Shatter the Mental Ceiling on Performance

Physiological improvements are not the only way to maximize performance. Dr. Cheung explores the psychology of feedback, deception, and perception.

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Dr. Stephen Cheung Shatter the Mental Ceiling on Performance
Photo: Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

One of my highlight rides, both because of the physiological performance I gave and the fun I enjoyed, took place in 2015 while helping cycling coach Hunter Allen at his Virginia-based spring training camp.

There is a camp ritual to climb up Thunder Ridge, a 20-kilometer ascent at a 5-percent grade. As the group set off, I found myself targeting a rider about 30 seconds ahead of me, and I very slowly latched onto Marc’s back wheel after about 10 kilometers.

From there, the gloves were off and we had an epic battle to the summit: I constantly attacked, and Marc would grind his diesel engine and big gear to haul me back. Our behavior was further inspired by the accompanying videographers who constantly shuttled between us and egged us on!

When I had a chance to analyze my ride data, I realized I somehow averaged 256 Watts for over an hour, a figure far greater than my highest wattage for that duration (~240 Watts), whether real or modelled by software.

And all along, I was so caught up in the ride that I don’t recall looking down at my bike computer once. (One thing pros often do is to tape over the power values on their head units when racing or training.)

Was ignoring my bike computer the secret to my performance?

Does feedback make us faster?

The mental ceiling that we set for ourselves is often subconscious and incredibly difficult to alter—and nearly impossible to shatter.

In a 2009 study, Dr. Mauger and his colleagues told one group of cyclists that they would be riding four separate 4-kilometer time trials over the course of a day, and gave them full feedback during the TTs, including time, power, distance, and so forth. (1) Not surprisingly, their pacing and 4-kilometer times were very consistent across all four TTs.

A second group of matched cyclists were simply told that they would be doing four identical TTs over the day, with no knowledge of distance beforehand. They received no feedback of any kind during each TT. Again, not surprisingly, their first TT was much slower (409 seconds on average) compared to the first TT of the full feedback group (367 seconds on average).

Now comes the interesting part. Over each of the subsequent TTs, the group that lacked feedback became successively faster in an exponential fashion, and were identical (374 seconds) on the fourth (final) TT as the full-feedback group.

What does this tell us about our mental template? It’s both good news and bad news. It’s good in that we don’t really need to be staring at our gadgets the entire time we ride or race, because our brain is extraordinarily adept at learning a task in terms of how hard an effort should feel. Therefore, an experienced rider can probably ride a 20-kilometer TT just as well whether they’re staring at their power or using their brain and old-fashioned RPE for pacing.

The bad news is that this study also highlights how rapidly this mental template solidifies and hardens. If we want to achieve a personal best or breakthrough performance, we have to be physiologically capable as well as capable of finding a way to reset this mental template.

For coaches, part of helping an athlete find another level is pushing them out of their comfort zone of perceived limits.

Ride to power or feel?

To achieve a peak performance, should you ride to power or ride to feel?

Whether you hide power probably depends on whether you are motivated by riding to numbers or not. For example, if you are confident that you can achieve a target power, seeing power numbers can create a huge positive psychological spiral and mental boost. Beware, though, as it can also be a trap to ambush you into maintaining a non-sustainable pace.

On the other hand, if you are truly in tune with your body, riding by feel or RPE can be hugely effective in pushing you to your limit without being distracted by an arbitrary goal wattage.

Look no further than Tadej Pogačar’s performance in the final time trial of the 2020 Tour de France for evidence that riding by feel can pay off. Pogačar switched bikes before the final climbing portion of the TT, and he chose not to have a head unit with power values on that bike.

He went on to smash the effort and solidify his Tour victory, and many would argue that he likely took more time out of his competitors than if he had ridden to a pre-planned power.

How deception can help

Deception can also be hugely effective at allowing athletes to go beyond what might be normal.

A study published in 2012 had participants ride in the heat, and they were deceived by being told that the ambient and their core temperature were lower than they actually were. The results showed that the subjects pushed themselves to a higher power output and also higher final core temperature. (2)

In another study from 2018, conducted in thermoneutral conditions, cyclists were told that they were racing against the avatar of a competitor, when in reality they were racing against their own best prior performance or an augmented performance (100 or 102 percent of baseline power output, respectively). Subjects improved their TT even against their augmented performance with no increase in post-TT neuromuscular fatigue. (3)

The problem is that implementing deception is tricky and its shelf life is likely limited. The adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” seems to apply here, and it’s more likely that deception would strain the long-term relationship between an athlete and their support team. Use it only with those with whom you have a long history of trust—and do so sparingly.

Ultimately, the best way to shatter your mental ceiling is often to throw yourself wholeheartedly into competition and get lost in it, much like I did on Thunder Ridge. Both Marc and I were so caught up in our battle that, even if we did look down at our computers, the power values were secondary—and quickly disregarded—compared to the goal of cracking each other.

Good luck in shattering your own mental ceiling!

References

  1. Mauger AR, Jones AM, Williams CA (2009) Influence of Feedback and Prior Experience on Pacing during a 4-km Cycle Time Trial: Med Sci Sports Exerc 41:451–458. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181854957
  2. Castle PC, Maxwell N, Allchorn A, et al (2012) Deception of ambient and body core temperature improves self paced cycling in hot, humid conditions. Eur J Appl Physiol 112:377–385. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-011-1988-y
  3. Ansdell P, Thomas K, Howatson G, et al (2018) Deception Improves Time Trial Performance in Well-trained Cyclists without Augmented Fatigue: Med Sci Sports Exerc 50:809–816. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001483

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