A couple of weeks ago, I took part in my first cycling holiday at the Gerona Cycling Festival. One of the events run by the festival was a timed hill climb.
On the day, the weather was terrible, cold, wet and miserable. It made me very anxious.
Not really for the climb itself, although the start was ‘TT style’ in front of a crowd which had my nerves jangling; but it was the descent afterwards that really pushed my buttons.
Obviously, what goes up, must come down and the descent played on my mind the whole time from the moment I awoke in the morning, to the wait for my start time, all the way up the climb and the wait and lunch at the top.
It was at the point of waiting for my start time at the bottom, I posted in the VeloVixen Facebook chat group to share my anxiety and ask others how they coped with theirs.
It gave me a great idea to write this article as there are always times when we feel anxiety taking over and it can sometimes lead to us enjoying our ride or losing confidence at the most inopportune moments on our bikes.
“I can’t do it”, “I’m going to fall”, “I’ll hold everyone up”
So I thought I’d share how I managed my anxiety that day and give a few good Positive Psychology tips to working with your own anxiety in the future.
In addition, I’ll share some of the thoughts of fellow Vixen’s who kindly took the time to let us know how they cope with anxiety in cycling.
The day of the hillclimb was the first day on the bikes for our holiday and we had to cycle from our accommodation to the bottom of the climb - which wasn’t actually too far, but with slippery roads on bikes we hadn’t ridden before and a slight detour from getting lost it meant my anxiety had grown a little further by the time we arrived at the start line of Els Angels.
Now, for me - I handle my anxiety in way that might annoy others - I become a bit talkative, a bit over-excited and I probably feel like an annoying puppy that won’t leave you alone!
But I recognise that now, so I try to find ways to direct this energy into something that won’t frustrate others.
Luckily, the start line involved the hustle and bustle of excitement AND they were playing relatively loud music.
If I asked you NOT to think about orange spotted kiwi fruits, what are you thinking about?
So I took myself off to right beside the start and cheered each person loudly whilst expressing the excess adrenaline and energy in dance form!
Staying on the dance theme, I remember always being given the ‘dance floor’ analogy in training courses:
“There are those who are always first on the dance floor, those who wait for that first person, those who wait to be asked and those who shy away full stop - always give room for others”.
Well, in all honesty, my excessive energy and dancing meant others naturally joined in with the cheering and the atmosphere became even more special.
Gear to help keep you calm
Equally, this also meant that by the time my start arrived all of my group had already been and gone, so the organisers encouraged those who were still at the bottom to show me the energy I had shown others and help me on my way with some cheers.
Jeni at the start of the hill climb - between dances!
Sometimes there are benefits to my anxious behaviour! I made friends that day…
Anyway, the climb itself is something I’ve never experienced before - we don’t have hills like that here in Bedfordshire!
My dancing hadn’t really been the best way to conserve my energy and my legs screamed at me for the first 2.5km but with the help of careful placed cheerleaders along the route and my girls waiting near the finish line to encourage a fast finish I crossed the line chuffed to bits - even more so when I discovered I’d managed to get 2nd spot on the podium in my age category.
Jeni (left) on the podium, having overcome her hill climb uncertainties
Whilst at the top, the rain came down harder.
The longer we waited for food to be served, the more I became anxious again about the descent.
I don’t tend to go out in the wet much at home, so my experience of wet, slick roads is minimal - let alone with 10% drops here and there.
I was telling myself “I can’t do it”, “I’m going to fall”, “I’ll hold everyone up”.
I managed this by giving myself reasons each one of those statements wasn’t true: “How do you know you can’t? You’re a good cyclist, stay controlled and concentrate, you’ll be fine”, “You won’t fall if you’re careful, you have good tyres and disc brakes” and “It doesn’t matter if I hold people up if I am safe”.
This helped me feel more in control of my experience and the descent, although cold and hard work on the brakes - went without a hitch.
There are many reasons we may feel anxiety with our cycling - through fear of the danger, performance anxiety or anxieties driven by the stories we tell ourselves. So here are 6 ways that you may find help if you find the anxiety train pulling into your station:
1. Respond to your physical cues
Notice next time how your body is responding. Where do you feel the anxiety? How does it manifest in your body?
Maybe a tightening in your chest, or a clenching of fists - each of you will have a different physical response and sometimes this physical response can show up just before you really start thinking about the anxiety.
The good old ‘fight or flight’ response is a primitive one, our bodies produce adrenaline, giving us that shooting feeling in our stomachs, our digestive system shuts down, so you may feel indigestion or ‘butterflies’ and our muscle start to tighten - hence the clenching of fists or feeling of stress in our muscles.
So my advice is to start looking for those early physical cues in your body so that you can respond quicker and use any coping technique (maybe from one below) you may know works for you.
2. What exactly is making you nervous?
Notice if it is something ’specific’ about the situation that is triggering this anxiety.
Many of you said that you’re not always sure why you’re anxious - especially when it’s something you’ve done before; so what’s different?
Maybe it’s something subtle, like a poorly timed comment from a friend or stranger? Or an individuals’ behaviour is different? Or like me, the weather conditions.
If you can pinpoint the exact element that is making you anxious, you have greater control on how you deal with it.
3. Contradict yourself
If I asked you NOT to think about orange spotted kiwi fruits, what are you thinking about?
I suspect you’ve pictured kiwi fruits with orange spots.
Our brains don’t recognise the ’not’ in this situation, so trying NOT to think about something will only make you think about it more - so don’t fight it.
Ask yourself “What is the story I’m telling myself here?” So let’s say the answer is “I can’t do this!” - then the next question is simple: “Is that true?”.
99% of the time, the answer is NO, it’s not true.
(If it is genuinely 'Yes', then thank your body for sending the right message and take the appropriate action).
From here, simply give yourself at least 3 REASONS why it’s not true:
- “I have trained and prepared well for this”
- “I have completed something similar in the past”
- (maybe) “I really want to complete the challenge”
4. Be realistic
By disputing your original story, you’re writing yourself a new one - develop it as your mantra: “I can do this”.
Blind positivity - i.e. just saying “I can do this” without evidence - is just silly.
By disputing your original story with the evidence as to why it’s not true (your preparation, your previous achievements and your desire to achieve this) you are able to truly believe in the positivity you are creating.
This is definitive difference between ‘positive thinking’ and ‘positive psychology’ - evidence based thinking.
5. Bite-sized chunks
Break down the challenge you’re facing.
If you’re sitting in the car park at the beginning of a sportive, look at all the things you have to do to get the finish line and give yourself small steps to move towards it.
This way you have very small, manageable challenges and getting to each one gives a sense of achievement and drive to move forwards to the next.
- Get out of the car and get changed;
- Go to the toilet and get race pack;
- Check bike over;
- Get to the start line;
- Simply pedal over the start line;
- Get to first feed station;
- Stay in zone 2 for heart rate;
- … etc. etc.
6. Channel your worries!
Use your anxious energy wisely! Like in my example, I decided to dance!
Maybe you could do some stretching, cheer on some others, go for a walk or have a simple shake out. Find something that works for you!
And if none of these resonate with you, here are some suggestions from fellow Vixens:
Jodie - "Deep breath and go for it...for some things I actually shut my eyes and then realise how stupid that is!”
Michele - “I get more excited rather than anxious. Best tips I can give is, make sure you know where the venue is, your start time etc. Lay out your kit the night before, I tend to lay out a good weather kit and a wet weather kit. Make sure you have looked at the route and know where there are stops, climbs etc.
"The better you prepaid the less you should worry. Finally remember that everyone else is probably feeling the same."
Harri - "I give myself no-nonsense but positive pep talks (pre and mid race) and if I find my mind is wandering when I need to be in the moment (eg overthinking on a sketchy descent) I repeat ‘flow’ in my head to bring me back to the moment (as in cycling flow, when you’re totally immersed and in control).
"My motto has been feel the fear and do it anyway for three years now and I’ve achieved a huge amount that I never thought I would! Staying in the moment is definitely the key thing when doing something that challenges you on a bike.”
Cara - "I don’t race but I do suffer from anxiety. Knowing where the loo is helps. Talking to myself, running through times tables to occupy my brain, fresh air rather than air con when driving.
"I also struggle “waiting” so always try to time leaving/ arriving to the last minute which invariably means I’m late. I must be so annoying as a friend!”
If you’d like to add yours to the mix or read other responses, you can see my original post here.
About Jeni Sanderson: Jeni is a Positive Change Consultant specialising in using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry to energise positive change in both individuals and organisations. She offers life coaching for those looking to find clarity or to ‘discover their positive core’ in order to flourish and is a keen cyclist both on and off road, competing with our very own Fran in the Central Cyclocross league and enjoys the road and trails as well. when not working or on the bike, she spends time with her husband and daughter in a village just outside Bedford. You can find out more about Jeni on her website: www.jenisanderson.com