For many cyclists power is where it’s at. Investments in expensive power meters with complex outputs measuring effort to the nth degree. Labourious toil in the gym working those quads or calves or whatever it is those guys do in there. But the cyclist’s real power is not found in bulging thighs, but in the head. No one is getting anywhere in bike racing without plenty of willpower.
I have skinny thighs - but worse, very little willpower. Lazy is my middle name.
At the start of a race you’ll always find me at the back of the bunch. The service car practically has to nudge me along, so reluctant am I to get going. The first 10 minutes always feel too fast to me. Don’t these guys know we’ve got plenty of time to do that? Why not leave the racing to the last possible moment, when we finally, absolutely have to?
Fortunately for me new scientific studies have shown that lack of willpower is not a sign that I lack character or grit, but that it’s just a general evolutionary flaw of the brain. The human prefrontal cortex – the bit of the brain that handles willpower – is underdeveloped, and is often overwhelmed by excess stimuli.
In an experiment by one Professor Baba Shiv at Stanford University a group of students was divided in half – the first group given a two digit number to remember, whilst the other group was given a seven digit number. Once memorised, the students were asked to walk to another room where they were offered either a slice of chocolate cake or a helping of fruit salad. The majority of those with only two digits clogging up their brains opted for the fruit salad. Those that were still grappling with the task of hanging onto seven digits were more likely to forget any thoughts of expanding waistlines and went with the cake.
According to Professor Shiv this little experiment showed that adding even just a small load onto the brain can impede its ability to resist a naughty but nice dessert. Our prefrontal cortexes really are that puny. This would go some way to explain why it’s hard get motivated for that ‘hour of power’ turbo session after a long stressful day at work.
However, other studies have shown that one way to cope with our feeble willpower is distraction – if you’re able to forget the burn in your legs and lungs long enough, and not think about the hour and 35km of training ride still to go, then you’re more likely to last the course. That’s why I think it always helps to train in a group made up of attractive members of the opposite sex – in such a context distraction is most certainly your ally, and in more ways than one.
Last year, at our annual prize-giving, a club mate made a statement that summed up willpower for me. There in the pub at the end of the evening, when all the fit dedicated athletes had long since gone home, he declared with pint in hand “You know, all these guys that won all the prizes tonight – they’re not so great. They’re nothing special. I could do that. Maybe next year. All I need to do is give up drinking, and train a bit more.”
That guy immediately became my cycling hero, and that insight has since become my personal mantra.