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Build Your Mental Toughness With These Training Strategies

These tips from psychology experts will help you on and off the bike.

mental toughness tips
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We’ve all been there: In the middle of a grueling training session or racing event where we begin to doubt our abilities, questioning whether we can successfully complete the task at hand. Some falter. Others dig in, not letting the adversity of the moment get to them. The latter group has tapped into an essential tool in overcoming hurdles—mental toughness, which is the ability to channel one’s confidence and resilience to induce successful outcomes.

What is mental toughness, really?

Having fortitude of mind, according to Robert Weinberg, Ph.D. , a certified mental performance consultant, professor of specialized sports psychology at Miami University of Ohio, and creator of the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s (NASM) Mental Toughness continuing education course, is marked by four psychological pillars. Those include: motivation (the drive to set difficult but attainable goals), performance under pressure (and making good decisions while under pressure), confidence (an unshakable belief that no matter what, you can still achieve your goals), and concentration (the ability to remain focused on a task no matter what is going on around you).

Together, these skills can elicit higher levels of athletic achievement, the use of more effective coping strategies in challenging situations, and even greater pain tolerance, says Amber Shipherd, Ph.D., an associate professor and the Exercise Science/Performance Psychology Program Coordinator at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

“Those who are mentally tough are motivated to push themselves and engage in behaviors to better themselves,” she adds. “Therefore, they’re likely to train harder and may then experience more physical and mental growth and improvement when compared to others who exhibit less mental toughness.”

That said, Dr. Shipherd also says that research has revealed that under fatigue, more mental toughness does not compensate for a lack of physical fitness (read: you still have to have the physical ability to crush your goals), but those who are more mentally tough often adjust and respond better following errors or mistakes.

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How do you build mental toughness?

To develop mental toughness in general, you can try a few simple tricks:

  • Challenge yourself regularly to avoid settling into a comfort zone—that could mean trying a new route, new terrain, or a different training group.
  • Create a social support team for when you are in need.
  • Engage in reflection frequently by considering what you have learned from a ride or how you have grown from challenging situations you’ve faced.
  • Make appropriate attributions for successes and failures—for this, focusing on the role of your effort, or lack of effort, rather than ability is key, says Dr. Shipherd.

    Dr. Shiperd does warn that there are some negatives associated with mental toughness, including the tendency to push through pain or injury, as well as the tendency to avoid seeking help or mental health counseling. That’s why it’s super important to realize when to stop and rest and also to recognize when you need additional help.

    While experts are split on how often you need to flex that mental toughness muscle for it to be effective, they all agree that you need to do it with some regularity. Think of it this way: If you haven’t ridden your bike in three or four years, and you decide to challenge a friend to race, chances are you are going to be rusty. The same is true for mental toughness. If you aren’t practicing it, you won’t be able to call on those skills effortlessly.

    The truth is, mental fortitude “is really about having a physiological toolkit of skills you can apply to manage the emotions of life,” says Jarrod Spencer, Psy.D., a sports psychologist, iFit Mind coach, and author of Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance.

    How can you tap into mental toughness in specific cycling scenarios?

    Are you a natural pessimist? Someone who goes to a dark place if you miss a goal? Let these tips help you strengthen that mental muscle, no matter what situation gets you down—and consider these tactics a regular part of your training.

    Your mind just always goes to the negative

    It’s true, some people seem to always look at the glass half empty rather than half full. And if you’re in the middle of a soul-crushing cycling race or even just putting in some tough training miles on the bike, it can be even harder to channel your inner optimist. That’s where positive self-talk comes in, Dr. Weinberg says. And you can start small. Affirming statements such as, “I really trained hard this week” or “I can do well, just hang in there” can go a long when in battling internal negativity.

    Of course, “this is not easy because if you are a pessimist this is your go-to,” Dr. Weinberg says. “So you need to practice until you believe it—fake it until you make it.”

    Dr. Shipherd also suggests you try to reframe or reappraise situations and challenges to focus on how you can learn and grow from them. If you are, say, dreading the day’s interval work or just doom and gloom about an upcoming speed ride, then switch your mind to think about how these hard efforts with short rest periods will help you sustain a high power output during a longer race.

    You don’t have to overhaul your entire mind game, but one step at a time in battling the negative will pay off—and become easier the more you do it.

    You have trouble recovering from hills

    Confidence comes from being able to actually do something that scares you, so if climbing up hills leaves you completely depleted, just keep practicing. We know, it sounds obvious, but hear us out: Using something called pressure training, in which you practice technical skills under simulated psychological pressure, can help. That means you do more rides that feature lots of hills you’re not familiar with—giving you a new challenge to work through each time—or a ride in which you have little time to recover between hills, suggests Dr. Shipherd. This is a great way to psyche yourself up as it “can benefit your body physiologically but can also enhance your confidence when faced with these scenarios outside of your training,” she says.

    Also, working in a distracting environment might help, Dr. Shipherd adds. If you’re doing an indoor spin ride, working through climbs as you listen to music or even putting a show on in the background might help you better crush those hills with enthusiasm and joy, which can help you later on the road.

    Dr. Spencer says you should also lean into the taxing toll hills take on your body and mind. “That’s kind of the essence of hill training, right?” he says. “You want to push your body to the brink where your body fails and your mind fails and then you find yourself exhausted and you can’t pull it together.” Except you do pull it together, because you don’t let that toxicity spread and you regroup and regain your mental energy. When you learn to do that, that’s when you reveal a much better version of yourself, he says. Hills provide the perfect place to practice this break down and build back up mentality—so lean into it.

    You tend to go to a dark place after a bad performance

    There’s nothing like a not-so-good race or training session to put the kibosh on your mood. If you find yourself in a situation in which you’re really upset after a bad race or ride, “start by giving yourself a time limit to feel whatever emotions you’re feeling,” says Dr. Shipherd. Maybe give yourself 24 hours where you allow yourself to feel upset. After that time has passed, “work to shift your thinking to what you can learn or take away from the bad ride that can help to prevent it from occurring again.”

    Did you go out too strong in the beginning? Did you fumble your pacing strategy? Was your training really up to par? Answering questions like these allows for tangible takeaways from what you have deemed an upsetting outing. And even better: You can use these lessons to improve your next performance. So, feel free to get down, but then lift your chin up.

    You start getting bored

    Boredom isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s messing with you mentally then it’s time to increase our attitude of gratitude. “The more grateful we are for anything, the more excited we are,” Dr. Spencer says. He suggests that you actually maintain a daily gratitude practice to make this easier at times when it really matters—you can write it, speak it, or just think about it.

    Experiencing boredom during training or especially during a long ride can sometimes be caused by a lack of energy or a lack of motivation, says Dr. Shipherd. “If the root cause is lack of energy, fueling your body may help, as could other strategies like singing, dancing, or yelling. If the issue is more motivational, having a powerful self-talk statement or mantra can be helpful to remind you of why you ride or your goals,” she says.

    Also, don’t forget to examine the reason behind why you’re bored (think same route, same distance, etc.), says Dr. Weinberg. This will help you come up with the best approach to alleviate the issue. For example, if you ride the same route every single day, switch it up, or, if you always do three miles, try four or five instead.

    You dread doing a part of your training you just don’t love

    “It is normal and natural to avoid our weaknesses in our training,” says Dr. Spencer. “But in life we do have to strengthen our weaknesses. Sometimes we have to say I may not want to, but I need to.” How do you do this? Find opportunities for inspiration, whether it’s a certain time, location, or person that can actually make you want to ride sprints or hit a strength set. Music or a TV show in the background can also help with this, making the work itself more enjoyable, Dr. Weinberg says.

    Imagery could also be a good tool to use in this scenario. Try seeing yourself doing the part of your workout that you hate, and imagine yourself doing it and feeling good, says Dr. Weinberg. (This can apply to those hills too!) If you’re cross-training with weights, for example, see yourself nailing a certain lift with a certain amount of weight.

    For Dr. Shipherd, goal setting is also the way to go when it comes to pushing through the work you don’t really enjoy. It can “help you stay focused on the bigger picture but can also give you something specific to focus on during the training you dislike,” she says. For example, setting a goal to focus on, like improving your squat form, can help you to get through that weight training session you weren’t looking forward to doing. Bonus: Those squats, which target the glutes, hips, quads, and hamstrings, will translate into leg strength and endurance gains on the bike in the form of greater power and efficiency. Consider all those pros when you’re dreading your next gym session.

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