TOOLBOX: After the first few years of cycling, we learn that the best gear, the fanciest supplements, and the most favorable weather will only get us so far. In order to take performance from good to great, the resources, skills, and extra juice we need to improve comes from the inside, not out.
It’s not all on the road
Endurance training, strength training, a healthy heart, hardworking lungs and big sexy quads all have their limits. The biggest opportunities to up your game, ride longer, faster, and better are hiding above all the rest of your organs and muscles – inside your head.
The mental aspects of sport and performance have been investigated by academics and sought after by athletes for decades. In the most recent issue of the peer reviewed journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology (2020, Vol. 9), researchers focus entirely on self-control due to its importance to athletes, exercisers, and folks who strive to perform their best – even when it’s uncomfortable, boring, and/or demanding.
Self-control, defined as your capacity to control your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007) is the key to taking your cycling performance to the next level. Self-control enables you to endure physical discomfort and persist despite wanting to slow down or stop. It helps you to get on your trainer when you’d rather lie on the couch and catch up on your favorite show. It enables you to perform your strength training workout even though you’re tired, or just plain disinterested in working out. In short, the more self-control you have, the more likely you are to do the stuff you really don’t feel like doing.
If your performance suffers during a ride when pressure is high, you could use more self-control. If you “can’t” stick to your training schedule, or your workouts, or your nutrition plan, you could use more self-control. If you need help resisting instant gratification in order to attain a long-term goal, you could use more self-control (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007).
To sum it up: everybody could use more self-control! The good news is, not only can you improve your skills at accessing the self-control you already have, you can also increase how much self-control you have.
Willpower or self-control
How to Improve Self-Control?
Here are 3 evidence-based strategies for improving self-control, based on the latest research:
Think about your willpower as an unlimited resource
Bernecker and Kramer (2020) found that how we think about willpower (or self-control) impacts how much of it we have. They examined the exercise habits of college students during finals week and found that those students who felt willpower was unlimited exercised more than those who thought about it as a limited resource. In other words, your beliefs about your willpower influence how well you use willpower (Stocker, Seiler, Schmid & Englert, 2020).
When you’re fighting to keep your cadence up during a ride, or to get through all your reps during a workout, or to avoid those Doritos in the pantry, remind yourself that you have unlimited self-control and it cannot run out. Instead of thinking about willpower as a muscle, which can fatigue, or a tank, which can be emptied, think about it as a personality trait, or attribute, which is stable over time and cannot be depleted.
Your training will enhance your self-control – NOT the other way around
Although Koipp, Senner, and Gropel (2020) hypothesized that self-control would predict how often folks went to the gym, they instead found that how often a person went to the gym was associated with improvements in self-control! This means, we become what we practice doing.
If you want to be a person who is disciplined and persistent – practice discipline and persistence. You can do that on the bike, on your trainer, in the gym, and even in your kitchen. Put simply, practice self-control in order to develop self-control.
Use mindfulness to maintain self-control
Shaabani, Naderi, Borella & Calmeiro (2020) found that mindfulness may help athletes improve performance under pressure. Especially those athletes that view their self-control as a limited resource. They examined the performance of basketball players and found that their free throw performance decreased initially when put under pressure, but when a mindfulness intervention was added, free throw performance recuperated. They concluded that a brief mindfulness intervention can keep self-control from running out when athletes view their self-control as limited.
This means, as you’re getting tired and you think that your willpower is limited, practicing mindfulness can help to keep you going, and prevent you from running out of self-control gas. Mindfulness exercises can be as simple as maintaining cadence to the beat of music, staying focused on the sensations in your body while you complete your sets and reps during a workout, or paying close attention to the smells and flavors of your dinner while you slowly eat.
So, keep taking your supplements, rocking your fabulous cycling gear, and reading all the Toolbox articles you can in order to improve your performance! But also work on your psych skills. You need discipline and persistence to perform your best and to keep improving – and frankly – you need them for life in general. Think about your self-control as being an unlimited resource, practice self-control in order to get better at it, and when you feel you’re “running out”, get mindful in order to keep your head, and your body, in the game.
Bernecker, D., & Kramer, J. (2020). Implicit theories about willpower are associated with exercise levels during the academic examination period. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 9, 216-231.
Baumeister, R., Vohs, K., & Tice, D. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351-355.
Kopp, P., Senner, V., & Gropel, P. (2020). Regular exercise participation and volitional competencies. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 9, 232-243.
Shaabani, F., Naderi, A., Borella, E. & Calmeiro, L. (2020). Does a brief mindfulness intervention counteract the detrimental effects of ego depletion in a basketball free throw under pressure? Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 9, 197 – 215.
Stocker, E., Seiler, R., Schmid, J. & Englert, C. (2020). Hold your strength! Motivation, attention, and emotion as potential mediators between cognitive and physical self-control. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 9, 167-182.