Vision for Improving Performance
This week we bring you a post from an elite level coach, Mark Legg. Not only is the topic - vision - interesting and full of good information that can help any cyclist (or motor enthusiast as you will read), but equally fascinating is the level of detail given to the topic. It shows how today's athletes are looking for, finding, and executing on plans that involve more than just ride, eat, sleep. Every aspect is given full thought and analysis. Enjoy.
Mark Legg, coach and husband to 13 time US National Cyclocross Champion (plus several other National Titles in Mountain Biking and Track) Katie Compton, is originally from Auckland, New Zealand. Mark, also a talented cyclocross racer in his day, now focuses on coaching Katie full time. In the his off-season, Mark spends a lot of time at Pikes Peak International Raceway in his hometown of Colorado Springs as a high performance driving instructor.
Vision for improving performance.
When I’m coaching Katie and other cyclists, or instructing drivers at Pikes Peak International Raceway, or working in the pit for Katie at cyclocross races, I’m always looking to see if riders are using their eyes to see the course/road. I realize this seems painfully obvious - that they would use their eyes - but if you observe where they are looking you’ll notice many aren’t looking to where they need to go, they are looking to where they are. It’s easy to see what they are looking at because most have their head pointed down looking 6-8 feet in front of their front wheel.
Last cyclocross season while standing in Pit two at KMC Cross Festival I had an excellent vantage point where I could easily see riders eyes as they approached, turned, and exited a key corner. It was clear that riders who didn't look through the corner had the most problems. I often saw these riders blowing their corner exit speed and getting bogged down in a gear that was too large simply because they were too focused on the immediate (within 10 feet of their front wheel) terrain rather than the entire corner and beyond.
Why is vision important for bike racing? Simply put, the wider global vision you have the more information you are sending to your oxygen deprived brain to make great decisions. When we’re under stress our vision often narrows into target vision. Target vision is also known as tunnel vision. I’m confident you’ve all heard about it and you’ve all experienced it while riding the bike. Tunnel vision is great if you’re like my dog who is one hundred percent target vision focused when he's fetching a ball. Target vision prevents outside information from penetrating your brain to move the focus off that gravel in the corner apex into another line that allows you to exit the corner safely and fast. For example, how many times have you been following another rider when they make a mistake and run off the road/trail into course tape and you’ve mimicked the same action and ended up stalling or unfortunately crashing? That’s target vision.
In addition to looking ahead, riders and drivers can benefit from widening their vision as well. I use the term “wide vision” and “global vision” when I’m coaching cyclists or car drivers. These processes relax the focus of the eyes so they can take in more information. Widening your vision prevents you from mimicking the movement of the rider in front of you. Global vision allow you to see the entire course while using your secondary focus which is much like peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is the part of our vision that is outside the center of our gaze, and it is the largest portion of our visual field. A normal visual field is approximately 170 degrees around, with 100 degrees comprising the peripheral vision. Opening up your vision allows you to pay more attention to your environment. Using your secondary vision allows you to notice movement without solely focusing on the rider in-front of you. This allows you see the course so you can place your bike at the turn in point to the corner while looking through to the apex point to the corner exit point so you can carry more speed out of the corner which results in less power you need to apply out of the corner.
So with this information we can do a little mental imagery exercise. You’re following a rider into a tight turn. As you approach the turn-in point of the corner you should be looking for and through the apex (corner apex, is right after the geometric centre of a corner that will best setup a faster corner exit) towards the exit of the turn. And this is where things get tricky… because this is where you need to perform more than one task at a time. Women can multi-task well, easily taking on 3 tasks at a time. Guys, though, and if we’re honest, can only multi-task about 1.5 tasks at a time. Don’t stress, it’s all due to those millions of years hunting prey conditioning our brains into target focused hunter and gatherer bike racers. Let’s get back to following that rider into a corner. Before we turn in we need to look through the corner and spot our exit point. Now that we have that information we now have a target to aim for. With this information logged, your hands will guide your bike to where your eyes were looking. Instead of mimicking the rider in-front of you, you now have more information than the rider who didn’t take a peek around the corner. This is where you spot that gravel on the road mid-corner exit point and change your turn-in point to avoid the gravel on the road, and hopefully avoid the rider in-front of you who just crashed on the gravel because they were only looking 6 feet in-front of you. Now you’re a pro-active rider and not a reactive rider. Good job!
What happens when we get it wrong and turn in early? Three scenarios will occur.
1. You’ll need to hit the brakes and slow down to make the corner so you don’t exceed the cornering traction of your tires. Now you’re bogged down in a huge gear and can’t accelerate without a huge effort to muscle the gear from a near stop.
2. You’ll increase your steering input causing the front tire to exceed the available traction = crash.
3. You’ll hit the brakes and take the “oh shit” line and ride your bike on the red line in the first diagram off to the outside of the road like we see at the Tour de France every year.
So, before we review our cornering drill with global vision let’s think about it from the end point and work our way backwards like Golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Jack Nicklaus spoke of how he would focus his eyes on where he wanted the ball to land, and then reverse engineer the way he wanted the ball to get there. He would follow the path he wanted the ball to follow with his eyes, only in reverse, back to where the ball was sitting. You should do the same type of thing with your vision – only you don’t have time to imagine the pathway in reverse like you do in golf. (Side note: while golf and racing bikes and driving are similar – both very mental activities – the difference is that in golf you have too much time to think, and in racing you have too little time). On multiple lap course like criteriums, XCO courses and cyclocross courses we can perform this exercise with ease. On road race courses this is a little tricky. However, if we can spot our corner exit point we can reverse engineer the path to that ideal point. If you can’t see your exit point, you need to late apex the corner so you have the ability to add steering input as the corner tightens up so we’re not already at the maximum traction of the tires.
We know that the bike follows our eyes. We steer in the direction we’re looking. That part of our human instincts can be used to our benefit, for when we look through a corner, we naturally steer through it. But there’s one minor glitch to this process.
Imagine approaching a right hand corner. As you get close to the turn-in point, you turn your head and look to the apex. What happens if you do this quickly, if you sharply turn your head and look directly at the apex? Right, the bike will go directly there, because your hands follow your eyes. And that means you’ll apex early because you didn’t arc the bike towards the apex. Instead, what you want to do as you approach the turn-in point, is look to and through the apex, but along a curve. This will help avoid the early turn in as you rotate your noggin. If you’re descending a mountain and hit a nice u-turn you can look down the hill to see if cars are coming up the hill and to see how tight and steep the road is before you setup for your turn in point for the u-turn. This is all a bit challenging for our 1.5 task processing brains. As you approach the corner, you need to keep eyes on the turn-in point, then eyes on this curved path around, to, and through the apex, all the way out to the exit or track-out point. And with each fraction of a second that passes as you travel ahead, your visual picture has to move, adjust, adapt. This is why having a wide vision helps you through the path of a corner. Now imagine following a rider through the same corner. Should you just follow their line? The smart answer is always no. If they exit the corner slower, you’ll have to apply more power out of the corner than you would if you had taken your line through the corner that results in more exit speed. Apply this x10 or x50 you’re going to save power every time so you have that extra saved power for later when you need to apply it for a race winning or personal best result.
This is why looking up and ahead is so important – it results in a bigger picture, allowing you to use your wide vision more. It’s also why it is critical that your eye movement is fluid and constant. Training and practicing this is a never-ending process. Fortunately, you can practice this while driving on the street or highway. In fact, that’s by far the best place to practice; if you wait until you get to the bike race to do it, it’ll make your performance clumsy and mechanical – not natural. It’ll feel as though your mind is trying to be in two places at once. Practice using your vision in your everyday driving and riding, you’ll be that much faster when you’re at the races.
Thanks for reading!