Mental Metal

What does it mean to have the right stuff, to have what it takes, or to be tough when the going gets tough? We’re bombarded with challenges, slogans, contents and ads that question how “tough” we are. But when it comes to indoor cycling, what does toughness really mean and how important is it?

Let’s start with the latter question: it’s super important. Toughness helps keep riders riding your rides. It’s what helps them meet the challenges you lay out for them with every profile, what keeps them coming back for more and achieving individual performance goals.

So what does it mean to be tough in an indoor cycling class and can you coach toughness?  Cycling toughness to me is the physical strength and mental tenacity to achieve goals. It’s not stereotypical No Pain No Gain toughness (ugh). We’re generally not teaching to elite athletes. Riders in my classes range in age from late twenties to early seventies, are somewhat fit to very fit and are mostly women. Few qualify for a poster of commercial toughness: ripped muscles, a scowl, usually male and usually with a smear of mud somewhere on their face. The ultimate toughness is mental and it’s displayed through what our minds can safelyget our bodies to do when it’s uncomfortable (not painful) to do it.

I taught a class last week using a profile called Mental Metal (coming your way this Friday!). It focuses on exploring mental toughness – the ability to focus only on the things that drive performance and help you meet your immediate goals. I led riders through pedal stroke drills, maintaining form and body alignment, holding RPM and watts steady – things that drive performance – and tackling two 4:00 best efforts in the saddle.

The profile starts with alignment and form, then leads directly into pedal stroke drills to paint a picture of physical connection. Why? Because you feel what you focus on. Pedal stroke drills are a great way to connect rider’s minds to the details of what’s happening physically. When you describe the muscle groups that fire more prominently during each phase of the pedal stroke and ask riders if they feel the changes, mental engagement increases.

As the class progresses, the focus shifts to coaching riders to hold a steady rhythm to experience the connection steady RPM has to steady power output. Erratic thoughts produce erratic output; steady focus, steady output. For the two 4:00 best efforts, the ask is pure mental toughness: Can you will your body (safely) to find and hold the perfect combination of speed and resistance to produce the highest power output you are capable of on that day, at that time, for that duration?

That’s where three key mental coaching techniques come in: 1) focus mental energy on melding form, alignment and pedal stroke to find a rhythm that produces flow and consistency; 2) don’t judge your performance; 3) forget about time.

Remind riders that focusing on melding form, alignment and pedal stroke helps performance by creating flow, and that mentally herding lungs, legs and heart to work in tandem requires their full attention.

When fatigue sets in, our minds start to make performance-killing judgments: I’m tired; my legs are shot; I’ll never finish this; I can’t; I’m not good at this; this sucks. Remind riders that the nanosecond these thoughts drift in, refocus on willing their body to safely do what it came there to do.

Coach them to leave the timing of things to you: you’ll provide cues and counts for context, starts, and ends.  When riders focus on how much time is left or how many of something is left versus being immersed in the moment, performance can suffer. Yes, time can be a motivator when you know something is almost over, but it also immediately invites some sort of judgment – I can or I can’t; I should go harder, I shouldn’t go as hard. Time can ultimately be a distraction away from the immediate.

Easier said than done for our riders, right? Absolutely! I rode a sixty-minute Power Performance class while out of town several days ago. Wow – unexpectedly challenging, humbling, and educational because I was a bit too cavalier in my prep for the class, i.e. I didn’t.

I hadn’t slept well and drank coffee instead of water beforehand. It was hotter than usual in the room (thanks to the record-breaking heat wave) and my body is super sensitive to heat. There were less than 10 riders in the class, there were two leader boards prominently displaying our every stat, and I realized my heart rate was unusually elevated during the warm-up.  Getting the picture? Before we started the first effort I started to judge what the entire ride would be like and it wasn’t pretty.

The first challenge was nine 1:00 strong seated efforts with 1:15 “back-offs” – not recoveries. The instructor set cadence and power parameters for both the strong efforts and the back-offs. Both numbers were used to calculate overall performance, not just the 1:00 strong efforts. The dilemma for me was my heart rate. What I needed to do under those circumstances at that particular time to manage my heart rate during the back-offs placed me dead last on the board.

I experienced all of the mental distractions – judgment (I’m a mess), fatigue (I’m spent), time (seriously, five more?). I used my mental metal coaching techniques to help me do the best I could for the ride. Yes, it ultimately worked, but the experience was an excellent reminder that toughness never means committing to a goal that doesn’t serve you. Remind your riders to bruise their ego before their body!

Pam and I are co-teaching a 75:00 journey ride called Soul Summit at the end of this month. Our riders will need to use every ounce of mental toughness they have to reach that imaginary summit and we’ll need to use our best mental metal coaching. We’ll let you know how it goes, and please let us know how coaching mental toughness goes for you!

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