How to trick yourself into winning? Evaluating a training protocol for its effect on mental strength

I’ve recently been working my way through the sports psychology books often recommended here (such as Endure, How Bad Do You Want It? and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). While I might just be drunk from the long parade of “mind-over-body” stories, I am coming around to the idea that mental fitness is at least as important as physical fitness.

So if this is the case, then where are the discussions/studies of how one training protocol affects mental strength vs another training protocol? Are the physiological explanations (energy systems, VO2max, lactate thresholds and so on) in the end just stories whose main purpose is to get the athlete to “believe in the process” independent of whether the physiological claims are true or not?

Maybe its the physiological bias of my path so far (Friel’s Training Bible, Coggan’s Training and Racing with a Power Meter, TrainingPeaks and for the last few years TrainerRoad), but I have not yet been exposed to a training framework that explicitly integrates physical fitness goals with mental fitness goals. Makes me wonder if there is a reason for that.

One reason that I can imagine (although I’m not at all sure of its validity) is that focusing explicitly on mental strength implies that you are attending too much to your internal state (which increases perceived effort) when that attention should be focused outward (which decreases perceived effort). Douglas Adams gets to the root of it much more elegantly (and with humor):

This is an excerpt from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy .

How To Fly

© by Douglas Adams

There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day, [ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ] suggests, and try it.

The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.

That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

If, however, you are lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment by, say, a gorgeous pair of legs (tentacles, pseudopodia, according to phyllum and/or personal inclination) or a bomb going off in your vicinty, or by suddenly spotting an extremely rare species of beetle crawling along a nearby twig, then in your astonishment you will miss the ground completely and remain bobbing just a few inches above it in what might seem to be a slightly foolish manner.

This is a moment for superb and delicate concentration. Bob and float, float and bob. Ignore all consideration of your own weight simply let yourself waft higher. Do not listen to what anybody says to you at this point because they are unlikely to say anything helpful. They are most likely to say something along the lines of “Good God, you can’t possibly be flying!” It is vitally important not to believe them or they will suddenly be right.

Waft higher and higher. Try a few swoops, gentle ones at first, then drift above the treetops breathing regularly.

DO NOT WAVE AT ANYBODY.

When you have done this a few times you will find the moment of distraction rapidly easier and easier to achieve.

You will then learn all sorts of things about how to control your flight, your speed, your maneuverability, and the trick usually lies in not thinking too hard about whatever you want to do, but just allowing it to happen as if it were going to anyway.

You will also learn about how to land properly, which is something you will almost certainly screw up, and screw up badly, on your first attempt.

There are private clubs you can join which help you achieve the all-important moment of distraction. They hire people with surprising bodies or opinions to leap out from behind bushes and exhibit and/or explain them at the critical moments. Few genuine hitchhikers will be able to afford to join these clubs, but some may be able to get temporary employment at them.

I have so many questions around the integrated implementation of mental strength training (assuming that is possible in any explicit sense) that I do not even know where to start.

Take a bunch of cyclists. Measure their FTP and also their CdA and Crr. Hold a TT. What percentage of the variation in performance can be explained by the physiological and physical data you collected? How much does that leave for the sports psychologists to fight over?

TL,DR: Sure, mental toughness/confidence/resilience is important (especially in the heat of the moment), and training for it can be useful. It simply isn’t, though, what separates the wheat from the chaff, and that 80 y old dude you see on the bike path on his recumbent may very well be mentally tougher than the young pro who lives down your street.

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Honestly…you cannot wish yourself to be faster, you have to put the work in. The ‘mental toughness’ comes with experience.

On the other hand, you can totally sabotage great fitness and power by not believing in yourself.

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Hmm. Does my initial post sound like I want to substitute mental training for physical training? :thinking: I don’t at all! I’m putting in the hard work. I think it goes without saying that an off-the-couch athlete is not (in general) going to beat another athlete who has put in the hours simply by having a good mindset. :wink:

Here is perhaps a simpler way to put it? Some workouts (or points) during the course of a training program really grow my confidence in my abilities while other points do not. It is an aspect of the training program that can be tweaked and optimized while still keeping within the training requirements for physiological gains.

The difference between polarized vs pyramidal, the exact format of your VO2max intervals, the exact details of your sweet spot progression, working out in the morning vs in the evening, fasted vs not fasted, and all the other things that we love to nitpick over, seems to me like it might all be mental, or, the gains are so marginal that you might as well just go with whatever improves your mental game. This kind of opinion is peppered throughout the forum especially whenever a discussion on some marginal gain peters out. However, despite there being research on the various psychological factors that can affect performance (this includes training compiance not just the moment of racing) it seldom comes up in a explicit manner.

So even if you disagree on the exact proportion of importance to assign to your mental game it is still something to consider IMHO. You’ve already committed to put in the hours. You have a decent program laid out that follows the accepted norms of training from physiological point-of-view. However, that still leaves a lot leeway for adjustments here and there. Instead of scouring the podcasts and studies of N<10 for some 2% advantage that no one can replicate, why not make those last tweaks to your program based on what will make you mentally tougher?

I had a period where I just felt like I had undertested on my FTP after a break. FTP was low. Took another FTP test…essentially the same. Rode for 6 weeks and workouts felt easy…FTP at next test really took a bump. These days I debate if I really should drop my FTP test result by say 2% after a ramp test and then do my next block of training. Physically it is easier. Mentally I definitely feel stronger. So is it the mental attitude or is it the fact that our training does not have to be as precise/hard as we sometimes think it does.

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I read How Bad Do You Want It and was underwhelmed. Maybe I missed what everyone is excited about, but I thought it described experiences of some famous athletes and identified an aspect of their personalities that helped them succeed, but didn’t tell me how to improve myself by growing or developing those aspects for myself. The stories were entertaining to read but I didn’t get much else from it. I read The Brave Athlete, which some others have recommended here, and that at least has some exercises for self-reflection, identifying negative behaviors, and exercises to reduce negative behaviors and improve positive behaviors. That is if you can get over the writing style which I found a little too informal and annoying.

I think the focus in this forum is on the physical aspects because, well, TR is focused on physical development and the input and output can be more easily measured. Studies can be performed and show that doing a certain type of interval caused certain physiological developments and those lead to performance improvements. Performing certain mental exercises is not going to raise your FTP or your VO2Max or your stroke volume and I would imagine the studies are more difficult to perform. I just don’t know if the same level of rigor is present on the sports psychology side vs physiology side and the books and training materials seem much more advanced and robust on the physiology side.

I believe that a strong mental game makes it easier to exploit more of your physical capabilities. You won’t be able to give more than 100%, but I think with a positive attitude, reducing negative behaviors, and improving positive behaviors one can get closer to the 100% with more frequency.

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Seems like I’m going to have to continue to swim against the current on this one. :wink:

I agree here. It was entertaining and though-provoking at points but little actionable material. I found Endure had more pointers to actual research but still both are not “training bibles”.

I’ll have to pick that one up next then. I can stomach various writing styles usually without problems. Fingers are crossed.

I don’t think this is accurate. TR is focused on making its clients faster. For example, TR was addressing the mental side of training when they introduced the outdoor workouts and the group ride feature, not to mention the Successful Athletes podcast series.

Not directly of course but training compliance will certainly correlate with resilience. Remember we are not just talking about your mindset during an event, but also during training.

This is ironic though right? It is easy to look advanced and rigorous to the layman (or more insidiously, to those who already agree with your assumptions). The mental side of the equation is always an uncontrolled variable in pure physiological studies and we are just hoping that averaging over the sample will remove any biases that arrive from psychological factors. Personally I’m not looking for rigor. I’m looking for tools to try and see what works for me. I wouldn’t blindly apply the results of a physiological study, no matter how rigorous, to myself either.

This is exactly my belief also. The kicker is that I’m pretty sure I don’t know what 100% feels like. I wonder if I will ever find out.

With The Brave Athlete they tried to write it in the speaking style of one of the authors. It just kinda didn’t work for me. There’s a bit of profanity and, for me, it came off like that person who swears a lot who appears inauthentic and is trying too hard to be edgy and cool. But at the end of each chapter and in the middle of some chapters there are questions to think about and exercises that can be performed. And there is a progression to the chapters and exercises. I’ll have to read it again.

I’m not ragging on TR as I don’t think ‘mental workouts’ are within the scope of their product. I think the different workout options (long vs short intervals, outdoor workouts and group workouts) are more about exploiting customer individual preferences to get better execution and compliance but they aren’t actively trying to develop mental skills. For example, when I started using TR I found endurance workouts with 15min ‘steady state intervals’ to be difficult to execute because I would get bored and found them tedious. So I would do workouts like Baxter that had shorter times between power changes and kept me more engaged. But it wasn’t teaching me anything or developing coping mechanisms or dealing with adversity. If they had a ‘Identifying negative self-talk mental workout’ or things like that, I would agree that they address the mental side.

Maybe ‘rigor’ was not the best word to use when comparing the psychological vs physiological sides. I think it is more of a maturity difference. I can go out and buy the Coggan/Allen book or one of the Joe Friel power-based training books and come out of it with some sample workouts that target development of specific energy systems or adaptions and a framework for putting together my own training plan. And the books are proscriptive, do x to develop y, do a to develop b, etc. On the mental side, the books I have read are more descriptive and I find it difficult to create a plan. The Brave Athlete is the most practical I have read recently.

As far as realizing ones potential, I had a break through a couple of years ago. I’m sure it was pure luck everything came together on that day. I was doing a Zwift race that went up the back of the Epic KOM and I decided I was going to hang with the 5wkg guys for as long as possible then settle in sub-threshold. The climb stair steps and It just worked out that I would start to drift back right before a small flat or downhill section that allowed me to catch back up. The tunes were pumpin’ and I was just drilling it and trying to hang onto that virtual wheel, not looking at power or anything. I ended up averaging just under what I thought my 5min max was, but for 20min. I thought it was a fluke until I got close the following week and then again a couple of weeks later. I think those were the first couple of times when I went real deep and after some reflection over a several week period my eyes opened to what was possible.

This is a really interesting topic and idea. I wonder if there’s a way to define and measure mental toughness. Or even I wonder if there’s a precise and agreed upon definition. I think in order for there to be training programs evaluated on their ability to improve mental toughness one would need to have a way of evaluating it consistently over time and compare it between athletes.

I think we’ve all had days where we just couldn’t focus on the work on the bike even while physically we weren’t spent, and other days where hitting the redline over and over again feels focused and rewarding. I try to document that subjective experience in my ride notes, and hope that I can over time be more consistent in my focus on completing workouts well. I wouldn’t know how to evaluate the effects of particular training plans on that subjective experience though.