In January this year, Australian cyclist Bridie O’Donnell broke the women’s UCI Hour Record, the greatest distance a cyclist can cover in an hour.
She performed at the Adelaide Super-Drome in front of a local crowd and with viewers streaming in online from all around the world. She spoke to Jessica Slonim about her use of mindfulness and visualisation for enhancing her performance, how she bounced back from a setback late in her training, and her strategy for coping with the voice in her head that says she’s not good enough.
So you were an elite road cyclist and then you moved to do ‘the hour’ record, which was a real physiological and mental shift, wasn’t it? Moving from the road to the velodrome and maintaining intense concentration for an hour.
Absolutely. I felt that physiologically it wasn’t a huge ask to work on my ability to generate good power for over an hour but absolutely I had no experience on the track at all and I certainly had no experience with the intricacies of a track bike. Even so, I think I felt not just physiologically that I was suited but mentally I felt I was suited to it. It was certainly an event that was all about intelligent pacing and getting the right information as an athlete and making those minor decisions to change your effort so that you could sustain the power and the pace.
There are also elements that I had to get used to and part of that was technical, such as riding the shortest possible line on the track. The faster you go, though, the harder it is to control a bike on the bend. I had to learn to do my best at that and I also had to work out what elements of my aero position would be the most comfortable while being the fastest for me and that requires scientific support and testing and a lot of time and energy. It wasn’t just how do I get faster and stronger and more aero, I had to go to the track a lot and get the equipment right and then hope for good weather – a warm day, low barometric pressure – and a good headspace [laughs]. A lot of things had to come together.
All it can take is one bad experience for self-doubt to creep in and throw you off. Did you have any big setbacks in the lead up to ‘the hour’?
I had one significant one. We planned to do a test run in early December, 6 weeks before the hour attempt was scheduled. The purpose of this was to do a 45-minute effort at what we would consider to be the current-world record pace. Everything would be identical in terms of the preparation, the warm-up, the timing; we had everything quite strictly mapped out. It was on a Sunday at the velodrome in Melbourne and my partner was there and not my coach but my coaches’ colleague. I had everything that I needed; the right people were there. Sometimes you see the coach standing on the sideline trying to rev up the athlete to try harder or they’re trying to tell the athlete to just back off a little bit, slow down, be smart. But this time I looked over at my coach’s colleague and thought he looking very angry and distressed, giving me signals like “come on, come on, lift, lift, lift.” I’m thinking, “Gee that’s not good.” So immediately this little storyline started in my mind about how I wasn’t doing well and physically I wasn’t feeling very good: I had a lot of fatigue in my hamstrings and my lower back. I was getting this feedback that everything I was doing was wrong and negative and then I started having this ridiculous storyline in my head which was, I should have done more 45-minute training sessions, this is bullshit, why is Ken looking like this. I was completely lacking in mindful application of what I should have been focusing on. I was totally focusing on all the unhelpful things and not what was going to be useful to me to complete the task.
Of course I wanted to stop and get off but I didn’t. Afterward when I finished I said, “How bad was it?” and he said “it wasn’t too bad, don’t worry” but it wasn’t until I got home later that night and I looked at the data – speed, power, all the different things – and actually over the 45-minutes I rode about 100 metres shorter than I was planning to ride. So it was nowhere near as disastrous as I expected. It was actually pretty great.
I was talking to Michael [sport psychologist at The Mind Room] about it the following week, saying how challenging it was, I needed to do something differently. He asked me two things: he asked “what are you going to do on the day if you start the hour attempt and you feel terrible 10 minutes in, will you stop?” And I said “no!” and he asked, “what if you get 10 minutes in and you feel really amazing, are you going to start riding faster than scheduled and go against your coaches instructions?” I said “no.” He said, “So how you feel physically has absolutely no bearing on what you’re going to do.” That was a really great moment when I realised I have to stop focusing on how I feel. It doesn’t make any difference to the agenda, which is to complete the hour to the best that I can on the day.
I had another test two weeks later in Adelaide on the velodrome where I was going to be doing ‘the hour.’ That day I went into it with a totally different headspace. Every time I found myself thinking, “I’m a little bit tired” I’d go “yep that’s alright.” It was just a really good exercise in mindfulness. Noticing I’m tired, yeh that’s interesting, back to putting my head down, moving my feet quickly, back to leaning into the bend. Those 45 minutes were perfectly executed and really I did the exact same thing four weeks later for my hour attempt but for 15 extra minutes and at a faster pace and I felt amazing the whole time. I didn’t feel stressed or tired or anxious or worried that I wouldn’t do it. Everything about the whole night was a very positive experience.
It sounds like that experience when things didn’t go to plan was a turning point in the training. You talk about mindfulness. It can be difficult to describe mindfulness, how do you describe it or conceptualise it in terms of your use of mindfulness when you’re cycling?
For me it means only thinking of now. When I do mindfulness meditation, the idea of bringing things back to the breath, just bringing it back to what’s happening right now. [On the track] it’s keeping your feet moving as quickly as possible to keep the pace maintained. It’s that idea of trying to think as little as possible about the past and the future and thinking about what I’m doing right now.
Is mindfulness something that elite athletes are aware of and practice? Is there a language around that?
Probably not much in my experience but I do think a lot of them practice it without knowing it. A lot of athletes would say they’ve had times when they’ve been in a flow and they haven’t remembered the race at all, it just went by and they felt incredible. I remember reading an interview with Emma Pooley, a British time trialist who came second at the Beijing Olympics in the time trial and they asked her what she was thinking about during the race and she said “I just kept thinking “yes, yes, yes, more, more, more, yes, yes, yes” for 45 minutes. I thought well that’s mindfulness. She doesn’t remember anything about feeling tired or good or bad, she just kept thinking about the process.
You said before that you do some visualisation, is that formal visualisation practice or do you mean when you’re on the track you visualise things?
When I was on the track I certainly did a lot of visualising related to time and to splits and things like that. That was all very positive. When I was on the bike here at home or on the road, I would frequently visualise that I was on the track because I was only able to be on the track once or twice a. I would constantly visualise the last 6-minute block of the hour and see the clock going down and I would see Steven, my coach, standing at the finish line with a board and I would see the exact lap time that I wanted to see. That all happened perfectly for the hour and in fact I still do that now. I did a training session today on my time trial bike. I’ve got a race in a weeks time and I just did exactly what I would be doing: the same pace, the same application for the different part of the course, the hill and the descent – everything like that.
Like a lot of athletes I have a lot of fantasy visualisations where you’re always winning or you’re amazing or you’re catching someone. It’s a big part of all of the sports that I’ve done.
Do you imagine winning, in the lead up to events?
Yes, of course. I’m not going to imagine losing [laughs].
How do you manage it all, your day job and training? You must have a pretty structured schedule.
Yeah, I do. I don’t have a thrilling social life!
So what’s next for you? What’s this year looking like?
We have the national road series that started in January and that’s seven races for women that are multistage tours in different parts of Australia and we have a very strong women’s road team based out of Melbourne but with riders from all over, and we’ll do races together in Tasmania and New South Whales and stuff like that and then I race regularly here in Melbourne, criterions and things like that. Keep working and occasionally get a break here and there.