Hard to believe I know but we can get stronger, fitter, faster and more skilful on our bikes just by thinking about it.
Whether you refer to it as mental imagery, motor imagery, mental rehearsal or by any other name, the concept of thinking our way to success has been around for a long time and is standard practice amongst the worlds best. The guys in Cool Runnings practicing bobsleigh in the bath might seem weird but:
How often do you see a 100m runner standing on the start line with their eyes closed or starring at the end of the track?
How often do you see a Formula 1 driver sitting in their car on the starting grid with their eyes closed or starring down the track?
How often do you see an elite level golfer or snooker player or pool player practice a shot away from the ball before they play the shot?
For evidence it’s used in mountain biking, you won’t have to work your way through many of Rachel Atherton’s clips before seeing her sitting on the ground with her eyes closed practicing the race route she is about to take with her head and hands following the corners (they seem to put in a scene virtually every other film).
How does it work?
Motor imagery (I’m using the term ‘motor imagery’ here because we’re focused on improving movement rather than, for example, reducing pain or preparing for an interview) works because within our brains, groups of brain cells (which we’ll refer to as neurotags) activate together to allow us to move or recall memories or thoughts etc. Like anything in life, if we practice doing something we get better at it and if we practice activating these neurotags they get stronger and faster and their influence grows.
If we use jumping as an illustrative example, when we get to the jump we need to do certain things in a certain order to get us and the bike airborne. As the front wheel of the bike rises up the transition we will shift our weight towards the back of the bike and drive down with our legs to compress the bike into the take off. By shifting our weight on the bike we get an optimal trajectory for our jump and by compressing the bike into the jump we generate energy to optimise the distance of our jump. This series of specific actions takes hours of practice to master but they’re ultimately controlled by the same neurotag firing at the right time in the right order each time we do it. The interesting bit for us is that research has shown neurotags can be activated not just by doing the action (in our example jumping) but also by thinking about the action.
How do we do it?
The key to harnessing the power of motor imagery is achieving sufficient intensity of the imagined experience. If you get motor imagery right your heart rate will increase and you will be physically tired by the end of it! If you watch any of the Rachel Atherton clips I mentioned above, when she gets to the end and opens her eyes she starts shaking her arms and hands and moving her legs to ease the tension she’s built up…..it’s physically hard work!
The big thing to focus on is the sensory and emotional experience of the action/technique etc you’re practicing. If we think back to our jumping example, we’d imagine rolling up to the jump feeling the vibration as we roll along the trail through the bars and pedals and thinking about the feel of the speed we’re travelling at. As the front wheel hits the transition we’d think about the bike pressing against our hands, moving our bodyweight back on the bike with the pressure going through our hands and feet changing, the feel of our ankle and hip positions changing, the tension in our thigh muscles as we extend our legs to compress the bike into the jump, we feel pressure release first under the front wheel and then under the back wheel as they leave the jump and the feeling of lightness and rush of adrenaline as we’ve got the jump spot on…….and so it continues.
Like any technique, motor imagery takes time to get good at and practice is the only way to achieve it. Once you’ve developed this skill though it will exponentially increase you’re ability to develop your riding as well as any other area of your life in which you choose to use it.
If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite