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How to use your brain to beat the heat

Riding well in high temperatures is not only a physical feat but a mental one, too

Photo by: Oran Kelly

by Stephen Cheung

Summer days are long, offering cyclists the chance to work on their renowned tan lines. But even in a northern nation like Canada, there can be too much of a good thing with high heat and humidity settling over many parts of the country for weeks, even months.

Even moderately warm outdoor temperatures can slow you down. The optimal temperature for peak exercise performance is in the range of 10–15 C. When the air is warmer, the body’s need to thermoregulate means blood gets drawn away from the muscles to the skin and body fluids to the sweat glands to get rid of heat.

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Two well-accepted strategies to counter the heat are to ensure adequate hydration and to adapt gradually throughout one to two weeks. Both optimize your physiology to be able to handle the additional stress.

New research, however, is showing that how we mentally approach the discomfort from high temperatures can actually help us to ride longer and harder. In 2008, Martin Barwood, then at the University of Portsmouth, tested trained runners performing a 90-minute treadmill time trial in 30 C. One group then did four one-hour sessions, training on a wide range of sport psychology tools, including goal-setting, arousal regulation, mental imagery and positive self-talk. The psychological training was specifically focused on “increasing distance covered in the final run.”

The power of this psychological training was quite remarkable. Members of this group, with only brief training, increased their 90-minute running distance by a highly significant 1.15 km, whereas those in the control group who continued their normal physical training had a non-significant increase of 0.12 km. Due to the broad nature of the sport psychology intervention, the researchers could not pinpoint which of the techniques was most beneficial.

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Motivational self-talk

In 2017, my lab in the department of kinesiology at Brock University published a study deliberately targeting mental training to improve our perception of, and tolerance for, the discomforts of exercising in the heat. We focused on motivational skills training, which tries to refocus negative statements and thoughts about the heat (for example: “‘this sucks” or “it’s so hot”) and replace them with personally meaningful motivational statements, such as “keep pushing,” “you’re doing well” and “I’m focused.”

After two weeks practising this technique, the trained cyclists repeated a very hard ride at 80 per cent peak power output to exhaustion in 35 C. The riders in the motivational skills group improved their tolerance time by 29 per cent and also increased their final core temperature with no additional discomfort, whereas those in the control group decreased their times slightly by 4 per cent. Interestingly, the mentally trained group’s high performance seems to come from its ability to tolerate a very high level of discomfort for much longer than control group.

This summer, consider adding mental skills to your cycling toolbox when tackling long hard rides. Keep tabs on your thoughts, especially any negative feelings, and replace them with a set of practiced and personally meaningful positive statements.