Cycling training: how to approach multi stage cycling events

The physiological and psychological demands of riding in a cycling tour

At a glance

Riding the Tour de France places enormous psychological and physiological demands on the participants. In particular, keeping control of emotions can be especially difficult. Andy Lane suggests strategies based around ‘if-then plans’ designed to help manage emotions for all athletes competing in multi-stage races.

The Tour de France involves cycling over 3,500km in 20 days, during which riders must perform to near maximal effort for a long duration on a daily basis(1). The need to perform to high standards on a consistent basis is a concept that rings true for many athletes and in this article, we’ll use the Tour de France as an example of a task with excessive physiological and psychological demands, suggesting ways in which individuals can cope with the demands involved.

The size of the challenge

The Tour has three major challenges. Riders who perform well in the event must be effective in long distance mass peloton stages, individual time trials against the clock (10-60km range) and uphill mountain climbing (either as a mass start or as a time trial).

For the majority of the race, riders will be part of a large peloton of riders where riders can enjoy the benefits of drafting. Drafting can lead to a 40% reduction in energy requirements due to a decrease in air resistance. The benefits of drafting leads to bunching, and significant gaps between competitors are few and far between. This in turn leads to riders placing greater emphasis on performance in the hill stages (where wind resistance is less of a factor) and the time-trial, where they ride independently.

It has been suggested that potential winners must excel in the individual time trials or the hill stages, where riders can break their opponents by putting large time gaps between them (1). There are 4-6 mountainous peloton stages in the French and Swiss Alps, as well as the French Pyrenees, where cyclists must overcome the major opposing force of gravity.

A high power to weight ratio at near maximal intensities (above 6 watts per kilo of body weight – around 400 watts!) is a prerequisite for superior climbing (1). High values of pedalling efficiency and cycling economy at high workloads are also important for Tour success. For example, Miguel Indurain cycled 53km in an hour, averaging 509.5 watts for an ‘entire’ hour! (1).

Preserving energy

Tour cyclists expend up to 9000kcals of energy per day, and can lose between 2 and 5kg of body mass and 1-2% body fat over the course of the race(2). Evidence indicates that the carbohydrate intake on the bicycle during Tour stages is low (average 25g per hour) and below recommended levels (30-60g per hour) for the intensity of the exercise (3).

Since consuming additional fuel is difficult, getting the pacing strategy right from the outset is vital. A review of studies examining factors that influence cycling performance ascertained that maintaining an even power output is desirable (4). Attempting to ride in this way is different to most riders’ intuitive approach racing, where the tendency is put more effort into the hills and then to cruise down them. Competition between riders influences this further and the competitive nature of athletes means they tend to react when being passed during races, increasing effort.

The notion of maintaining an even power output is a difficult strategy to execute during multiple stage races such as the Tour de France. Although you can plan for the expected riding conditions, it’s far more difficult to plan for the tactics of your fellow competitors. Riders seeking overall victory must determine whether to respond to sudden bursts of pace and also decide which riders they can allow to break away and which riders need to be tracked. Determining the pacing strategy is therefore complex and given the severity of the course, strategies to conserve energy are vital to performance. While an even power output is desirable, this needs to be considered in the context of the race situation.

The man in yellow

In the Tour, the leader is given the prestigious yellow jersey – a prize asset for cyclists. The wearer of the yellow jersey is identifiable to other riders, and therefore becomes the person to beat. He must guard against attacks, and pace himself accordingly, a strategy involving support from team members. As is often the case in teams, developing a cohesive team is not so straightforward.

While team members might benefit from being part of a leading team financially, there can be a sense of resentment at doing a great deal of hard work while having to play second fiddle. Team members can shield the main rider from wind resistance, cover attacks, and support the leader in times of trouble. It is not surprising that team members can develop a feeling of frustration and believe that they could be the team leader. With this in mind, the team leader needs to set the mood of the team, inspiring team-mates to give that bit extra.

Emotional boiling pot

People get emotional when pursuing important tasks and athletic competition such as the Tour is no different (5). Emotions are heightened at the start of the race and at each stage, characterised by anticipatory emotions such as anxiety and excitement. During the race, feelings of fatigue will develop and these feelings provide feedback to the rider on whether he can cope with maintaining the necessary power output (see figure 1). 

Figure 1
Riders know that these feelings will unfold during the race, and consider ways in which they will cope. For example, if a rider gets frustrated that he is not in the position he desires, or becomes annoyed that he is more fatigued that he should be, he may possibly start blaming himself for starting too quickly. Equally, some riders will struggle to cope with being overtaken, or slowing down while ascending a hill, and the notion of being patient and preserving resources will be difficult to accept.

Getting into the right mindset and anticipating the emotions you believe will help you achieve your goals is a key part in the preparation of elite athletes. Numerous studies demonstrate that emotions associate with successful performance in numerous sports (6). Individuals develop beliefs on what emotions are helpful and what emotions are unhelpful.

While the general rule of thumb is that pleasant emotions tend to facilitate, and unpleasant emotions tend to be unhelpful, this is not always the case (6). For example, feeling energetic can be considered helpful in some events or for some individuals, but not others. More controversially, anxiety or anger can be helpful for performance in some individuals but highly dysfunctional for others. Because emotions experienced in sport influence goal attainment, strategies to manage emotions during competition are important (5).
Regulating emotions
Recent research has found that the process of regulating emotions requires effort and uses physiological substrates such as glucose (7). The notion that emotion regulation uses the same physiological resources needed for performance is intriguing. Sport psychologists typically argue that athletes should engage in strategies to regulate emotions. However, if active strategies to regulate emotions use glucose, and if these resources underpin sport performance, then it raises the question as to whether active efforts to regulate emotions hamper performance through resource depletion?
Figure 2 attempts to depict graphically a hypothetical example of two athletes working at the same intensity. In it, resources being used are represented by the red and black lines. The area between these lines represents additional resources being used to regulate emotions. As you can see, active efforts to regulate emotion contribute to increased use of resources. If resources are in limited supply (and  in many cases they will be) then efforts made to regulate emotions could be influential to performance.

Figure 2

We tested this hypothesis in a recent study (8). We hypothesized that cyclists who experience unpleasant mood characterised by feeling depressed and confused during performance would concurrently experience a depletion of physiological resources due to their attempts to (unsuccessfully) regulate their emotions. The cyclists completed a 100-mile cycle performance in laboratory conditions at a speed equivalent to lactate threshold. The riders were asked to cycle at a hard intensity similar to one that they ride in during a race.

We assessed riders before, during and post the ride using a standard scale (9). As Figure 3 shows, riders who felt confused, depressed, angry and tense increased their ventilation rate during the middle and later stages and became exhausted earlier, suggesting that earlier emotion-regulation efforts were costly. By contrast, among individuals reporting positive mood, ventilation rates were lower during exercise and increased sharply, with a final burst for the finish before exhaustion set in.

Figure 3

The implication is that riders who did not experience unpleasant emotions had something left in the tank for a final sprint finish, and in a race situation, could draw on these resources. Findings suggest athletes regulate their mood through increasing effort, depleting physiological substrates needed for goal attainment. Athletes who maintained positive mood states during performance were able to increase efforts to achieve performance goals.
The implications from this work are intriguing and have a number of practical applications. Riders should be aware of the effects of mental fatigue and particularly, those aspects of the race that are especially challenging. As indicated earlier, pacing strategies can become complicated by attacks from riders and course conditions; however, riders must weigh up the extent to which maintaining an even power output will be beneficial to overall performance.
An additional consideration is the interaction between team-mates. The leader needs to set the emotional climate and act in a way that creates the belief that he is able to perform well in the race. The leader needs to convey a message of being a serious competitor. However, it’s possible that the leader will need to act in a way that conveys positive emotions even if these are not the emotions he is feeling. In short, he will need to act positively, even if he does not feel positive. However, research suggests that ‘acting of emotion’ is effortful, and thus uses resources (10).

Interventions to keep ‘fuel in the tank’

Regulating emotions works on a timeline. At one end, the individual anticipates situations or interactions between people that will cause unwanted emotions, and tries to do something about the situation. This could involve changing how the person thinks about the situation, or changing what he or she is doing. At the other end of the scale are strategies designed to deal with emotions once they have manifested. These strategies focus on changing the emotion rather than the situation.

Athletes use a mixture of reappraising situations and managing emotions. As indicated previously, athletes will often seek to get themselves into an optimal emotional state for performance, which may typically involve thoughts that raise positive emotions and suppress unwanted emotions. However, because regulating emotions requires effort, thus depleting resources, it is important to try to limit the number of emotions you work with.
One intervention strategy that is effective in a number of areas of psychology is the use of an ‘if-then’ plan. Research shows that if-then plans are more effective than general goal setting at initiating and sustaining changes in behaviour because they identify the standard required for that goal and direct the person as to how they will attain the goals. Previous research has demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy in a diverse range of tasks including helping players manage anxiety (11). The focus box below shows a number of examples:

Focus Box

IF THEN
If I feel I have run out of energy Then I'll focus on a moving image of train wheels
If I get passed by a rider Then I'll focus on relaxing and cycling efficiently
If I start feeling angry Then I'll attempt "stop" that thought by declaring it unwarranted
If I feel tired and angry Then I know that I must challenge why I am angry and let it go. I’ll do this by focusing on the emotions I believe help performance’. Or ‘I’ll concentrate on my technique and use self-talk to change thinking towards excitement’
If I feel nervous then I will welcome these feelings as part of performing on the big stage – I’ll tell myself that nerves are part of performance and welcome them like I welcome tired legs during the ride’

 

The if-then process should start by considering factors that could be stressful or raise emotions. It’s worth trying to think of as many as possible and list these; these are the ‘if’ component and useful in this context as they establish the stressor. The ‘then’ part is how you would like to address the stressor. For example, if situation X is encountered, then I will perform behaviour Y. The idea is that if-then plans can help by influencing the process at the early stages rather than trying to deal with emotion once fully blown, thus increasing the depletion of vital resources.
When developing if-then plans as an intervention it is important that they are repeated daily, so that over time they become ingrained. Athletes should place the if-then plan in a prominent place and regularly repeat each statement to themselves.

Conclusion

Sustaining performance is dependent on interaction between physiological, nutritional and psychological factors. Maintaining high power output and developing an appropriate pacing strategy is key to sustaining resources. Emotions can drain resources. If-then planning can help manage emotions and save resources required for performance.

Andy Lane is professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. He is part of the Emotion Regulation of Others and Self (EROS) research network; www.erosresearch.org

References

1. The Sport & Exercise Scientist, 4-5, 2007
2. Sports Medicine, 24, 73-81, 1997
3. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 62-67, 1998
4. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25, 1001-1009, 2007
5. The Rise and Fall of the Iceberg: Development of a Conceptual Model of Mood-Performance Relationships, in Mood and Human Performance: Conceptual, Measurement, and Applied Issues, Lane, Editor, Nova Science: Hauppauge, NY. 1-34.2007
6. Emotions in Sport, Champaign, Ill.; United States: Human Kinetics Pages 2000
7. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265, 1998
8. Physiological Correlates of Emotion Self-Regulation During Prolonged Cycling Performance. International Society for Research on Emotion Leuven, Belgium 2009
9. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 4, 125-139, 2003
10. Work & Stress, 21, 30-47, 2007
11. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 381-393, 2008

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