Mind for Mountains: Somatosensory Mindset

14th February 2020

Key Concepts:

Self-focused application, growth opportunity mindset, outer world perception versus inner world experience, patience learned through bodily sensations.

Reader’s Note:

Allow 10-15mins reading time for this content rich article with multiple stories.

As I see a mountain roadway approaching, I physically look at the bitumen strip turning upwards, but only as a cue to switch on my ‘somatosensory mindset’ – my term for becoming centrally focused on how my physical body is experiencing the world around me. From this point onwards I am repeatedly withdrawing from the outside cycling experience into my own mind-space, to ensure that the climbing work originates from there, to excel.

The start of a road climb is often a moment that stuns cyclists; the fear of failing against gravity, or of being dropped on a group ride, or of what might happen to the body – breathing strain, muscles blowing up, heart-rate soaring. Handling the naturally increasing muscle load and coordination of body parts to cycle up a climb requires a whole set of physical skills and fitness tiers to engage in unison, and that’s just the beginning. Adapting to a new workload against gravity is a considerable task for body and mind already, then sustaining climbing speed, choosing gear changes and cadence, noting sensations in the body and adjusting to accommodate – and managing thoughts and feelings that arise as well.

Depending on who you are the mountain climbing experience can potentially be a euphoric explosive experience, or it can be a minefield of disappointments cascading down onto your incompetence at the task. So how do I empower a developing rider to utilise a totally positive mindset as the climb approaches? Freeze, right there!

REAL LIFE RIDER BECOMES WISER

As I rode along beside Katja Gordon (say ‘Cart-jar’) on Day 2 of the 2019 Giant Steps annual autism-school fundraiser bike-ride in Noosa, she told me she needed to work on her climbing skills. She found she was always struggling with the group pace on the hills and ‘losing the wheel’ (i.e. dropping behind).

Note: I have been the featured VIP Olympic cyclist on the Giant Steps Bike Ride courses for the last 10 years providing rider encouragement, cycling training and bike-handling tips, bunch-cycling skills and etiquette, and also mind-fitness advice (or how best to use your mind to ride more effectively).

FIRST THINGS FIRST

As Katja’s question was prompted by a looming climb just ahead of us, we both looked at its winding gradient disappearing up into the trees. I used that moment on-the-spot to ask her what was going on inside her head.

It is a very common thing for people, when they struggle with a skill, to default to ‘outward-focused thinking’ and become overly concerned about the whole situation surrounding the task itself. Katja indeed spoke of her lagging bike speed, the other riders looking so competent and focusing on what they were doing, the size of the hill, whether the gear selection was wrong, and so on. Basically everything she saw in her ‘outside world’ was escalating the challenge for her by flustering her focus and creating feelings of intimidation. I wanted her to slow down these concerned thoughts, leave the outside-world predicament for a moment and get centered inside her own mind first – to the internal world of her body and its functions. 

Following the 7 steps listed below, Katja was able to refocus internally and do some productive ‘somatosensory mindset training’ and apply herself to the climbing task more effectively. The difference was, she now consciously directed all movements from her internal environment onto the external world task. We both immediately saw real-time benefits in Katja’s improved pedal-stroke technique and smoother circular power delivery. She said she felt more relaxed and had a more powerful exertion. I watched as she actively, calmly reduced the gap to the lead riders as the climb continued on. Katja was more in control, and became more competent at climbing, rather quickly actually, and nobody else saw her lagging.

7 STEPS TO SOMATOSENSORY AWARENESS IN CYCLING

  1. Slow down your situation like your velocity (yes, even let others ride away and focus inwardly for now)
  2. Withdraw from the outside scene (stop being concerned with thoughts about the external, tune in to preparing your own body for the task)
  3. Reset thinking to internal body-focused sensations and goals (aim to climb the hill efficiently using the whole body’s involvement)
  4. Sense your body parts (sense how your body feels and notice which body parts are engaging, or not; be aware of breathing and muscles)
  5. Assert control over exertions (breathe more deeply, apply whole circular pedal-stroke muscle exertions, note movement inefficiencies)
  6. Practice good technique (revise your skill from your body’s perspective to the task, e.g. create circular power and more stable posture)
  7. Maintain ‘somatosensory-awareness’ (direct movement from an internal body focus to a coordinated exertion of more external force)

REFOCUS > CONTROL > COMPETENCE > CONFIDENCE

I’ve noticed that once a somatosensory mindset style of internally-focused application of self is utilised throughout the execution of a skill, a person can experience a greater sense of control over the task. With only a brief rehearsal of the skill using this approach, an improvement in competence can be observed, and the person will justifiably feel more confidence as a result. Before long, Katja will be having visualisations in her sleep of passing all of her friends on the next mountain ride! Note that I will refer in more depth to the study of ‘flow-state mindsets’ in sport in a future article as they are partly characterised by greater body-awareness in high-performance experiences.

So then, in aiming to master a skill, I am advocating here that if you gain greater control of what’s going on inside your own body, then you better understand the workings of your mind, and you can therefore tackle challenges more effectively in the outside world. A greatly influential coach once told me, very near the beginning of my cycling career in 1989 – 

“first, learn to use this (tapping on his head). Then, I’ll teach you how to use this (grabbing my bike)”.   In other words, focus on mastering your mind first of all.

A Cycling Race Analogy

It was late summer 1991 in the Snowy Mountains Festival Race in New South Wales, Australia – one of the last national Olympic selection events to qualify for the ‘Barcelona 1992 Games Cycling Squad’. The peloton had climbed to Thredbo ski resort and now faced the 30km climb up to Charlotte’s Pass summit on Mount Kosciuszko as the final peak of the day before a long descent back to Jindabyne for the finish. I had become one of the ‘dropped riders’ trailing behind a select group of a dozen leaders. Getting podium points was important for any Australian cyclist vying for one of the 2-year A.I.S. scholarships that would groom riders for Olympic representation. 

WITHDRAW FROM THE OUTSIDE SCENE

The front breakaway group was really just made up of the stronger guys left riding together after the rest of the field had been stripped away by attrition – overly excited climbing tempo and flurries of attacks down the descents. In fact, I had been one of the riders aggravating the pack’s demolition but now paid the price of having lower energy and sensed my own physiology shutting down after feeling ‘flat’ for the last 20 km. I knew it would take me at least 40 minutes to ‘remobilise’ my muscles to climb at a high pace again after the low heart-rates in the valley. I also poorly timed my own feeding frenzy on snacks from my jersey pockets and inadvertently distracted my metabolism, effectively pulling too much blood from my legs to my stomach between the mountain summits.

RESET THINKING TO INTERNAL

Getting my engine to lift was now the bigger challenge, even as a priority over re-joining the leaders. I was almost 2 minutes back and only just had visual contact to them on the lapping roads flanking the mountain-side. It would have to be a very hard chase once it started up, an extremely intense high-speed climbing workout. I fortunately had a great sense of my body from very early in my cycling career, perhaps from trying many sports at high school before discovering the pedalling movement. I’d also won two big mountain races up the 20 km ascent of Mount Buller in the year before, so I knew how my body could ideally feel in getting ready to perform well under pressure.

I started a deeper breathing pattern to prepare my body for the task. But I recall not being able to articulate what I did back then in post-race interviews, the transition that was about to happen inside my body, I just seemed to know that I needed to wait, and breathe, and induce it to come. It was having patience and sensing the needs of the body that fostered the release of my big power. The secret talent of knowing ‘how’ to turn on a high-level physical output and retrieve the explosive fitness that I knew was stored inside the body from all of the hard training done. I had to wait before exerting too hard, and just hold the gap to the leaders until then. Just wait…

Well, I guess I was courageous enough to do that.

Patience and guile are shrewd skills that a road racer needs to develop. To win elite alpine climbing competitions, you must be ruthless with other riders, and save your own engine. You win by wearing down your opponents; physically, psychologically and even emotionally: threatening to set too high a climbing speed, or making surging changes in speed frequently, spotting weaknesses appearing in others’ cycling styles or postures and then suddenly attacking. You might directly tell other riders how they look like they’re fading. More covert strategies might involve the subtle breaking of a group’s tempo by just gradually raising the pace up to an uncomfortable speed, or waiting inconspicuously at the back of a group until you see others settling into the leader’s pace – and then launching past them all in a full-speed attack from the rear, looking back at them all to see the facial reactions! If you know your own physical limit, and that you’re near it, then you act as if it’s not hurting you (it’s called playing ‘poker face’). The cruel message you aim to give out is, ‘I am flying and you are dying’. 

But to execute these kinds of psychological racing strategies, you first need to know the workings of your own body and mind – at least a little better than the next guy.

While these are very ‘mental’ racing tactics used to erode competitive threats, and racers might be using them in the front group toward the climb summit, I used my mental patience guile skills to wait, and breathed deeply, and rode just hard enough to keep them in view.

SENSE YOUR BODY PARTS

By now, I might’ve been expected by race officials to abandon, because to ‘just catch up’ would be seemingly impossible. Once the gap to a ‘dropped rider’ gets to 2 minutes, it’s like they are left for dead, or gone for good as ‘pack debris’, discarded by the higher caliber race leaders and event officials as well. But immersed in my somatosensory mindset, I was not a victim of the ‘outside world’ situation yet. I had not given up mentally on my chance to catch them, it was just a physically quiet phase as my system re-sorted fuels and blood-flow. I was waiting for the body to give me a full dashboard of ‘good-to-go’ green lights. 

Rival team-cars were officially waved past me by the red race commissar vehicle, and they all eagerly sped across to support their own riders in the break. An attending Channel 9 Wide World of Sports TV van pulled up alongside and wanted an interview – how awkward?! I was totally focused on my own mission, like in a trance, and hardly noticed the interviewer’s microphone as he stretched himself right out of the van window to get in my face. He called on me to answer why I didn’t just ‘call it a day and get in a team car now!?’ The break was reported over the CB radio as 1 min 50 secs ahead up the climb.

“…it’s not over, I’m still here!” I insisted with a nervous smirk. I think I was telling myself this at the time in the belief that my superbly muscle-bound engine would miraculously switch back on and catapult me across the gap at any moment. I just kept focused on my deep breathing and higher revs and tried not to overload the system. The TV guy was just an unwanted distraction; I was trying to discern the body’s readiness to go, as soon as it was able. I knew this was the more important challenge for me – to win the race against myself, not try to beat them. My challenge was to develop an attuned sense for when it was right to wait, and when it would be good to go. If I got this right, then I could come back into their road race – I figured it was just a matter of time.

Nowadays I can appreciate much more that you do need to understand sports physiology and trained athlete capabilities to know this was actually possible. An alternative method is to have good knowledge of your body’s internal reactions at high resistance loads, lots of endurance training, gain plenty of competition pressure experiences and find out what brings your body up to a peak or through a ‘black spot’ (temporarily fading physical performance).

You have to recognise that how and when you eat during long endurance events could change your engine capacity for a significant amount of time, which could be critical while racing. So a bit much ‘gobbling’ in the valley between two big climbs could slow the metabolism enough to ruin your climbing tempo and get you dropped from the break. It was definitely ambitious for me to think I could fix a gap of 2 minutes on the last hour of climbing for the day. Ironically, though, a winning strategy in road racing is actually sometimes to wait. Cycling was teaching me this skill of patience through my body.

I’d had a thing with the ‘patience’ attribute in cycling ever since getting dropped by the front bunch 3 years earlier in my first state road title. I just kept riding solo to the end so I could say that I’d finished. Only then did I find out that most of the peloton had withdrawn, including several riders from the break, leaving me 9th overall. I subsequently scored a selection to represent Victoria later that year in the National Championships and won a medal. And so I’ve always kept the saying close to heart: “it’s not over until the finish line flashes under”. Now, in later life, I would say you must always just stay involved until the show is complete.

ASSERT CONTROL OVER EXERTIONS

Official rules of the Snowy Mountains Festival Race were that any rider holding onto or slipstreaming behind a car was an instant nullification for the Olympic selection opportunity, so as the TV van pulled closer and the film crew taunted me to just grab hold of a mirror I became annoyed and shooed them away. This brought great amusement and chiacking but what would happen next put it into the final cut of the weekend Channel 9 news broadcast.

Official rules of the Snowy Mountains Festival Race were that any rider holding onto cars or slip-streaming behind tour vehicles was an instant nullification for the Olympic selection opportunity, so as the TV van pulled closer and the film crew taunted me to just grab hold of a mirror I became annoyed and shooed them away. This brought great amusement and chiacking but it was dramatic and ended up in the final cut of Channel 9’s news broadcast.

If you tune into your breathing for 60 seconds while you are struggling on a climb, any climb at any time, can change the sensations in your body and the power coming from your legs. Using higher revs (or lower gears) and lifting your body’s tempo can also activate more of your existing cycling form and enliven the way you are riding. Add a dose of patience, some stretching movements, sipping water, and relaxing while holding that tempo, you are building your capacity to exert hard enough to close down a big gap. You might just precipitate a personal best performance. And that’s what happened.

Official rules of the Snowy Mountains Festival Race were that any rider holding onto or slipstreaming behind a car was an instant nullification for the Olympic selection opportunity, so as the TV van pulled closer and the film crew taunted me to just grab hold of a mirror I became annoyed and shooed them away. This brought great amusement and chiacking but what would happen next put it into the final cut of the weekend Channel 9 news broadcast.

If you tune into your breathing for 60 seconds while you are struggling on a climb, any climb at any time, just doing that alone can change the sensations in your body and the power coming from your legs. Using higher revs (or lower gears) and keeping on lifting the tempo in your body’s movement can also activate more of your existing cycling form and enliven the way you are riding. Add a dose of patience, some stretching movements, sipping water, relaxing as much as possible while holding the tempo, and building your anticipation to explode with an exertion to close down a big gap, and you may just precipitate a personal best performance. And that’s precisely what did happen.

PRACTICE GOOD TECHNIQUE

With my body’s chemistry finally arriving back to hard-work mode, the muscle oxygen saturation levels were up again and my visualised return to form manifested the physical actions. When this happened, it felt like someone had turned off the head-wind! The gradient of that Kosciuszko mountain road suddenly seemed flat. Either way there was a clear sensation of more access to power, and my legs could take on a much higher resistance. I revved up into the high twenties on the speedo and switched to the big chain-ring (which normally wouldn’t come into use again until the descent, for higher speeds). Before I’d fully settled at my new tempo, I was upon the tail of the race leaders.

I used a race tactic taught to me by my amusingly irreverent Melbourne-based bike-shop sponsor in the 90’s – that being Stuart Cook of Gran Prix Cycles – who always liked the element of surprise. I changed lanes and sped right past the lead group at a much higher velocity, hoping to intimidate them into not even contemplating a pursuit. This ‘psychological attack’ was seen by Tasmanian champion, Grant Rice as an opportunity, and he leapt into action and we rode straight off the front of the race that day to an astoundingly clear win by minutes and both gained selection into the Barcelona Olympic Cycling Squad.

(Grant unhappily ran second in a controversial sprint to the line – an entirely different story with its own lessons TBA).

MAINTAIN SOMATOSENSORY AWARENESS

Somatosensory mindset to learn a skill, internal focus for gaining physical control, using patience as a strategy, remembering that it’s not over until it’s actually over; there are lots of lessons to be gleaned from this story. But my take-home message for people who want to excel, is that tuning yourself in to the body’s noise, or internal sensations (your ‘body talk’), can provide a channel of information to enrich our understanding of the body’s functions and their interconnections with the mind.

I believe that increased somatosensory awareness can open a kind of gateway that allows people to access new capabilities; like improving existing skills, discovering a better sense of control, or seeing the path to a lofty goal – through our body. We might change an outcome that seemed inevitable, or face an old fear of failing for the first time with a different outlook. Perhaps, stored right there within your own body, is the framework for a whole new way to excel.

Rob Crowe O.A.M. is a writer, speaker, Olympian and director of and specialist program designer for Ridewiser Mind-fitness cycling in Melbourne – for group building physical fitness gains through cycling, while also improving mental health.

2 Responses to “Mind for Mountains: Somatosensory Mindset”

  1. Katja Gordon says:

    hi Rob,
    This is really good and very appropriate as I head to Bright in March leading my group of friends on the Kitkat Tour de Bright (4 days of climbing). I will pass this on to them and look forward to hearing what they think. Hope you are fighting fit, well and happy. All the best, Katja

    • Rob Crowe says:

      Oh wow, that’s so great you got to read this article finally Katja, I am onto a few different themes at present including the long-awaited arrival of my Depression Blog to tie up the mental health angle with my MindFitness mission, so with all of the cycling-related content there’s a broad audience in there and I hope to be able to get more of this kind of educational style mind-matters writing out to the universe soon. Go well, great you ended up being in the main story for the MIND FOR MOUNTAINS article too! Regards, Rob

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