Communication

Our riding and racing can be profoundly affected by how we conduct our relationships. Teammates, competitors, training partners, coaches, employers, significant others: all can play important roles in the progress, fun and success we experience in cycling. As a result, communication is a crucial skill for the mentally fit cyclist.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Concentration, the fourth of the five core skills of mentally fit athletes. This month, I look at Communication in more depth.

Let’s briefly look at the big picture: our relationships play a central role in our life experience. They bring us joy, they bring us pain, and they bring us up against the opportunities for growth we find – if we have the courage to look – in ourselves. Relationship expert David Schnarch is fond of saying, “we don’t work on our relationships; our relationships work on us.”

Your cycling, like everything else in your life, exists in the context of a web of relationships that have meaning for you. To varying degrees, all of the people in your web have an impact on you. And what you think, feel, and do has an impact on them. (Actually, to be completely cosmic for a moment, many people feel that all of us on this planet are interconnected. This is what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing and the scientist James Lovelock calls the Gaia Theory. )

Coming back to Earth, or at least your local roads and trails, here are some common ways in which relationships can present challenges for your cycling:

• Your spouse, significant other, or children want more time with you, or you feel
guilty about taking time away from them, or both;

• A rider cuts you off or causes you to crash;

• Your teammates are acting like “married singles”: working too much for
themselves rather than working together;

• The workout you had planned for the day is not what your riding partner wants
to do;

• Your boss or your colleagues at work are becoming resentful that you take
some Fridays off to race;

• You’re ready to step up as a leader on your team, and you need to ask for
your teammates’ support;

• You’re in a race or ride and want to get people from other groups/teams to work
with you;

• You’re in a breakaway with a teammate near the end of a race, and need to figure out who’s working for whom, and when;

• You don’t feel you and your coach are “on the same page.”

Improving Communication Skills
All of the above situations call on you to communicate. Some tips:

1. To the best of your ability, know what’s going on within you, and why.
The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to communicate effectively. Are you feeling angry, tense, nervous, worried, happy? How can you tell? Where do you feel it in your body? Make sure you notice. Are any of your “hot buttons” being pushed? Recall from the Positive Self-Talk article that hot buttons often generate anxiety, and anxiety can distort your thinking in at least 9 major ways. For example, anxiety can fuel “emotional reasoning”: feeling “sure” of something just because you feel angry or sad or scared. Ever see that happening in yourself?

In working on your communication skills, improve your ability to respond rather than react: if you can detect a “knee-jerk” communication habit that isn’t serving you, you can intervene, interrupt, and stop/change it. Perhaps counterintuitively, this may require you to put more attention on yourself, rather than on the person you’re communicating with, in order to communicate better. Calming and focusing techniques such as breathing and positive self-talk may help you here. Also, personality self-tests such as the Enneagram and Meyers-Briggs may help you identify your hot buttons (if someone is not regularly reminding you of them already….).

2. Listen and empathize.
Basic, right? And yet so often whatever’s going on inside of us – thoughts, feelings, sensations – gets in the way of listening well. Plus, just because you’re listening attentively doesn’t mean you really get it. So, clear your obstacles out of the way, and practice tuning in. Try to receive all of the feelings behind the other’s person’s words. And check sometimes to see whether you do get it, perhaps by telling the other person what you think you heard them say, and what you thought you heard – no, felt – behind their words. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication is an example of what might be a good, straightforward refresher for you on this crucial skill.

3. Be assertive.
Sometimes we can be afraid to speak the truth about what we want, how we feel, or what we’re thinking. Ultimately, our fear often boils down to a fear of harming or losing a relationship, of being excluded, of being alone. Sometimes it’s a fear of not being able to tolerate whatever the truth stirs up – in the listener and in ourselves.

To be fair, sometimes it’s good judgment that’s keeping us from speaking up. But remember what Mark Twain said: How do we acquire good judgment? Experience. How do we acquire experience? Bad judgment. So, unless you’re sure this is a good time to keep quiet, speak up. And when you do, try to start your sentence with “I.” Not as in “I feel you’re a jerk” – assertiveness is different from aggressiveness – but as in “I feel really bad about what’s happening on the team,” or “I feel guilty about taking time away from you,” or “I don’t like it when you wait until midnight the night before to give me the next day’s workout.” And be careful how you use the word “you.” Blaming, accusing, name-calling, and the like tend to throw communication off-track.

These so-called “I-statements” are often a hallmark of an effective communicator, and, as leadership expert Jeff Janssen notes, an effective team leader. For you ladies in the audience, Pamela Butler’s Self-Assertion for Women is an example of a good resource for those of you who want to improve your assertiveness.

4. Manage conflict with both feet on the ground.
As John Gray has explained so skillfully, there are often gender differences in how we communicate, and there are ways to tune our communication – particularly in conflict – depending on whether we’re speaking with a man or a woman. ( Kathy DeBoer has written extensively on how this comes up in sports.) But regardless of whether a conflict involves men, women, or both, the most common misstep I see when I work with people on managing conflict is rushing. When you enter into a conflict, it’s natural for your anxiety to go up, and it’s natural for you to want it to decrease as quickly as possible, because let’s face it: anxiety doesn’t feel good. What’s our natural assumption about the fastest way to feel better? End the conflict! One way to end the conflict fast is to avoid it, so be careful with that one. Another way is to try to “fix” the conflict as fast as possible. Sometimes that works, but occasionally in your haste you may not understand the other person, and that person may not understand you. So, especially if you see “problem-solving” isn’t working, first attend to any anxiety/stress/tension/worry/fear that you’re feeling, and get it under control. Then, strive for understanding before leaping towards resolution. If you slow things down, work to understand the other person, and work to be understood, you’re likely to find that the next step – moving towards a solution – will go much more smoothly.

5. Do your best to relax.
Just after my wife and I were married, we wandered into a convenience store in search of chocolate. The elderly cashier saw us “discussing” what to buy, and she said, “I’ll bet you two were just married.” “Yes,” I said, “have you been married a long time?” “50 years,” she replied. “What’s your secret?” I asked eagerly. She smiled and said, “Say ‘yes’ a lot, and don’t take things too seriously.”

So, in any of your relationships, notice how much your communication can be affected by how riled up you get. It’s certainly fine to have feelings and to be emotional; we’re not robots. But if you’re managing any emotions – particularly anxiety – that create obstacles during your communications with others, you’ll tend to communicate more effectively. Calming down, slowing down, not taking things personally, not taking things too seriously: all of these are ways you can stay relaxed – or relaxed enough – and communicate well with people who can have a big effect on your cycling.

The Mentally Fit Cyclist: Next Steps
We’ve come to the end of our series on the 5 Core Skills of Mentally Fit Athletes. We’ve covered Goal-Setting, Positive Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration, and now Communication. Thanks to all of you for reading, and to those of you who’ve emailed comments, suggestions, and questions. Stay tuned for my next series, Responding to Adversity: how to deal with pain/fatigue, overtraining/burnout, injury/crashes, and last but not least, pressure. Now, where does my wife keep the chocolate?

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Increasing Your Tolerance for Suffering

Your legs are burning. Your lungs are burning. Thoughts of flaming out, backing off, or giving up are dancing in your tortured mind. What will you do next? The mentally fit cyclist is highly skilled in responding to suffering, and thus has a distinct advantage over many competitors.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Communication, the fifth of the five core skills of mentally fit cyclists. This month I begin a series of articles on Responding to Adversity.

Last week I rode with a recently-crowned national champion. (Let me correct that. She rode, and I hung on for dear life.) I asked her about the race. She said, “the weather and the course negated any physical advantages that I might have had; I won because I could suffer more than the others.” How can we strengthen this aspect of our mental fitness?

When we cyclists use the word “suffering,” we’re usually referring to two all-too-frequent – and often interrelated – experiences that we have on the bike: pain and fatigue. In a word, we hurt. Not from injury, but from the sheer demands of riding. Clearly, at times pain and fatigue are sending us a warning that should be heeded. But for many cyclists, learning to respond differently to suffering is the biggest obstacle to increased performance. It can be the juiciest opportunity to grow as an athlete, and perhaps, as a person.

What’s happening when we hurt? The unpleasant sensation is obvious. What may not be obvious is what our minds are doing with that sensation. What meaning are we making of the pain? What thoughts are being triggered, influenced or fueled by the pain? Which behaviors – be they impulse-level reactions or conscious choices – are consequences of the pain? Which emotions – anxiety, anger, embarrassment – follow the pain? Pain is pain; when riding brings it on, it would seem that we don’t have much control over it (but I’ll come back to that). Yet we do have significant control over what our minds add to our pain.

So: It’s time, once again, to use your mind on your mind. If you can stop it from adding to your pain, you have a much greater chance of keeping your total suffering below threshold. To develop the advanced skill of managing your suffering effectively, you can likely use some or all of the five core skills.

Using the 5 Core Skills to Manage Suffering

Viktor Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes his experience as a Nazi concentration camp inmate. He observed, in the most extreme of circumstances, how human beings can use even the tiniest shreds of meaning to cling to a reason to continue living.

Although suffering on the bike is not anywhere close to suffering in a concentration camp, it is often cycling’s most intense, threatening, and difficult experience. So when you’re suffering, it can be very useful to have a positive, pro-performance answer to this question: Why am I doing this? If your suffering is in service of specific goals, if your suffering has meaning that supports your performance, your tolerance for the suffering is likely to increase.

As I noted in the article on goal-setting, outcome goals, such as “I’m going for a spot on the podium,” are the most prevalent in cycling. However, suffering tolerance can often be increased by effective use of process goals as well. For example: “Even if I’m hurting or getting dropped, my goal is to maintain good form and rhythm on all of the climbs,” or “before I back off and reduce my suffering at any time during this ride, I’m going to hang in there at least two minutes longer than last time when I feel myself reaching my limit.”

Suffering, particularly when we approach our tolerance threshold, tends to generate anxiety. And you know from the article on self-talk that anxiety can fuel negative self-talk, which fuels anxiety. Not the kind of cycling we prefer. So if you’re suffering and you hear a voice in your head saying things like “I’m a lousy climber,” or “I can’t hang on any longer” or “Look at her, she’s so strong and I’m such a wimp,” that’s the time to confront yourself and question those assertions. Your anxiety may be distorting your perception and your judgment.

I’m not suggesting that you do your best Pollyanna impersonation and tell yourself, “this doesn’t hurt at all, I’m feeling great!” At the very least, though, question the voice you hear and stop any negative thoughts. As you’ll recall, you may also benefit from replacing the negative thoughts with positive (or, at least non-negative) thoughts, such as:

• Reminding yourself of your pre-ride/race outcome and process goals, such as “One of my key goals is to climb Mt. Diablo in under an hour this year; hanging on longer right now is going to help me accomplish that.”

• Believable counterstatements, such as “All things considered, I’m actually
climbing well today,” or “I’m going to hang on up to that 17% grade sign” and “Now that I’ve done that, I’m going to hang on up to that next 17% grade sign.”

• Affirmations, such as “I’ve trained hard and I am strong today.”

• Cue words that have proven to be effective for you, such as “calm and focused” or “hang in there” or “Belgian beer at the finish.”

• Behaviors – which may also be goal-reminders – such as, “I need to focus on maintaining good form now.”

Now back to anxiety, perhaps the biggest dragon to be slayed (slain? OK, subdued) by the mentally fit cyclist.

Recall that I (somewhat flippantly) said above, “pain is pain”; turns out not to be true. Research has shown that improving how our minds respond to pain can decrease the pain. In other words, not only can we avoid making things (mentally) worse, but we can actually make things (physically) better at times. For example, when pain makes us anxious, we often respond to the anxiety by tensing around the painful area, which can make the pain worse. If you can notice that’s happening, you can use relaxation techniques – such as breathing into the area, concentrating on releasing as many of the muscles around the area as possible, and reducing your overall anxiety – that may reduce the pain. The article on managing emotions gives you many additional ways to reduce your anxiety.

Speaking of emotions, you might consider experimenting with using anger – within yourself, not directed at others – as a counterbalance to suffering. Remember Lance Armstrong in Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France? Less than 10km from the finish at Luz-Ardiden, suffering mightily and on the ropes in the Tour for the first time ever, his handlebar hooked a fan’s bag and he went down. When he got up, he was clearly angry. He used his anger to generate “a huge rush of adrenaline” and immediately said to himself, “if you want to win the Tour de France, do it today.” He won the stage and, for all practical purposes, the race.

Besides the hottie in the feed zone, suffering is the strongest enemy of concentration for many cyclists. Knowing your focus style and how to return to that mode, as I discussed in the article on concentration, may be one of your most effective tools when you feel suffering starting to dominate your attention.

And lastly, don’t forget communication: Keeping your struggles with suffering to yourself may not serve you. For example, you might ask for help – for example, pacing you up a climb – from a friend or teammate during a ride or race. Don’t let any feelings of guilt or embarrassment derail you; if it helps, remind yourself that you’re likely to be in a position to return the favor someday. Also, if you have a coach or mentor who’s helping you with your cycling, they’ll benefit from anything you can tell them about your experiences with suffering during each ride and race. The more they know, the more likely they’ll be able to give you useful suggestions.

Beyond the Five Core Skills

Any or all of the above may be enough for you to increase your tolerance for suffering. But if not, here are some additional steps you can take:

1. Experiment with avoidance. On the one hand, I’m encouraging you to confront your suffering, to not be afraid of it, to manage the anxiety that comes up around it and deal with it. On the other hand, sometimes it’s fine to use defense mechanisms like avoidance and denial. It’s not always a cop-out to act like King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and The Holy Grail and “Run away! Run away!” If you distract yourself from your suffering for too long, however, it may return with a much louder voice later. It usually does. So experiment with visualization, singing the Mister Rogers theme, doing sudoku in your head, whatever distracts you from the pain, and come to some judgment about when – if ever – to use distraction as a tool for managing suffering.

2. Create “suffering intervals.” Just as with concentration, your tolerance for suffering can increase if you create specific periods of time in training for your experiments and practice. Note in your training log what you’re discovering about yourself and what’s working. Factor your knowledge into your pre-ride/pre-race plans.

3. Understand your pain profile. Speaking of self-discovery, your strategies for managing suffering may be influenced by what you know about your personality, your history, and your patterns. How sensitive are you to pain? What experiences, particularly traumatic ones, have you had with pain in your lifetime? How did you respond? Are there any notable patterns to the ways you respond to adversity of all kinds in your life? All of these things, and more, may influence the specific experience you have in suffering on the bike.

In addition to your self-awareness, your thoughts and your breath are your strongest allies when you’re suffering. Turn toward the pain and use it. Like most anything in life, the more you turn toward it, the faster you’ll improve your relationship to it and the faster your growth as a cyclist will be fueled by it. Let suffering be the fiery crucible where your mental fitness is formed.

Sustaining Motivation

It’s the time of year when, after a long season, you may be dragging. Have you been overtraining? Down about your results? Or are you just plain worn out? The mentally fit cyclist notices signs of demotivation early, interprets and responds to the signs effectively, and avoids descending into exhaustion, burnout, or depression.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can manage and, at times, accelerate your recovery from injury. This month, I explore Sustaining Motivation, the third advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

Motivation has a direction – toward achieving a goal – and an intensity. It’s the fuel for everything you do. If things are going well, it’s naturally sustained and replenished; you have as much as you need. If forces within and outside you start to drain it, it may be time for you to intervene.

As a cyclist and athlete, you have many possible goals at which to aim your motivation. You might want to climb that mountain in under an hour, improve your endurance, win a race, launch a teammate, complete your first century, or finally beat that guy to the city limit sign.

Of course, the intensity of your motivation will vary. There may be times when you get yourself too “hyped up” for a ride or race. Other times, your intensity may wane too much, and you find yourself without enough of your usual drive. You might then question your goals or training program, skip a workout (or five), or pull out of a race. Sometimes – dare I say it? – you may not want to get on the bike at all. And if you start to force yourself to run on motivational fumes, you can grind yourself into the ground.

To be fair, life has its ebbs and flows, and you’re not always going to be able to be as motivated as you’d like. Sometimes you just have to push through. But the more you’re able to sustain a level of motivation that’s sufficient and healthy for you, and the more skill you have at adjusting the direction and intensity of your motivation when one or both are out of whack, the more likely you are to get the most from yourself, enjoy your cycling, and achieve your cycling goals.

One of the many views on motivation, influenced by the work of Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, is that the interaction of your personality, behavior, and environment affects your motivation, rather than any one factor dominating. So, let’s first briefly address personality.

Personality
Speculating on your personality’s impact on motivation is certainly beyond the scope of this article (and also impossible to do without us establishing some sort of Vulcan mind-meld. Is Vulcan on the Web yet?). But it may be useful for you to hypothesize how your personality can affect your motivation. The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be at managing and sustaining your motivation.

For example, you’ll recall from Psych 101 that motivation can be intrinsic and extrinsic. Does your motivation seem to come more from within? Do you seem to be more (or overly?) dependent on external factors (eg. winning)? Or, does neither stand out? Some additional questions that may be helpful are:

• Why do you ride, train, compete?

• Is your focus on the pride you feel in competing, improving, winning (“playing
to win”) or is your focus on how bad you (may) feel if you “fail” (“playing not to lose”)?

• Do you attribute success and failure to factors within or outside of your control?
How has that affected your motivation this season?

Personality self-tests such as the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs may help as well. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: How does your “wiring” affect your motivation?

Now, let’s look at some potential demotivators in your behavior (including your thinking) and your environment, and some ways you can interpret and respond to them.

Managing Internal Demotivators
Let’s start with fatigue. It’s certainly harder to do anything physical, and to want to do anything physical, when you’re tired. But why are you tired? What meaning are you going to make of your fatigue? How you interpret your fatigue – accurately or inaccurately – can have an enormous impact on your motivation and your next moves.

Are you telling yourself that you’ll never be strong enough? That if you miss your next workout it’s a disaster? That you’re a wimp? Negative self-talk, as I’ve discussed in a previous article, is one of the most common demotivators. That article has many suggestions for how you can turn negative self-talk around. Here’s another: think of a good coach, mentor, parent, boss, or leader you’ve had. Now try to coach yourself the way s/he did. Be careful how you interpret potential demotivators, give yourself recognition for your progress and accomplishments, and truly take in all the “good stuff” in your cycling. (The new book Focus on the Good Stuff, , by former athlete Mike Robbins, has excellent guidance on transforming negative self-talk.)

So, if you simply need some (normal) rest, the way you talk to yourself about your fatigue doesn’t have to be demotivating. Exercise physiologist George Brooks of UC Berkeley points out that you become stronger in training because you apply the overload principle: habitually overloading your system causes it to respond and adapt. Resting, he shows, is a necessary part of training because adaptations occur during recovery. So, your fatigue may be telling you that you can accelerate your training by resting!

However, if along with decreased motivation you’re experiencing such symptoms as longer-term fatigue, higher or lower heart rate than normal for particular workouts, slower recovery than usual, significant changes in sleep patterns, decreased appetite, and unusual irritability, you might be overtraining. This can hasten the onset of depression, suppress your immune system, and invite physical illness.

In recovering from overtraining, it’s important to investigate what happened. Were you too dependent on training for your sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, or self-esteem? Is your perfectionism or harsh self-coaching running rampant? Did you choose and manage your goals effectively? (Poor goal-setting is another common demotivator, even if it doesn’t result in overtraining.) Did you disagree with your coach’s program? Or perhaps the rest of life had you so worn down that the “right” training program was really too much for you. Whatever it was, sorting it out – along with keeping your eye out for the early warning sings – is the key to prevention.

Taking a break from cycling is sometimes just what the doctor ordered; you come back ready to rock. But at other times, illness, injury, vacation, or competing priorities (eg. a peak time at work) leads to reduced motivation. Why? Well, how harshly do you judge your fitness when you resume riding? Research shows that detraining begins within a few weeks for the endurance athlete. How afraid are you of relapse or reinjury? (We’ll get to anxiety in a moment.) So again, your attitude toward the break — and toward your return — can have a profound effect on your motivation.

Back to our old nemesis anxiety and its siblings: stress, tension, worry, fear, and pressure. It’s usually the fuel for negative self-talk. And if you dread training or racing, worry about how you’ll be evaluated by yourself or others, fear tricky descents, get overmotivated (“hyped”) and don’t manage these and other anxiety-producing experiences effectively, you’ll likely be much less interested in cycling. Chronic anxiety is also draining, and so not only can contribute to fatigue, but burnout as well.

Managing External Demotivators
What about the environment? Well, let’s first take that literally: the weather can lead to drastically lower motivation for many cyclists. Using the trainer, using videos, changing the workouts you’re doing, changing workout partners, cross-training in the gym, and possibly readjusting your goals can all help to modulate the sometimes crushing reality of constant, cycling-unfriendly weather.

Speaking of the environment, you’ve heard of toxic waste. What about toxic people? Is there a coach, competitor, teammate, family member, or “friend” who seems to be taking the wind out of your sails? If so, you can likely do something about it. You may be able to suspend or end the relationship, take what they’re saying (or doing) less personally, use positive self-talk to counteract what they’re saying, and surround yourself more frequently with people who are supportive. Your skill with communication will help you here.

So for you Princess Bride fans, a veritable Fireswamp of potential demotivators to keep you on your toes (although luckily, no “rodents of unusual size.”). Draw on all of your five core mental skills – Goal-Setting, Positive Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration, and Communication – to see the dangers early, handle them skilfully, and sustain your motivation.

Mark Epstein, in his book Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life, points to a “middle way” of managing motivation: a place somewhere between grasping too frantically for what we desire, and denying ourselves the opportunity to reach. So perhaps sustaining our motivation for cycling comes in part from skillfully managing the free will we’ve been given: our will to grow and improve, our will to enjoy and be grateful for this part of our lives, our will to finish, our will to win. Which brings to mind some words from the wise Walter Sobchak, the trusted friend and bowling teammate of The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As The Dude completes his frame in an important league game, Walter tells him – quoting Theodor Herzl, as he faithfully points out – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Handling Pressure

You feel it from others, and you feel it from within. Either way, pressure can help you to reach your potential, or it can suck the life out of your cycling. Drawing on the five core mental skills, the mentally fit cyclist manages pressure effectively and uses it as fuel for optimal performance.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can sustain your motivation for cycling by noticing and responding to potentially demotivating aspects of your personality, behavior, and environment. This month, I explore Handling Pressure, the fourth advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

Where’s the pressure in your cycling? Is it in your training? Your races? Your first century? The sprint for the City Limits sign? Your teammates’ expectations of you? Your conversation with your spouse before you walk out to the garage to get your bike?

Or perhaps it’s in your thoughts. The way you talk to yourself, the way you talk about yourself – is it there? When you think about your goals, your performance, your skills, your challenges – is it there?

It’s certainly not unusual to feel pressure in any aspect of life, and cycling’s no exception. Performing, having fun, and succeeding under pressure comes easy to some, but for most of us, pressure can sometimes detract from our performance. Learning to handle pressure – and even to use it – can make the difference between achieving your goals and falling short. And learning to handle pressure starts with learning how it works on you – and in you.

Sources of Pressure

Let’s look first at some of the sources of pressure in your cycling. How about the people in your life with whom you have important relationships? Your spouse, significant other, kids, parents, friends, coach, boss, teammates, competitors, sponsors – you might feel pressure from any or all of them. Pressure to….what? Win, improve, cooperate, give up, give in, rest, spend time with them, reduce/increase/justify your commitment to cycling?

Another source is what I’ll call reality. For example, you might need to achieve certain results to be recruited to an NRC team, or to be invited to the Olympic trials, or to get that certificate they give out at the top of Alpe D’Huez. Nobody’s pressuring you; that’s just the way things are.

Or are they?

Before I have a first meeting with an athlete, I ask the athlete to complete a brief self-evaluation. One of the questions asks the athlete to identify and assess people from whom the athlete feels pressure. I’ll bet you can guess which person is consistently at the top of the list. That’s right: Self. Many athletes I work with say that being too hard on themselves detracts from their performance. To quote my teenage daughters, what’s up with that?

The relationship we have with ourselves often mirrors, for better and for worse, the way important adults related to us when we were younger. As I noted in an earlier article, your self-talk is a prominent sign of the kind of relationship you have with yourself. When you think about your cycling, are you overly critical, judgmental, pushy, or negative at times? If so, do you “sound” like anyone you’ve known? Who? Strong, influential voices tend to stay with us.

The legacy of our contact with toxic people is not the only source of the pressure we put on ourselves. Let’s not forget our old nemesis anxiety, and of course its siblings: stress, tension, nervousness, worry, and fear. It’s kind of like the Stress Family Robinson, and pressure is a charter member, too. We have a natural, instinctive, and sometimes impulsive reaction to anxiety: control. If we’re able to see – or at least assume – what’s triggering our anxiety, we frequently try to exert some control over the trigger, in the hope of feeling less anxious. For example, that’s often why we interrupt others in conversation. It’s also why you might fall prey to what my colleague Josh Horowitz calls the Zone 3 Syndrome: if you’re anxious about your fitness, why not ride harder and longer with less rest? That’ll get you stronger more quickly, right?

If we don’t (or can’t) see what’s triggering our anxiety, we sometimes aim our control at something else. For better and for worse, this often provides some relief. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons trusting dogs and cats can get abused by stressed-out adults (more on that in a moment). It also may be the reason that you grip the handlebars so tightly on a tricky descent, clean the house from top to bottom instead of doing that training ride that you’re dreading, or….put too much pressure on yourself. Pressuring yourself is exerting a certain kind of force, a certain kind of power, a certain kind of control. If you’re doing too much of it, your self-pressuring may be fueled by anxiety. In that case, you’d be better off finding a different way to get some relief from your anxiety, whether the anxiety comes from cycling or elsewhere. That would likely take the “edge” off of not only your pressure, but your pressuring as well.

Going Deeper…

Let’s take things a bit further: When pressure has an extra “edge” to it that’s fueled by anxiety, where does the anxiety come from? Uh-oh. Now we’re in danger of becoming consumed by one of the most important existential questions of our time. (For those so inclined, Rollo May’s book The Meaning of Anxiety is a classic.) So I won’t go too deep, but I do want to give you a few ideas to consider.

What might be triggering your anxiety? How you might feel when/if you don’t reach your goal? Having too much riding on the future when you don’t have full control over it? How you might feel if the person who’s pressuring you doesn’t get what they want? The power these things have over you may have something to do with how you feel about yourself.

Remember the Queen/David Bowie song, Under Pressure? (“Pressure pressing down on me/Under pressure/That burns a building down/Splits a family in two/Puts people on streets”) Some fans believe that through this song, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury (who later died of AIDS) was conveying the pain he felt from not feeling accepted for who he was.

Perfectionism is a common consequence of not feeling OK as we are. When applied to ourselves, perfectionism is pressuring ourselves to do more, to be more; having too much of our hoped-for well-being attached to the “carrot” we’re chasing. Perfectionism has a bad reputation, and for good reason: although it can be a great asset when properly managed, it can drive us (and others) into the ground.

It may be fruitful for you to evaluate how much of the pressure you feel, and particularly the pressure you feel from yourself, comes from trying to fill or transform something within yourself. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to grow, evolve, and change. The questions are: how much urgency is there to that journey for you, and is there too much? And are you aiming your energy in the right direction?

Last week I attended a benefit for A Leg Up Rescue , hosted by the Pez fans at Risibisi Restaurant, at which Levi Leipheimer was the guest of honor. In between offering tons of time and autographs that were auctioned to benefit dog and cat rescue efforts, Levi chatted with many of us. I was struck by how humble, affable, and calmly self-assured he was – not the norm, it would seem, for one of the world’s elite athletes. And yet he’s clearly a fierce, focused, and accomplished competitor who has handled huge amounts of pressure with great skill.

Handling Pressure More Skillfully

I suspect Levi’s the kind of guy who’d be uncomfortable with a “Be Like Levi” campaign, so I’m not going to suggest that here. Instead, I’ll suggest a number of steps – including drawing on the 5 core skills of mentally fit cyclists – that might be of help to you in handling the pressure in your cycling.

1. Increase your self-awareness, if necessary. Particularly if you’re a person for whom pressure has been a long-term way of life, you may not always be aware that it’s operating in you. How do you know when you’re feeling it? Where do you feel it in your body? How does it affect your mood? Your behavior? Your relationships? How, both positively and negatively, does it affect your cycling? Does it affect the sense of urgency you feel on the bike, your self-talk, how hard you train, your pedal stroke, your positioning in races, your focus? Do you seem to react more to pressure from others, from reality, from yourself, or all of the above?

If you have a tendency to be too hard on yourself, ask yourself how that’s serving you and how it’s not; ask yourself what’s driving it. You may have the opportunity to replace the tendency with another, calmer way of relating to yourself, without sacrificing any of the satisfaction, fulfillment, and results you’d like to achieve. Teachings that may be of use to you here include Pema Chodron’s concept of shenpa (“being hooked”), Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be, and personality self-tests such as the Enneagram.

2. Reassess your goals. As noted in the article on goal-setting, are your objectives specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound (SMART)? If not, they may be activating unnecessary pressure. And if not, why not? As I mentioned in the article on recovering from injury, are you trying to get your cycling to deliver too much of your identity, self-worth, and fulfillment?

3. Communicate. When you’re feeling pressure, talking about it can be useful, at least as a way to make yourself more aware of what’s actually happening, if not also to get some valuable understanding and input from a trusted person: a family member, a friend, a coach, a teammate, a training partner. I realize that for some of us men (and perhaps some of you women), talking about something that we’re feeling can be akin to pulling teeth. Check out the article on Communication for ideas if need be.

4. Improve your ability to maintain, regain, and shift focus. Particularly with pressure that’s “just reality,” concentration skills can be key to performing under pressure. The article on Concentration has a number of suggestions, including practicing competition-level “concentration intervals” in training.

5. Notice, stop, and correct any negative self-talk. When you’re under pressure, coach yourself as you would like to see any athlete be coached when s/he is under pressure. Be forthright yet supportive, encouraging, and positive. There’s no (good) reason for you to treat yourself more harshly.

6. Manage your emotions effectively, particularly your anxiety. Pressure creates anxiety, and anxiety creates pressure. Reduce your on-the-bike and off-the-bike stress where possible. Investigate whether anxiety – and sometimes, the resulting perfectionism and pressure – is a sign of avoiding something deeper in you that, if you were to confront it, might bring you some relief. (For an example of some wise words on this topic, see John Welwood’s writing on the concept of spiritual bypass.)

Perhaps Queen and David Bowie give us the most important step of all at the end of Under Pressure:

“Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking/can’t we give ourselves one more chance/why can’t we give love one more chance/why can’t we give love/’cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/and love dares you to care/for people on the edge of the night/and love dares you to change our way/of caring about ourselves/this is our last dance/this is ourselves under pressure.”

Beating the Winter Blues

You’re dragging. You’re cranky. And the weather may be blocking you from a key contributor to your usual mental health: riding. You may be suffering from the cyclist’s winter blues, or perhaps something worse. The mentally fit cyclist chooses from a diverse array of tactics to battle the blues successfully and regain a strong sense of well-being.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can handle pressure in your cycling more effectively. This month, I explore how to beat the “cyclist’s winter blues,” the fifth advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

The onset of winter weather can wreak havoc on your cycling. Shorter days might make it harder to fit daytime rides into your schedule. Snow and rain may derail rides completely. And, after enough days peeking outside and then trudging into your garage, the sight of your trainer may turn you into a snarling mass of protoplasm.

And yet, if you’re like many of us, your cycling is ordinarily a major player in your physical and emotional health, a regular part of what you do to maintain a healthy balance in your life. If your cycling takes a big hit during the winter, that balance can be shattered. Plus, even if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where winter has less of an effect on riding (hello, San Diego!), winter may still bring with it feelings of lethargy, irritability, and gloom. Whether you’re cycling as much as usual or not, you may have the cyclist’s winter blues.

The first step in overcoming the cyclist’s winter blues is to be sure that’s all it is. It’s one thing to have a bit less energy than usual, a bit more crankiness than usual, and eye-rolling when you confront your trainer; we’ll talk about what to do about all that shortly. It may be another thing, though, if you’re feeling significantly lethargic, down, or anxious, if you’re oversleeping or overeating (especially craving carbs), or if you’re having trouble concentrating. If this has happened during more than one winter, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). First researched and named by Dr. Normal Rosenthal, SAD can be treated effectively with regular exposure to bright light, medication, and/or psychotherapy.

If you have any of the above symptoms, and are also feeling a profound sense of hopelessness, have little interest or pleasure in doing things, or are feeling bad about yourself, you may have a more serious case of clinical depression. (Actually, even without any of these additional symptoms, you may have a more serious case of clinical depression.) To check that out, you might take the National Mental Health Association’s confidential online screening test, find a professional in your area (unfortunately U.S.-only, at the moment) who conducts free, confidential, year-round depression screenings, or have an evaluation session with a licensed psychotherapist. John Preston’s book, You Can Beat Depression, is an excellent resource. You may benefit from speaking with your personal physician about your symptoms, as they can also be caused by physical ailments (eg. hypothyroidism).

Breaking Away from the Blues

So let’s assume you have the cyclist’s blues, or will have them someday. Any form of depression, including the cyclist’s blues, tends to act like quicksand on the mind and the body: it will try to convince you that contracting, withdrawing, and shutting down are the right things to do. But here’s where you, once again, can use your mind on your mind. Are you going to sit in or attack? Attack! There are a variety of things you can do, including using your five core skills, to break away from the hold the cyclist’s blues has on you.

1. Use your trainer, or if you don’t have one, get one. I know, I know, you start to go stir-crazy when you’re spinning for the umpteenth time. Here are some things you can do to spice things up:

• Set up an inexpensive TV/DVD combo near your trainer. Rent a TV series on DVD and watch all the episodes in order. Watch old Tour or Giro or Classics races. Rent those movies you’ve been meaning to watch. (Check out Séamus King’s list of cycling-related movies.)

• Don’t just spin. Do some intervals that you or your coach feel are appropriate
for winter training. Although spinning, particularly if it bores you to tears, may provide a great opportunity for you to practice your concentration skills.

Download some podcasts and explore subjects that interest you.

• Invite a cycling buddy or two over, and ask them to bring their trainers. No need to worry about a group ride messing with your workout! C’mon, misery loves company.

• Speaking of which, don’t view it as misery. As you know from the articles on
self-talk and managing emotions, your thoughts affect your feelings. So, look at being on the trainer in a positive way. I’m not suggesting that you try to delude yourself into believing you’ll get the same pleasure as you do on a ride around Lake Como (although perhaps you could get a Lombardy DVD to simulate that), but I am suggesting you not view trainer time as a death march. So don’t do the Eric Clapton thing and think, “give me one more day, please” as you look up mournfully into yet another stormy sky. Do the Bob Dylan thing as you look at your bike and think, “we’ll meet again someday on the avenue.” (OK, Clapton and Dylan were talking about women, but who’s checking?)

2. Hunt around for any toxic beliefs. As long as you’re examining your beliefs about riding on the trainer, look around in the dark recesses of your mind for any other distorted beliefs that might be sustaining your blues. For example: “If I don’t train on the road now exactly as much as I’m supposed to, my upcoming season will be a complete bust. After all, Lance said the Tour is won in November, December, and January.” David Burns’ books are good resources here.

3. Be wary of comparisons. Particularly if you race, but even if you don’t, comparisons are everywhere. To begin with, they’re how we measure the outcomes of competition. And they play a big role – sometimes, too big – in how we evaluate our progress and performance. Are you stronger, faster, mentally tougher than that guy? Is that woman training harder than you? Would you be a better teammate than someone else? If you’re comparing yourself with others too much, your well-being may be at their mercy. If you bring your comparisons back below threshold, you’ll be generating more of your well-being from within: a powerful antidote to the cyclist’s blues.

4. Re-evaluate your cycling goals. As noted in the article on goal-setting and goal-management, goals often need to be reset after significant time off the bike. Detraining, for example, often has a significant effect on goals. If you’ve been off the bike and your goals aren’t reset, they’re likely to be less achievable, which will tend to create underlying, unproductive anxiety. You’re less likely to want to get on the bike if you’re pursuing the wrong goals. And that can perpetuate the cyclist’s winter blues.

5. Evaluate your diet and exercise routine. When we’re feeling down, something has changed in our brain chemistry. What you eat and drink, along with the nature, frequency, and duration of your physical exercise, can move your brain chemistry back towards balance. Joel Robertson’s book, Natural Prozac, is a good reference on this topic. Yoga and indoor sports might be good, occasional alternatives for you whenever outdoor cycling is impossible.

6. Increase your tolerance for discomfort. Often we do need to do something about the cyclist’s blues. But as Sylvia Boorstein says, sometimes a good mantra is “Don’t just do something, sit there!” When you learn to sit longer with your distress, and don’t rush to “fix” it, you may find that like all things it arises and passes away. Or you may find something surprising beneath it. As I mentioned in the article on suffering, there are a number of ways in which you can increase your ability to not be thrown off-center by any kind of distress, including the kind you find on a tough climb.

7. Ensure you have cycling in its proper place in your life. As I explained in the article on recovering from injury, if cycling is providing too much of your well-being, identity, and/or self-worth, you may be out of balance. Check in with yourself on this one.

8. Be grateful. Increasingly, research is proving that gratitude can contribute profoundly to happiness and well-being. You can choose to be angry about what you don’t have, or grateful for what you do have. Pay it forward.

9. Express yourself. Whether it’s talking with someone or expressing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations on your own – through journaling, songwriting, painting, and the like – “metabolizing” the blues through some kind of expression may be the fastest way to be rid of them. The article on Communication gives some suggestions on how to remove obstacles and communicate more freely.

As blues legend John Lee Hooker sang in The Healer, “Blues a healer/all over the world/It healed me, it can heal you.”

Self-Interest and Cooperation

There’s a tension, at times, in cycling. There’s the allure of individual progress, achievement, and glory, and the benefits of teamwork and contributing to other riders’ success. The mentally fit cyclist skillfully manages this tension, striking a balance between personal goals and those of the group, team, and sport.

By Marv Zauderer

In the previous installment of our Sport Psychology column, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can beat the cyclist’s “winter blues.” This month, I explore balancing self-interest and cooperation, the sixth – and perhaps most – advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

It’s the last 5 miles of a race, and you’re off the front with another rider. The peloton is a ways behind, but closing. The rider urges you to work with him to stay away. You have no idea which of you is the stronger sprinter. What move do you make? Cooperate fully? Stay on his wheel, hope the peloton doesn’t catch you, and try to beat him in the sprint? But what if he tries to stay on your wheel?

This is an example of a problem called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), first discovered by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND Corporation in 1950, and later refined and named by Albert Tucker. Not surprisingly, given the times, their research was supported by the U.S. government’s interest in an optimal nuclear strategy. (I find myself suddenly grateful that they were thinking about whether, not just when, to “push the button.”)

In the hopes of avoiding a Pez-wide upsurge of painful brain spasms, here’s a simplification of the RAND formulation:

Two suspected accomplices are arrested by the police and held in separate sections of the jail. The police don’t have enough evidence to convict either suspect, so they approach each with a proposition: (1) If one testifies against the other and the other stays quiet, the betrayer goes free, and the other gets a 10-year sentence. (2) If both stay quiet, they both get 6 months in the slammer. (3) If each testifies against the other, they’ll both get 5-year sentences. Each must choose without knowing what the other will do, and each knows that the other is being offered an identical deal.

If we define the “dominant” strategy in this situation as the one which maximizes your personal gain no matter what your accomplice does, then clearly the dominant strategy is… betrayal. If you knew the other prisoner would stay silent, you go free by betraying. If you knew the other prisoner would betray you, you’d get a lighter sentence by betraying him, too. So logically, rationally, you’d choose betrayal, right? But you don’t know what your accomplice will do. And thus, the dilemma. Because if he uses the same reasoning, you’re both hosed: you’ll both betray, and you’ll both end up spending 5 years in San Quentin. Which we might call Mutually Assured Destruction, or being caught by the peloton, as the case may be. If only both of you had been irrational – or should I say, trusting? – and cooperated with each other. You’d be out in 6 months. Or on the podium.

It’s About Need, Not Greed

I first learned of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Doug Hofstadter’s terrific book, Metamagical Themas. He points out that dilemmas like the cycling example above are actually “iterated” PDs. In other words, our race situation is not a one-shot deal; there will be another race, and another, and another. Plus, in contrast to computer-based simulations, we can communicate with our opponents, fellow riders, and teammates and come to a shared decision about what to do. So, as opposed to what the U.S. government might have assumed about its opponent, post-Armageddon, you may find yourself off the front with the same opponent again. History may influence your next move, and your opponent’s. Will you cooperate, or will you “defect,” as Hofstadter puts it? Are you consumed by your own self-interest, or do you see a “common good” to work for?

Interestingly, many computer-based competitions have been held to determine the best iterated PD strategy. Time after time, as Robert Axelrod points out in The Evolution of Cooperation, the most successful strategy has continued to be the simplest: begin by cooperating, and thereafter do whatever your opponent did on his previous move. The strategy’s name: “Tit For Tat.” (I am not making this up.)

Stanford’s Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, advocates “double-goal” coaches for our country’s youth. In sharp contrast to the “win at all costs” model so frighteningly prevalent at times in our society, these are coaches who want to win, but who also use sports to teach life lessons and develop a young person’s character – benefits that last far beyond childhood. As athletes, we, too, can pursue, mix, and balance two equally important priorities: personal and collective success.

Now, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this. I realize there’s much that’s individual about cycling, and sometimes, as Oakland Raider owner Al Davis has said, you have to “just win, baby.” I’m suggesting, though, that you can hold your personal goals and collective (group, team, sport) goals not as #1 and #2, or even as #1 and #1a, but as co-#1 priorities. It’s about enlightened self-interest, interdependence, being of service, and teamwork. You’re still going after what you need the most, and you’re being supported in doing that. And, you’re doing the same for others. To ride that way, it’s important to have, find, and build your cycling integrity; it’s important to balance self-interest and cooperation. Here are some tips:

1. Commit to the rules – spoken and unspoken.

Diving into corners, ignoring the centerline rule, drafting off riders from other fields – it’s all defecting. You don’t need to get ahead that way, and it’s worth a lot less if you do. And all those banned substances: just say no. Your results may suffer in the short term, but you and your sport will ultimately win. Do your share to make the sport great.

2. Cooperate on and off the bike.

Use your goal-setting and goal-management skills to set and prioritize your personal goals for the ride, race, or season. Step forward and ask your riding partners or teammates to do the same. Then push hard for goal alignment: Find ways for the group to support as many of the top individual goals as possible. Strive for everyone to get at least some of their top needs met.

With all of this striving going on, pressure can be a natural consequence. There are many ways to handle pressure, not all of which are solo. Remember, reaching out to people tends to build connection. With better connections among people, on- and off-the-bike teamwork is more likely to be effective. And, when you talk with a fellow rider about your struggles, that might make it easier for him to do the same someday. Pay it forward.

In races/rides, propose alliances and confront past and current defections – perhaps by retaliating within the rules, or perhaps just with words. And if there’s goal-conflict within your group or team, respectfully confront riders who aren’t contributing enough to the common good. Your core mental skills of Communication and Managing Emotions will likely come in handy here.

3. Find motivation, satisfaction and fun in contributing to other cyclists’ success. And show that you’re into it.

The other day, I was riding through town, on my way to a group ride. A cyclist was stopped by the side of the road, talking with a pedestrian. As I rode by, the cyclist called after me. If I stopped, I might miss my rendezvous. I stopped. Turned out to be Roei Sadan, an inspiring adventurer who’s riding around the world. He just wanted to know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only did I have the great pleasure of meeting him, but now I get all his extraordinary email updates from his 30,000-mile journey. So if you see a cyclist by the side of the road or trail, ask if they need help. If they need it and you can’t give it, try to send it.

Sustaining motivation can be hard at times in cycling, especially when too much of your motivation is riding on self-interest. Make it a priority to spend some of your energy serving other cyclists in your group, team, or region. For example, find a fellow rider with less experience than you, and if he’s looking for mentoring, offer it to him. He may be interested in what you know about riding, gear, routes, racing, teams, tactics, or perhaps the resources (eg. coaching, strength training) that you’ve used over the years to improve your cycling.

Finally, in leading cooperation in your group or team, you may need to help certain people differentiate among want, need, and greed. Some people may benefit, at times, from being a little less hungry for their own achievement and a little more into others’ (or the sport’s) success; hearing some straight talk from you may be just what’s needed. Still, telling them is one thing, and living it yourself – and liking it – is quite another. Do that lead-by-example thing.

Doing all this can strengthen your integrity, or it may take finding the integrity within yourself to do all this. But where do you look? Perhaps the answer lies in an old Yiddish folktale, which I first heard from the great storyteller Joel Ben-Izzy:

Jacob of Krakow has a dream. (No, not about a ladder.) In his dream, he sees a marvelous treasure hidden underneath a bridge in Prague. So he wakes up and treks (rides?) many miles to the bridge, where he sees a watchman standing guard over the spot. Jacob waits and waits. Finally, the watchman asks him his business there. Jacob tells him the truth. “That’s funny,” says the watchman, “I dreamed of a marvelous treasure last night, too, but this one was hidden under the oven of a man named Jacob of Krakow.” Wide-eyed, Jacob goes straight home, digs directly beneath his oven, finds the treasure, and becomes a very rich and charitable man.

My youngest daughter adds the postscript she heard from Joel Ben-Izzy: At the bottom of the treasure chest is a note that says, “Dig deeper!”

Our sport – and, I suspect, our planet – depends on all of us cooperating more and defecting less. A New Year’s resolution, perhaps?

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.