5 Mental Strategies To Outwit Gravity

The secret to better climbing may be all in your head. By Jon Marcus


Photography By Nick Muzik

Occasionally, when he was riding his bike, Dan Freedman would find himself on a stretch of road that confounded him. It looked steep, yet he’d fly to the top. Then, when he thought he was cresting it, his legs would still be screaming. Every cyclist probably has a story like this – but Freedman isn’t just any cyclist. He’s a physicist, who eventually­ concluded that the trouble with his hill wasn’t gravity; it was psychology. The surrounding trees were growing at an angle that created an optical ­illusion that fooled his brain into thinking the terrain should have been levelling out. “Cyclists talk about power-to-weight ratios,” says Robert Swoap, PhD, a professor of sports psychology. “But they fail to consider the psychological aspects.” Try these mental tricks to increase your slope savvy.


“If you’re afraid of a hill,” says Swoap, “you’re more likely to want to get it over with.” You might wind up attacking it too hard and too early, and wear out too soon.


“Negative thoughts become self-defeating behaviour,” says Ileana Sisson, a psychotherapist and cycling coach. Come up with your own version of Jens Voigt’s famous “Shut up, legs!” mantra.

RELATED: The 10 Rules Of Better Climbing


The best competitors stay in the moment, Swoap says. They’re not thinking “How am I going to make it to the top?” Instead they focus on immediate concerns, like “What cadence do I want right now? How is my breathing? Are my shoulders relaxed?”


Break a climb into manageable chunks, says Kevin Dessart, director of coaching education and athlete development at USA Cycling. Picture crossing each segment off a list as you complete it.


Here’s a chance to use a visual illusion to your advantage: Instead of gazing towards the top of a hill, direct your gaze towards the shortest safe distance ahead of your front wheel. “When you look down at the road,” Dessart says, “it seems level.”

RELATED: 6 Steps to Faster and Easier Climbing

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One Response to 5 Mental Strategies To Outwit Gravity

  1. Rindy October 10, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    This is so true. I always battle with hills although I have only been riding my bike for just over a year and am 59 yrs old. When I look just in front of me it definately is better.

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