I was on a longish women’s only bike ride a couple of weeks ago and the conversation between me and the rider beside me led to our common experiences with anxiety before a bike ride. She had had a poor night’s sleep before the ride because she was worrying that she’d struggle to keep up. I had also had a poor night’s sleep, not because I worried I would keep up but because I had the responsibility of ride leadership. As we talked, others joined in the conversation and shared their own experiences of pre-ride anxiety which got me thinking I should write a blog post.
Despite my ten years of road cycling I still suffer from pre-ride anxiety from time to time, particularly when I feel the ride I’m about to do is unknown or possibly beyond my ability. I talked about this to another cycling mate who is a psychiatrist and offered a little advice around relaxation and good sleep habits. For relaxation she suggested a great app called Headspace but recommended that relaxation is something you need to practice just like exercise.
So here’s my suggestions based on my personal experience and a little research:
Many elite athletes use visualisation to improve performance, develop confidence, and manage anxiety. You simply imagine yourself successfully completing your event.
In order to make visualisation work, close your eyes and imagine the physical movements that you would make in order to be successful in competition. Try to imagine yourself moving at the same speed as you would in real life. Also, make sure that you are imagining from your own perspective — not from that of an observer. You should be viewing the scene as you would if you were really there — not watching yourself compete.
Relaxation techniques are helpful for reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heart rate, tense muscles, and quick and shallow breathing. These techniques can be used at any time leading up to a performance or competition and may be particularly helpful when practiced the night before or in the hours preceding an event to help keep nerves at bay. Two of the most common relaxation techniques are diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose, feeling your chest expand from top to bottom, finally allowing your abdomen to push fully outward. Pause. Then steadily exhale through your mouth, pushing out that last bit of breath so your belly empties. Feel your muscles relax. Repeat five to 10 times. I learnt this type of breathing in yoga classes and it definitely helps in any stressful situation.
Talk about it
I think this one is particularly important for women. Talk about your anxiety with your partner or close friends who understand how you’re feeling. Women make sense of things by talking about them so don’t bottle it all up and try to solve it alone. You’ll find that your confidant can reassure you that you ‘can do it’ but also give you the chance to make sense of your anxiety yourself. I find it moves me from my negative sub-conscious thinking to more positive conscious thoughts.
Riding at an appropriate level of volume and intensity the week before an event can have all sorts of benefits. It can maintain or even improve your mood, sustain your confidence, keep you from being too much “in your head,” and reduce stress. But make sure you taper towards a long ride.
Be your own fan club
When you’re preparing for a ride and as you push through the pain during a ride, it’s natural to talk to yourself and it’s also natural to be critical of yourself. Studies show that both negative and positive self-talk influence performance. If you can’t spin your thoughts as quickly as you spin your wheels, develop a mantra like ‘relax’ to repeat when you need to block negative thoughts from rushing in. You could also try the famous mantra of pro cyclists Jens Voigt – ‘shut up legs’. It never fails to bring a smile to my face and take my focus completely off any physical pain.
I always find that once I’m on my bike just after the big ride has begun I start to relax. For me the simple act of actually turning over the pedals somehow convinces me that I can and will finish the ride.