Train Your Brain

The biggest obstacle to reaching your fitness goals? That thing between your ears.

Feb 15, 2011
Outside Magazine
Vande Velde

Vande Velde at the 2010 Tour de France, after another crash    Photo: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

Head Gains
Pro athletes know how to tap the power of the mind to achieve their goals. Here's why you should, too.

AFTER RIDING TO a surprising fourth-place finish at the 2008 Tour de France, Christian Vande Velde looked like the next big thing in American cycling. But the following season, his ambitions were laid low by a brutal crash in the Giro d'Italia, and then they were quashed again in 2010 by a string of race-ending accidents. "It was tough," the 34-year-old Vande Velde admits. "It killed my motivation, and I considered hanging it up."

If Vande Velde had let his career coast to a halt, no one would have blamed him. Many everyday athletes, especially those who aren't paid to perform, lose their drive over smaller hitches than that, from nagging injuries to boredom and burnout. "Most athletes come up against a mental roadblock like this at some point," says Julie Emmerman, a psychologist who works with riders on Vande Velde's team, Garmin-Cervélo. "The question then becomes how to rekindle the fire."

For most of us, the biggest barrier is motivation—getting started on a training plan and then staying hooked. (Just ask anyone who's made a New Year's resolution to get fit.) For dedicated athletes, the mind is also a key to better performance. According to Steven Ungerleider, author of Mental Training for Peak Performance, Eastern European athletes have been using formal mental training to help them excel since at least the 1960s, and by the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, 83 percent of all athletes were using some form of it—visualization, positive self-talk, mind-clearing relaxation tricks, and goal setting—as part of their regimen.

It's not just psychobabble; it's science. The brain helps dictate motivation and energy levels by secreting peptides, which communicate with the cells in various parts of the body. According to cell biologist Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, by consciously changing your thought processes, you can control the messages your brain sends and override your body's natural reflexes to shut down under stress. And countless studies have shown that mentally rehearsing an action—from a basketball shot to a climbing sequence—can improve your game. "There is a lot of research on how mental imagery—self-talk and various other psychological skills and training programs—are very powerful in affecting performance," says Joe Powers, executive director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

Too bad most everyday athletes miss out. Though many of us reap huge rewards from technology and training techniques that originated with elite athletes, few amateurs take full advantage of the mental tools that pros use to power through intense workouts, spur motivation, and stay focused during competition. And, no, this doesn't mean you need to see a sports shrink to improve your time in a local 5K. There are simple techniques that can help you set solid goals, have confidence in your plan, stay positive, and have more fun.

The latter was Vande Velde's key. Last summer, at the end of his disastrous season, he entered one more race, the Vuelta a España. There was no pressure to win, allowing him to savor the experience. "By the end I was actually having fun," he remembers. He took a five-week hiatus from the bike to reboot his enthusiasm and has set a new goal—the 2012 Olympics—restructuring his schedule to allow for more time training near his family. "I'm not planning on watching the big races on TV again this year; I'm going to be in them," he says. "And that gets me excited to tweak my training, to perfect my form, and, at the end of the day, to get out there and race."

The same goes for you. The right attitude can make or break your chances at any fitness goal—helping you gain momentum, maximize your performance, and ultimately stay in it for the long haul. The first step is to harness the most powerful tool at your disposal.