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Old 09-11-13, 08:32 AM   #1
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Stupid question: Blowing up - Mental Toughness or Physiological?

This is seriously a stupid question but I thought to ask as I've been thinking about it more and more.

Obviously fitness matters so let's assume the rider is at the fitness level where they know pain, have been training a few years and understand the jist of cycling.

When you're about to get "dropped" in a race or you feel like you're at the edge of your limits and your mind/body is telling you to throttle it back and ease up, is it feasibly that this can be overcome by just pushing through it mentally or is your body physiologically cooling down. So as I you get dropped and lose that wheel, is it your mind calling it quits or is it your body internally doing so?

I wonder if it's just mental toughness that can keep you in a race for the win or if its just lack of training/genes/etc? I know lactic acid, vo2max, etc all matter but do you think a rider generally hits the limits or is the mind calling it quits early?
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Old 09-11-13, 08:39 AM   #2
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I'm going to let a few others weigh in on this before I comment. Could lead to an interesting read.
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Old 09-11-13, 08:39 AM   #3
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IMO both physical ability and mental toughness are simply human characteristics. You can have a genetic predisposition for either, and you can train to improve either.

There are racers at all levels who get by with superior fitness and inferior mental toughness, or inferior fitness and superior mental toughness. The guys who have both, whether through predisposition or hard work, are the killers.
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Old 09-11-13, 08:53 AM   #4
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Both. There's Noake and the central governor theory stating that yourbody will shut down do protect itself from damage. There are ways to trick yourself to push for longer and or harder, but it may be 1-2% increase in performance at most (not that 1-2% isnt insignificant, but that you can't push beyond a certain point).

if you have a rabbit to chase down or are the rabbit getting chased, thre are studies showing that you can push just a bit harder. I believe there are also studies showing that when your performance is under reported by 1-2%, you can push just a bit harder. But there'a real barrier that you can't overcome no matter how mentally tough you are.
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Old 09-11-13, 09:02 AM   #5
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Lemond: It doesn't get easier, you just go faster.

Suffering is relative. There are people who are dropped before their limit, and people who are not. I would assume that most pros are not dropped before their limit, but they are not hurting any worse than some Cat 3 in Kansas trying to hang on at mile 65. Of course, the difference between your best climb time on some popular strava segment and the KOM time cannot be made up by pushing through your pain.

I had to learn where that pain thermometer would intersect with my actual limits. It's a great tool so I don't go burning a match when I don't mean to, or when I have a choice. My biggest moment of clarity for cycling pain came with the 3' all-out CP test. I know another BF-er started doing them regularly not just for testing, but also for suffering training.

One technique that has worked well for me was to not allow myself to give up during a hill/hard section. I can always keep pushing, even off the back, until it eases up and I get back into a rhythm. Once I'm back under control, and my head is straight, I can make a decision about continuing or not.

Lastly, if getting dropped in races is a regular/frequent thing for you, you're in the wrong category. You're in the wrong category for some combination of poor decision making, poor fitness, or being a pssy. All three can be corrected.

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Old 09-11-13, 09:23 AM   #6
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Old 09-11-13, 09:25 AM   #7
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It's definitely both. There's a fitness portion, or otherwise you would never start suffering and never get dropped. But there's definitely a mental side of it.

There's a number of times I look back at the data and I have no reason for getting dropped data wise. I just was suffering and I gave up too soon. Other days I feel good, can fight through the pain, and don't get dropped. Personally, if I allow myself to get dropped in races, I make sure I don't have an ounce of energy left and I can only coast back to the car. Otherwise I could have gone harder.

There's also the, if you give up too soon, you may miss the lull. Sometimes you just need to hang on an extra 5 to 10 seconds and the pace lulls and you can get comfortable again. Those are the times you need to HTFU and suffer through mentally.
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Old 09-11-13, 09:45 AM   #8
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If your brain is limiting your nervous system based on evolved "safety" limits, is that physical or mental?

Anyway, I've never been one much for "cracking". My power curve is a long smooth downward slope.
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Old 09-11-13, 09:49 AM   #9
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Success in athletic competition is about doing something amazing. IMO, athletes are very close in genetic ability after they have progressed through a program of sport. In cycling, most Categories are populated by racers of similar ability. And yes, there are notable exceptions where certain cyclists dominate local and regional pelotons as well as the UCI pro peloton.

I have two anecdotes from my racing experience that speak to mental toughness and self limiters.

I was going to do my first 40K ITT at the state championship. I was talking with the director of our elite 1/2 team who formerly rode for Webcor Builders when it was a domestic pro team. He said the key to a great 40K ITT is to break it down into 4x10K sections and each section tell yourself you raise your power just a little bit more. He liked Eric Wohlberg's description of what the last 10K should feel like. One should have the slight taste of blood in the mouth and know that no one has died feeling that bad. I ended up feeling really bad on the last 10K.

In a 2k pursuit, I was paired against a friend, one year older, former national pursuit champion and four time world sprint champion. We were competing for 3rd and a place on the podium. I kept telling myself over and over, you can do this. You can beat this guy. Just relax and let go. I had the race of my life and won by .17 seconds setting a PR by 4.5 seconds. I had the fastest closing lap that I have not been able to replicate since. I felt nothing on the ride - no pain, no suffering...nothing. When I stopped, I could not breathe and thought I would black out. I almost fell off the bike.

In both cases, I had a great performance. One has to wonder if feeling bad during the last 10K of the ITT was a self fulfilling prophecy or that I performed up to my potential. In the pursuit, there was nothing left.

IMO, all athletes are capable of amazing performances. One has to learn what it takes to have success. In my case, I need an amazing day to do well. Some athletes call this being in the zone. IMO, it is all mental. And creating the proper mental image and enabling your mind to let go are infinitely easier said than done.
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Old 09-11-13, 09:55 AM   #10
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As others have said, it's a mix of both.

My personal experience is that when I started to train and race for real, my mind was giving up way before my body. Some people can get over this just by pushing themselves solo, but for me it was a real help to ride with people that are stronger than I was. Either through their encouragement or my own desire not to get dropped, I started to push through that point where my mind was screaming at me to ease up. I got considerably better at walking 'the line' after a couple months of this. And, yes, I got faster but I think, more importantly, I learned to be ok with pain for much longer periods of time.

Eg: I was used to really only be capable of <= 5 minutes of real, hard, 100% effort and I (thought I) was cooked after that because I started to feel pain. Turns out I could actually do that sort of effort for considerably longer than that, and just needed some encouragement, or a rabbit, to find out.

That being said, it's a constant battle and sometimes (a lot of the times), no matter how mentally prepared I am to sit deep in a pain cave, my legs wont oblige to keep the power on and I get dropped. There is definitely a cliff. What has changed, though, is I'm now rarely the first one to get dropped during these sort of efforts.
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Old 09-11-13, 10:35 AM   #11
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Both. There's Noake and the central governor theory stating that yourbody will shut down do protect itself from damage. There are ways to trick yourself to push for longer and or harder, but it may be 1-2% increase in performance at most (not that 1-2% isnt insignificant, but that you can't push beyond a certain point).

if you have a rabbit to chase down or are the rabbit getting chased, thre are studies showing that you can push just a bit harder. I believe there are also studies showing that when your performance is under reported by 1-2%, you can push just a bit harder. But there'a real barrier that you can't overcome no matter how mentally tough you are.
I would say that the Noake's central governor theory argues that it's nearly 100% a mental deal. Your brain shuts down your body nearly always because of a semi-conscious/unconscious choice as a way to protect itself.

In boxing, Teddy Atlas called it the 'silent agreement'. The stronger boxer will 'agree' to not knock the other out and the weaker boxer will 'agree' to not fight too hard.

When you have to close a gap to stay with the group, your body is fighting with your brain. I think most people's brain is essentially lazy. It (subconsciously) wants to do the least amount of work. Your conscious intelligence fights against the subconscious. At some point there is a 'silent agreement' that happens which is your conscious saying, "OK, I won't push you any harder" and the subconscious will say, "Fine, I'll stop making you hurt." The trick is just never making that compromise. It's not an easy to do. I fail at it regularly.
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Old 09-11-13, 10:36 AM   #12
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Pacing is a big part for me also. Good pacing==good mental power
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Old 09-11-13, 12:43 PM   #13
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I would say that the Noake's central governor theory argues that it's nearly 100% a mental deal. Your brain shuts down your body nearly always because of a semi-conscious/unconscious choice as a way to protect itself.
It's probably why the question isnt so well worded as i think that's just semantics. Noakes deals with phydiological response from the brain. When is the pain response just a sensationvs when there are other down stream events going on.

Or alternatively in a sprint when you feel as if you cant push anymore due to legs getting heavy, that can be trained for a beginner, but after a certain point you just can't put out more power despite the fact that you are nowhere near to emptying your awc.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:05 PM   #14
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I was used to really only be capable of <= 5 minutes of real, hard, 100% effort and I (thought I) was cooked after that because I started to feel pain. Turns out I could actually do that sort of effort for considerably longer than that, and just needed some encouragement, or a rabbit, to find out.
FWIW, a real, hard, 100% effort always ends up at threshold. The first two minutes is exciting though (see all-out CP test thread linked above). It's very strange to be putting a 100% effort into each pedal stroke, like a robot, with a drooly pain face, body motion, etc., and seeing threshold on your display.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:24 PM   #15
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FWIW, a real, hard, 100% effort always ends up at threshold. The first two minutes is exciting though (see all-out CP test thread linked above). It's very strange to be putting a 100% effort into each pedal stroke, like a robot, with a drooly pain face, body motion, etc., and seeing threshold on your display.
Here's a different view of the same mind-F.

Prior to my heart surgery I had an aortic valve that had severe leakage and massive, thick walled heart. Now I have sound valves and a heart that is 50% smaller (just got measured yesterday, w00T!). After all sorts of riding, workouts, etc. and a _much_ improved cardiovascular system, I'm essentially at the same threshold as before. This is a head thing. I know I should be stronger. Physically, I am better than I was before. It can be easily measured. Regardless, my legs 'shut off' at about the same point. It's not like I feel pain and give up. At least not all the time. It's a deal where I'm pushing the pedals, but just not making the power. It's not in my heart...it's 12" north of that.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:27 PM   #16
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Pacing is a big part for me also. Good pacing==good mental power
Pacing yourself is a good way to get dropped. You have to be willing to go over the level that's comfortable and mentally 'there' to allow it. I've been dropped from many rides and I've ditched plenty of workouts. I've never been unable to ride home from either. There's a lesson there. What you think is your limit is not.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:35 PM   #17
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The question (and some answers) assumes that what is being called "mental toughness" and "physiology" are separate systems, when they are not. The mind-body distinction is a false one; from end to end, your athletic performance has components in the muscular system, circulatory system, nervous system, and so on. We are conscious of some elements of our nervous control system. Other elements, we are not. And just as we vary in the relative potential of our various power systems for anaerobic, aerobic work, we vary in the relative potential in the nervous control element as well.

Okay, so that's a bit heady. My point is that most of us do not discover our maximum capacity until we are put into a very high-motivation situation, i.e. being the rabbit or having a rabbit, as echapp puts it. It's very hard for most of us to access that motivation in a solo training situation, so it's hard to really force adaptations in your ability to suffer without really building some experience with it in situations where you have that motivation. Typically, that's a race. I don't think most of us know how deep we need to/can go in training without experiencing the kind of suffering you do in a race situation.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes, there is a limit, but it's a limit on a unified system that includes muscles, nerve fibers, circulatory elements and CNS components, some of which we have conscious awareness and control over and some of which we do not. It's kind of like the classic question of "leg muscles or lungs, which fails first?" which similarly fails to understand that these are both components plugged into a common system. For this reason, I don't especially like putting it as mental toughness, though I don't know that I can suggest a more apt phrase. "Mental toughness" sounds like an immutable component of personality to me, rather than a trainable system.

It doesn't matter to me whether I'm hitting the limit because the motor neurons in my legs are frazzled, or my muscle cells are coughing up cytoplasm or because I was just hurting too bad; whatever the case, my power drops and that's kind of the bottom line. What I can learn is what component(s) I need to train to get stronger and maybe not get dropped next time.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:37 PM   #18
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Prediction: Nibali will not win the Vuelta. I bet he is the strongest rider physically, but I think he's suffering mentally. This does not necessarily mean that Horner will win, but what I've been reading about Nibali is not the winner's confidence that it takes to hold his lead. There are 4 possible winners, but my call is that it won't be the guy in the lead right now, unless they're doing a conscious 'slow play', which is a very dangerous game.

It will be interesting.
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Old 09-11-13, 01:46 PM   #19
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Prediction: Nibali will not win the Vuelta. I bet he is the strongest rider physically, but I think he's suffering mentally. This does not necessarily mean that Horner will win, but what I've been reading about Nibali is not the winner's confidence that it takes to hold his lead. There are 4 possible winners, but my call is that it won't be the guy in the lead right now, unless they're doing a conscious 'slow play', which is a very dangerous game.

It will be interesting.
Red herring. His manager stated that he's probably missing 15-20w. Even if that werent true, winner's confidence? The man won a tough Giro and won a hard fought Vuelta in 2010. He may have very bad tactics in the classics, but the man is a winner. Did we forget that he took the fight to Froome in Tirreno?
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The question (and some answers) assumes that what is being called "mental toughness" and "physiology" are separate systems, when they are not. The mind-body distinction is a false one; from end to end, your athletic performance has components in the muscular system, circulatory system, nervous system, and so on. We are conscious of some elements of our nervous control system. Other elements, we are not. And just as we vary in the relative potential of our various power systems for anaerobic, aerobic work, we vary in the relative potential in the nervous control element as well.

Okay, so that's a bit heady. My point is that most of us do not discover our maximum capacity until we are put into a very high-motivation situation, i.e. being the rabbit or having a rabbit, as echapp puts it. It's very hard for most of us to access that motivation in a solo training situation, so it's hard to really force adaptations in your ability to suffer without really building some experience with it in situations where you have that motivation. Typically, that's a race. I don't think most of us know how deep we need to/can go in training without experiencing the kind of suffering you do in a race situation.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes, there is a limit, but it's a limit on a unified system that includes muscles, nerve fibers, circulatory elements and CNS components, some of which we have conscious awareness and control over and some of which we do not. It's kind of like the classic question of "leg muscles or lungs, which fails first?" which similarly fails to understand that these are both components plugged into a common system. For this reason, I don't especially like putting it as mental toughness, though I don't know that I can suggest a more apt phrase. "Mental toughness" sounds like an immutable component of personality to me, rather than a trainable system.

It doesn't matter to me whether I'm hitting the limit because the motor neurons in my legs are frazzled, or my muscle cells are coughing up cytoplasm or because I was just hurting too bad; whatever the case, my power drops and that's kind of the bottom line. What I can learn is what component(s) I need to train to get stronger and maybe not get dropped next time.
+1. Distinction btwn Body and the mind is perhaps a misnomer here. Brain science is physiology at the end of the day, albeit a branch of physiology still not well understood.
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Pacing yourself is a good way to get dropped. You have to be willing to go over the level that's comfortable and mentally 'there' to allow it. I've been dropped from many rides and I've ditched plenty of workouts. I've never been unable to ride home from either. There's a lesson there. What you think is your limit is not.
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3 min long hill? By all means, bite the bullet and dont get dropped. 20 min long hill? You probably will blow up trying to stay with stronger riders
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Old 09-11-13, 02:07 PM   #20
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I've often felt that I could do better in some cases if I could get past the pain. I even did some research into how to increase one's pain threshold. (This led me to some videos on youtube of martial arts guys getting kicked full force in the nuts.)

One thing that helps me is concentrating on my HR monitor. I try to concentrate on metrics that indicate what my body is doing, rather than the pain I'm experiencing. This not only distracts me, but helps me realize, "yes, I can go harder, I've done it before at this HR".
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Old 09-11-13, 02:08 PM   #21
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Mental toughness can maximize your physiological capacities, but mental toughness cannot overcome your physiological limitations.

If mental toughness could do that then everyone would have a pretty good chance of turning pro. We could all do 30 pull ups, right now. We could all run 50 meters in 5 seconds, right now. We could all run a marathon in 2 hours, right now.

How do you "overcome" your body's limits? You cannot. You either can or you cannot.

If all it took was mental strength to go hard then every pro race would end in a field sprint, even the mountain stages.
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Old 09-11-13, 02:32 PM   #22
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This is a very interesting discussion and one that I've thought about a lot while training.

It's interesting to me, especially when I feel like I couldn't possibly have held onto that wheel, or gone any faster over that flying lap, but then you look back on it a few minutes later and think, well, I feel fine now, maybe I had a little bit more in me, maybe I could've pushed that little bit extra, why didn't I?

johnybuts has (or had) a quote in their sig about it that I think about sometimes. "I'm sure when you were getting to the point of blowing nothing was obvious but making the pain stop...I don't know about you but after the fact I always look back at those moments and think 'why didn't I just keep going' but at the time there wasn't enough oxygen on the planet to make me take one more pedal stroke."
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Old 09-11-13, 02:54 PM   #23
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I've ridden myself to dangerous levels of dehydration. I've fought against that voice to give up and quit most races I've been in.

I'm pretty fearful that the first time I listen to it, I'll find it easy and justifiable and then I'll concede more easily the next time.
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Old 09-11-13, 03:28 PM   #24
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If your brain is limiting your nervous system based on evolved "safety" limits, is that physical or mental?
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I would say that the Noake's central governor theory argues that it's nearly 100% a mental deal. Your brain shuts down your body nearly always because of a semi-conscious/unconscious choice as a way to protect itself.
Good stuff. Iirc Noakes did accept that for efforts which are done at maximum heart rate that there may be purly physiological limits (the heart can only pump so fast even if the brain is telling it to go faster). For pretty much all other cases he claims there are physiological regulators holding back muscle activation for safety reasons.
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Old 09-11-13, 03:49 PM   #25
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Some people can suffer better than others, no doubt.

The question (to me) is, can you teach yourself to suffer better?

Whenever I'm in the process of getting dropped, I remind myself to push harder, which works for about one or two seconds, then reality catches back up and I'm in offthebackistan. Maybe eventually I can push for an extra 5-10 seconds but without getting stronger it's hard to imagine just "pushing through" pain like that.
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