who knows how many generations of my family, an emotion that for some reason the first abused ancestor of mine must have found unendurable unless it was transformed into a grand curse, something that could be boasted about, that could be a source of twisted pride, that could be passed along like a sick heirloom. My childhood was not a curse, nor a destiny, just something shameful that happened to me a long time ago.”

Whether in sport or in other aspects of our lives, many of us have had experiences of embarrassment, guilt, and shame. From being picked last for the schoolyard team over and over again, to the most heinous acts of abuse, these feelings have a way of a creating a stranglehold around self-worth, and as a result, self-confidence. For any of you who know this to be true, cycling offers a way through, and perhaps a way out, to freedom.

In all of your efforts to build self-confidence, I wish you success.


 It’s easy, it’s free, and it works – for many. With visualization, you can build self-confidence, rehearse riding skills, simulate handling challenging situations, and approach the actual experience of achieving any of your goals…all in the cozy corners of your own mind. The mentally fit cyclist harnesses the power of the imagination to improve performance on the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

Visualization is about more than what you see. It’s about all of your senses, and everything else – thoughts, emotions, personal qualities – that make up your experience of each moment. It’s mental simulation, and often mental rehearsal as well.

Why learn it? As you may have heard, many amateur and professional athletes use it and are convinced it helps. And there’s research that supports the contention that it improves performance. But perhaps most importantly, there’s this: It may work for you and it may not, but you won’t know unless you really give it a shot. It might make the difference in your riding. But how?

First, visualization can help you reduce anxiety and stress. If you’re worried about crashing, failing, letting others down, letting yourself down…or if you’d just like to handle the natural tension of competition better, this may be a good tool for you.

Second, it can build self-confidence. If you repeatedly visualize what you want to have happen, your brain may believe that it can happen and will happen.

Third, it can increase your motivation. If you have positive experiences with your cycling (even if they’re “just” in your mind), you may develop more desire to ride or race.

Visualization can also help you develop necessary physical skills, such as cornering or descending. By mentally simulating the correct/desired physical movements and sensations, based on some actual experience of knowing what they are, you can accelerate the motor learning that’s required. Your body learns how to perform the skill more easily, naturally, intuitively – with automaticity. That’s right: you corner not only well but automatically. You’re trusting your body to do the right thing rather than thinking about it.

And, visualization can improve your focus and concentration. If a particular skill or section of a race is ingrained in your mind, you may be less vulnerable to distractions when you live that experience.

Lastly, visualization can help you regain perspective. You might feel ambivalent about a race, have a troubling relationship (eg. with your coach), conflicted about the distance to choose for your next endurance event, or be wrestling with leaving the sport itself. If you’re caught up in something within yourself that’s going to hurt your performance on the bike, going to a reliably clear place in your mind can help you extract yourself.

Any of those sound good to you? Let’s get down to business.

Visualization 101
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to create at least three basic visualizations for your toolkit:

A core visualization. Simply put, this is using your imagination to put yourself into a desired internal state. The focus is the state, not the cycling content, and it may have no cycling content at all. For example, I recommend you create a deeply relaxed visualization– an all-purpose tool that’s useful in a variety of situations. That might involve imagining a favorite place or experience that reliably relaxes you. I also recommend a pre-race visualization which might or might not be different from deeply relaxed. This gives you a way to put yourself in the state you know – from experience – that you need to be in for optimal performance. If you do this, you are less vulnerable to having anxiety triggered by what people around you say and do before the race. You’re solid, and a lot less likely to be moved off your center.

A success visualization. In contrast to the core visualization, this has some cycling content in it. It might be performing a skill, cresting a climb, finishing an event, winning a race – a successful outcome.

A coping visualization. This is about handling something that’s stressful for you – a fear of descending, being attacked at the foot of a climb, getting dropped – that kind of thing.

In the framework of the Hoffman model, the internal experience that your visualization will create can have any or all of the following components:

Emotions: What you want to feel, and the intensity of those feelings.

Intellect: Any thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that you want to have.

Body: The physical techniques of cycling, the experience of any or all of your five senses, and the “feel” (kinesthetic or “muscle sense”) you want to have.

Spirit: Depending on what this means to you, if anything, it could mean: you feel good about yourself, worthy of performing your best, self-supportive, grounded, courageous, intentional, and in touch with your deepest source of energy.

So: you have some visualizations to create and a four-sided palette to draw from (The Who’s classic album Quadrophenia is suddenly coming to mind.) Grab some paper and something to write with. For each visualization that you’re creating, follow these steps:

1. Make sure the visualization has a goal. As noted above, that might be something like “feeling deeply relaxed,” “getting to the start line feeling ready and focused,” “taking a left-hander perfectly at speed,” or “beating my buddy up the climb.”

2. Choose a point of view: as if you’re actually experiencing what you’re visualizing (the “internal POV”), or as if you’re watching yourself do it (the “external POV”).

3. Follow the U.S. Olympic Committee’s guidelines for visualizations and make yours:

• Vivid. Draw on as much of the four aspects of yourself as you can. In using your five senses and your kinesthetic “feel,” don’t forget to consider your senses of taste (eg. salty sweat) and smell (eg. the damp air at the start of the race). Write sentences that start with “I see,” “I feel,” and so on. Make the experience come to life in your mind.

• Clear. Some scenes/experiences are going to be easier to imagine than others. If yours isn’t clear, try more vivid!

• Controllable. Make sure you give yourself the experience of achieving the goal of the visualization – really seeing and feeling yourself achieving it.

4. Get to a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Take as much time as you need to get relaxed. Remind yourself of what you’ve written, and close your eyes (you may have to peek a bit at first until you’ve memorized it). Imagine the experience all the way through, taking care to use all of the parts that you’ve written. Stay with it until you’ve achieved the goal. Note how you feel when you achieve it. Stay with that feeling for at least 15 seconds. Edit if you like and repeat until it feels complete.

Once you’ve created your visualizations, practice regularly: say, 10-15 minutes per day. At first, practice every day, if possible, as you’re learning the skill and getting to the point where you know it’s helping you. After that, maintain the skill by practicing at least a few times per week. Before an event or race, you may want to go back to a daily practice schedule during the preceding week.

For athletes, a big part of mental fitness is about developing a “toolkit” of skills and the knowledge of when any one of those skills is the right tool for the job. If it works for you, visualization is a highly flexible, multidimensional skill that you can use for many purposes. As you practice, you’ll get to the point where you know whether or not it’s working, and in doing that you’ll be living a line from one of Quadrophenia’s songs: “Is it in my head/or in my heart?”