When you first start cycling, the pain you feel in your body appears to be binary. Lungs or legs. On your first proper climb, both clamour for attention. Eventually, one will speak a bit louder or persuasively, and you’ll give up. Although “it doesn’t get any easier”, your body deals with pain much differently when your fitness improves. Less weaker links. A unified front. Your body starts resembling a factory, with every organ stepping up to the assembly line and contributing to the effort.

But aside from improving your fitness, is there a way to gain a hint of control over the suffering?

Pain face

There is a point in every race when a rider encounters the real opponent and realizes that it’s…himself

Lance Armstrong

A tell for when things are getting tough, even for the best cyclists in the world, is a tightening of facial muscles, nicknamed ‘pain face’. We can’t get in their heads, but it’s clear there is some serious shouting going on in there. Jens Voigt, famous hard man explains the dialogue in third person:

Body: “I can’t do it anymore.

Brain: “Shut up body, do what I tell you!”

Body: “I can’t do it.. I want to pull over now.

Brain: “Keep going. I want you to do what I tell you!

It sounds like a joke, but “Shut up legs” likely went viral because of how familiar (and painful) this inner battle is to most cyclists.

The Smiling Horse

“Everybody tells me that I never look as if I’m suffering.”

Miguel Induráin

Maybe some pro cyclists possess prenatural mental skills that allow them to more easily relax under a huge workload. One example of such a rider is Miguel ‘Big Mig’ Induráin. He still endured a lot of pain, but he believed his “strength was that I am more balanced and calmer than most other riders.” Miguel had a tremendously strong physique, but maybe his mind was like a giant hay bale, and he’s essentially a galloping horse (with a horse sized heart) until the finish line. Another example of ‘relaxed effort’ is the marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge, famous for smiling while smashing records. “When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to not feel your legs.”

Two birds, one stone

“It means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way.

Phil (six rings) Jackson

Since most of us aren’t as calm or strong as Induráin, are we stuck shouting at our own legs? I’ve definitely begged and pleaded my body to do things differently, but to be honest, I’ve always felt a bit ashamed doing so. Can’t my mind and body get along? Can’t we get up the hill together?

When I’m able to fully clear my mind of distractions and pedal freely, I can hear my legs and they are usually quite happy. The legs are working: they are pistons in the engine room of the Titanic, but they are not weeping and wailing. The mind is doing the weeping and wailing for them. In fact, they are pleased with the warmth of the sun and as long as I promise them some carbs, water, and a rest in the evening, they could think of nothing else they’d rather be doing.

Mindful exercise: It’s common advice to have ‘light hands’ while climbing. A death grip can make you tense up, and use unnecessary muscles and energy. Try visualizing two baby ‘chicks’, one in each of your palms, where the hoods would be. Don’t let them go (you’ve got to return them to the mother hen at the summit), but don’t squeeze them too hard. You’ll notice your attention quickly drift off. Return to the chicks, and hopefully they are still alive when you bring them back into your attention. Repeat until you make it to the top.

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