Coach Hughes: Cycling Mental Training pt. 5
John Hughes cycling training home
John Hughes cycling training coaching
Resources by John Hughes cycling coaching
Resources for older cyclists by John Hughes seniors cycling coaching
Clients on John Hughes cycling coaching
John Hughes cycling resume
Book by John Hughes on endurance cycling training
Why hire a coach like John Hughes
Contact John Hughes about coaching for cycling training
Hughes cycling training coaching friends

Intelligent Cycling Training—Mental

Part 5: Visualizing an Event

My neck was getting tired from the weight of my helmet and I could feel the rain dripping off my nose. My back was stiff and my legs were hurting. And I was getting sleepy. I wasn’t quite sure what time it was—2 a.m.? I spotted a country store with a covered porch, pedaled over, and lifted my bike out of the rain. I sat on the porch, slowly chewing an energy bar, and went through my stretching routine. After 10 minutes, I got back on my bike and pedaled into the rainy night.

by Coach John Hughes

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging: 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process and of the book Distance Cycling. He has written 40 articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for More about Coach Hughes.
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

Mental Training Techniques: Relax, Breathe, Do Nothing Extra
Part 1: Calming the Emotions
Part 2: Gathering Energy
Part 3: Managing Pain
Part 4: Creating a Positive Attitude
Part 5: Visualizing an Event

This is from an August, 1992 visualization of the first night of Boston-Montreal-Boston (BMB). I was wearing my helmet and sitting outside in the rain—yep, a little weird—but the physical stimuli improved the visualization of riding a course I’d never seen. Two weeks later, I flew to Boston and started the race. That night, as I got to my low point, I could feel my eyes drooping, my tired neck, my stiff back. Familiar sensations. And then I spotted the country store, ate, stretched, and pedaled into the dry night (I can’t foresee everything!).

In the last four columns we’ve learned simply to breathe to:

  • calm the emotions
  • gather energy
  • manage pain
  • create a positive attitude
The key is simply to breathe. Relax, breathe, and do nothing extra.

Now we continue this process to visualize an event.

Visualization is not a dress rehearsal, a cognitive process, but feeling the sensations associated with an event. Visualization takes place below the neck, not above the neck.

Effective visualization starts with quieting the conscious mind, just breathing and relaxing. If you are relaxed, the quality of your images will be stronger.

Tune into each of your senses as you imagine standing at the starting line. Feel the top tube resting against your leg and the slight tightness in your stomach. See the collage of colors, not quite in focus, and hear the nervous chatter. Take a sip of your sports drink and taste it as you swallow. Using physical cues will help to move you in your imagination from your chair to your bike.

Be dynamic. Imagine riding your bike along the course during the event. Don’t think about it, but feel the sensations as you move. Feel the wind and smell the cows. Feel your legs hurt a bit as you try to hang on up a hill and feel your back flatten as you become aero for the descent.

Be positive in your images. Ride the event the way you want to ride it. Climb smoothly. Carve the turns on the descents. Move efficiently through the controls. You get what you imagine.

No event goes perfectly. We get droopy eyed, we have flats, we develop saddle sores. Although you want to focus on the positive in a visualization, allow the negatives to happen. Get used to the feelings associated with the negatives. Feel the frustration of getting dropped because of a flat tire, feel yourself getting calmer as you fix the flat, and then feel your legs accelerating back up to race pace. Allow the negatives to occur, but finish on a positive note.

Visualization is not about anticipating problems and problem-solving (although you may do a bit of that.) Visualization is a way of previewing the physical and emotional sides of a ride so that they are familiar. In the event when you get droopy eyed at 2 a.m., you’ll feel like this is a familiar experience, manageable rather than worrisome. Thus, you won’t waste precious energy fretting about something negative—you’ll accept the occurrence and the feelings.

Visualization is another way of learning to ride in the present. To feel the sensations of riding when you are riding at your best.

Visualization is about the details. Try to imagine as much of the ride as you can. For anything longer than a 40 km time trial, you can’t imagine each instant. Try to work progressively through each part of the course, feeling all of the sensations associated with the flat, windy section, before moving on to your favorite part, powering up the big climb.

With practice, you can spend up to an hour visualizing an event. I’ve found that if an event takes more than 12 hours to complete, then it’s best to divide it into sections and visualize each section on successive days. For BMB, I did five visualizations: day one, night one, day two, night two, day three. I repeated the full sequence twice.

Like the other mental skills, visualization improves with practice. Don’t wait until the week before Paris-Brest-Paris to try to use your imagination. By then, you may be so full of anxiety that all you can imagine is getting lost in France!

This season we have learned five ways of using breathing to:

  • calm the emotions
  • gather energy
  • manage pain
  • create a positive attitude
  • visualize an event

Breathing and relaxation are the foundation of the other techniques. At a minimum practice conscious breathing. First, just be aware of the rhythm of your breath. Once you feel the rhythm, then focus on the in-breath. Finally, use the breathing to relax.

Over the course of the season you’ve learned which techniques you need most. Maybe your mind is often filled with negative chatter. Then you can develop a list of power words that you can use in these situations.

You can apply these techniques in many areas. For example, I have a date tonight. Before I drive into town, I’ll spend a few minutes breathing, getting centered, letting go of the tensions of work, and creating a positive attitude.

Learn to use the power of breathing to gather and direct your energy down the road.

Mental Training Techniques: Relax, Breath, Do Nothing Extra
Part 1: Calming the Emotions
Part 2: Gathering Energy
Part 3: Managing Pain
Part 4: Creating a Positive Attitude
Part 5: Visualizing an Event

More Information

  • Mastering the Mental — How to prepare for the inevitable mental challenges and how to deal with them on a ride of 100 km or longer. 17 pages for $4.99 from
  • Stopping Cycling’s Showstoppers — How to prevent and if necessary deal with anything that would force you to stop a ride. 65 pages for $14.95 from
  • Other articles by Coach Hughes


  • Lynch, Jerry. & A. H. Chungliang, Working Out, Working Within, Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, 1998
  • Miller, Saul & P. M. Hill, Sport Psychology for Cyclists, VeloPress, Boulder, CO, 1999
  • Young, Shinzen, Meditation in the Zone (audiotape), Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 1996

Originally printed in UltraCycling