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Dispatches from Columbine: The Brain Train

By Rebecca Rusch

Just like those quads, your brain responds to training, such as visualization, experience, and positive thinking. Get your brain muscle race ready with these tips from one who has mastered the mental, Rebecca Rusch.

I have always believed that endurance events require nearly as much mental strength as they do physical strength. From my sports beginnings in high school cross-country running through multiple varied sports disciplines, this belief has become a well-worn theory. Backing up this theory is my firsthand experience rock climbing, adventure racing and endurance cycling. I’ve completed races on sheer will alone and I attribute those successes to mental toughness. I’ve also had times when my brain faded and failed me.

Some people, like Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hilary, might have been born with an extra large dose of mental fortitude, but for the rest of us, this is a skill that can be trained and honed. Athletes who skip this part of training — the Supermen and Wonder Women I’ve nervously line up next to, then wondered what happened to them at the finish — may be physically gifted, but they are often left stranded on course or dragging at the back when their highly trained bodies reach the limit.

Those who have that mental strength to draw from are often the ones raising their arms across the finish line. I love the mental aspect of endurance racing because it means we are not just cycling automatons that follow a prescribed training program and ride like rats on a wheel. Instead, our brains, for better or worse, dictate much of our racing and training successes and losses.

The theory of brain training is nothing new. Visualization is an ancient skill that has been practiced for much longer than we’ve all been alive. It’s a honed practice in sports science. There are studies that show a body goes through a very similar chemical and physical reaction by visualizing a racecourse as if you were physically doing it. Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t have to go out and do your hill intervals, but it does mean there is another dimension to training that can give you that extra edge when you need it most.

The science of brain training shows such promise that Red Bull has partnered with a company called Neurotopia to offer mental training sessions for athletes in all types of sports, such as football, motocross, and, yes, cycling. I have been able to participate in this fascinating, sci-fi-type testing and training.

The basic gist is this: In a sterile doctor’s office setting, you are hooked up to electrodes, Christmas-tree style, to play a video game without touching anything. There is a scientist who monitors how all the areas of your brain respond to the game and he makes the game harder or easier to appropriately challenge you. You sit in a comfy recliner staring at a giant TV and focus on the task at hand, such as moving a spaceship through a tunnel. If your concentration wanes or if you try too hard or get frustrated, the ship will slow down and stall out. When you find that perfectly relaxed, attentive focus, the ship speeds away.

Finding and holding this “zone” is the point of the whole game. When you practice putting your brain in that state on a regular basis, you will be able to call on that feeling in a race situation. Twenty minutes in that recliner are exhausting, but it gets successively easier — until they make the game harder. The brain is a muscle and will respond to regular training just like our legs. The scientists at Neurotopia can create training sessions to overcome your weaknesses, just like we work to overcome physical weaknesses on our bikes. Practice sessions can focus on endurance, reaction time, focus and relaxation. It’s really not that different than the training plan that your coach might give you.

Most of us don’t have access to Neurotopia training; however, you don’t need the electrodes and scientists to get a similar affect. We all have moments in sport where we have found “the zone.” It’s that effortless moment where skill, concentration and fitness are all in tune, and you feel fast, light and on fire. It’s a fleeting, addictive sensation that we constantly grasp for. I’m telling you that you can get into that zone more often by doing regular mental calisthenics in addition to your physical training.  Your brain can either be huge asset that pushes you beyond what you’ve ever dreamed possible, or it can be the limiting factor. Here’s how to make your brain muscle race ready.

First, here are some of the benefits you can expect from a little bit of focused mental training:

  • The ability to find your “zone” when racing. This relaxed focus will save you energy that can be used to pedal your bike.
  • The ability to chill out in stressful moments such as lining up at the start or during a scary descent. Relaxing our brains and bodies when we most need it often leads to better skill, performance and energy conservation.
  • The ability to achieve your goals. Positive affirmations and belief in yourself can literally be the difference between finishing and not finishing or a big belt buckle and a small buckle.

Here are a few things I have done (and still do) to train my brain:


I think about and rehearse sections of racecourses in my mind. This could be a technical section, a particularly hard section or the finish line. I see myself going through these sections with ease, great form and a smile on my face. If I lapse into negative thought during the race, such as “I can’t ride that part,” then I snap back into seeing myself ride like I want to.

Try it. If you know the course, visualize as many specific details as possible. If you don’t know the course details, you can still visualize yourself riding fluidly, feeling strong and raising your arms high at the finish line. It may seem silly, but having a mental picture in your head is an essential step to actually achieving your goals.

Get Experience.

This is where seasoned racers have an edge. The more rides in the rain, races where you’ve flatted or bonked, mental challenges you’ve faced, finish lines you’ve crossed, the bigger mental tool box you have to draw from when the going gets tough. If you’ve seen a challenge before, it’s easier to deal with it effectively. This may not seem like mental training, but by gathering these experiences, you can then tell yourself, “I’ve got this, I’ve been through worse before.” Sign up for some Leadville qualifiers this summer, toe the line at your local weekend races, or go for a long ride at home on new terrain. Just find an adventure and stash what you learn into your brain files so that you can access those tools later.

Practice positive talk and relaxation techniques on and off the bike.

When I am hooked up to the Neurotopia electrodes and get frustrated that the spaceship is not flying faster, the first thing that happens is it slows down. Being tense and negative has a direct, adverse relationship to performance. This is proven science. Don’t let your brain slow you down. On the bike, I tell myself “yes” as I’m riding up to a difficult obstacle and I take a deep breath. Saying “I can’t” and tensing up will guarantee a failed outcome, so just override the negative talk with positive every chance you get.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

“You’re tougher than you think you are! You can do more than you think you can!”
– Ken Chlouber

I guarantee that by adding just a few minutes of visualization a day and by sprinkling these brain training techniques into every single ride you will improve your riding and overall performance.

Happy training!

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