How Tuning Into Your Five Senses Can Pay Off in Performance Gains
If you’re a cyclist that rides to race, or even just to see improvement in your fitness level and endurance, you’re probably pretty focused on all that data you have at your fingertips. Between a power meter, heart rate monitor, devices that constantly feed you speed and cadence, odds are you look at your stats on a steady basis. And while, of course, numbers do have a role in your performance—especially if you’re chasing faster speeds and finish times—there’s a time and place for those tools.
If you want to get the most out of your efforts, there’s also value in tuning out the data and tuning into your five senses. Paying attention to your sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste not only keeps you safe on the bike, but tapping into these sensations regularly can give you a better understanding of yourself as an athlete. Ultimately, a regular sensory practice on the bike can also lead to improved performance.
“It’s important to let go of your gadgets here and there,” says Justin Ross, Psy.D., a Denver-based clinical psychologist specialising in sports performance. “When you’re overly focused on the data, you can lose sight of your connection to movement and the environment around you.”
Ross, a cyclist himself, says that ditching the gadgets and focusing on your feels can be particularly hard to do in cycling. “When I’m riding, the bike computer is always right there in front of me,” he says. “With running, you at least need to put more effort into getting the data in front of you.” In cycling, you have to be purposeful about going back to simply riding and experiencing your body moving through space. Here’s why you should do that and how to achieve it.
The Benefits of Paying More Attention to Your Senses
A concentrated effort to tap into your senses can help you unplug from those devices and just enjoy the ride. “When you tune in, it paves the way for you to continue to enjoy cycling,” says Adrienne Langelier, licensed professional counsellor and owner of Peak Counseling and Sports Psychology in Dallas. “It’s important to take some rides to just look around and check in with yourself.” This practice will allow you to be present in the moment, and bring more awareness to your needs and potential adjustments.
Riding while tapping into your senses can also up the enjoyment quotient. A simple ride without interruptions from all that feedback can be both centring and calming, leading to a sense of ease and flow. In a busy, modern world, that’s a valuable return on time invested.
Tuning into your senses and practicing this associative style of riding can give you a valuable tool the next time you need to get uncomfortable on a ride or in a race. “When you’re working hard on the bike, you need to be able to manage discomfort,” says Ross. “If you have a way to shift your attention from your pain, you’ll find your experience more palatable.”
Finally, in addition to having more fun on the bike and conquering hard pushes, tuning into your tenses can improve performance by teaching you to better respond to your needs when racing. For instance, when you pay attention to your taste sensation, you can better discern nutritional needs in the moment, making adjustments on the fly. Same goes for form to help you power up and ride faster.
How often should you tune into your senses to reap rewards? Much of that depends on your goals. If you’re in the thick of a training build up, you probably do want to make the most of data feedback. But if it’s the off season, leave the data behind more often and tune in. “A few times a month you should leave the tech behind and rely on your senses to ensure you’re exerting at the appropriate level,” recommends Langelier. “This is especially true in the off season.”
Ross agrees. “When you’re not training for anything specific, there’s less pressure to focus on the metrics,” he says. “This is an ideal time for easy rides focused on fun.”
During your harder training seasons, however, you can still find time for sensory riding. “You don’t have to practice sensory riding for an entire ride to get the benefits,” says Ross. “Even if it’s just five to 10 minutes of every ride, it will pay off.”
How to Actually Tune Into Your Senses on the Bike
Here’s how the experts recommend you channel in on your senses:
Much of the information you need to process when riding comes from your vision, says Langelier. “Whether you’re riding in the mountains or the city, look at your surroundings periodically,” she says. “When you’re paying attention to what you’re seeing, you’re actually releasing dopamine and making your ride more enjoyable.”
Ross says that with any sense, you can choose to focus broadly or narrowly, and bounce in between each. “For vision, this might mean picking something ahead on the road and narrowly focusing in on it as you get closer,” he says. “Or find the next bend in the trail and maintain your gaze on it.” This helps improve your focus and teaches you awareness.
Just as you can choose a narrow or broad focus with sight, you can do the same with hearing. Practice hearing broadly by simply having a general awareness of the background noises surrounding you on a ride. When focusing narrowly, home in a specific sound like a bird chirping or water running in a nearby river, for instance. Listen to the sound for as long as you can to hold on to your surroundings and push through any tough stretches.
Focusing on what you’re tasting on a ride is a good opportunity to naturally determine what your hydration or nutrition needs are in the moment. “Maybe you’re tasting too much sweet,” says Langelier, “and that means it’s time for more water versus electrolyte replacement. Let your sense of taste determine where you’re deficient.”
With cycling, “being one with the bike,” is a common goal and touch is the perfect place to figure out if you’re on track. “Do you feel secure and relaxed on your bike?” asks Langelier. “Should you adjust your gear? How do you feel going into the wind? All of these inputs can be helpful to developing a good rapport with the bike.”
As with the other senses, being more mindful of your sense of smell on the bike can be focused or broad, thinking about one particular smell or the overall scent you’re getting from your environment. Do you smell fresh-cut hay as your ride by a field? What about the smells of a busy city? Get absorbed in the smells around you and it could keep you from stressing about that big climb you’re attempting.