Bike Parts Review Bicycle Training and Equipment Reviews and Advice
The Chimp

Understanding and working with the limbic brain is a key component of success in sport and life. The Chimp Paradox

The Chimp 03/25 2014 by Pieter Van Pietersen

We might like to think of ourselves as rational beings but rational thought often goes out the window when we are exercising. Our limbic brain (or inner chimp) can take over, which leads to various undesirable actions.

With a little bit of planning, this can be prepared for, so you will get the outcome you want rather than a lost opportunity.

Some background about the Chimp
Broadly, we can divide our thought processes into three areas. These are controlled by different physical regions of the brain.

The frontal brain control rational thought, calculations, logical thinking, planning and calculations. This represents a reasonable human being who is capable of careful thinking and understanding.

The parietal brain is a sort of autopilot, or computer. It allows us to perform actions that we have learnt without needing to think about them too much. Examples might be driving, playing the piano or riding a bike.

The limbic brain controls what could be referred to as animalistic tendencies, such as looking for food, sex, shelter, being part of a gang, feeling secure, ego and power. This is often referred to as our inner chimp. The chimp is about 5 times stronger than the human, so will often win in times of conflict, which often leads to the wrong decision being made.

To be successful, it is vital to learn how to deal with the chimp and not let it derail our rational thought processes.

The chimp when cycling
Gentle exercise seems to be good for logical thinking. You can walk in the park or go for a spin and think deeply. However as soon as the intensity increases, the frontal brain seems to switch off. It becomes increasingly difficult to think logically when you are exercising hard. Try doing math during a threshold effort.

At high effort we are running under the computer and the chimp.

The computer is controlling our smooth pedal stroke, cadence and distance between other riders. That's the autopilot.

The chimp now begins to make decisions for us. This is where our race strategy can go wrong. Here are some events and how the chimp deals with them.

The pointless attack
Young riders are especially prone to this, perhaps because they are less patient or have not yet learned to conserve energy. The race will start and after 10 minutes of steady riding they will be feeling great. They will launch a big attack and ride down the road, often alone. This move wasn't planned, but the race strategy made by the human has been forgotten by the chimp. The chimp says 'you are feeling great, the road is wide open ahead, go for it, let's win this race solo'. More often than not, the break comes to nothing and a lot of energy has been wasted.

Panic when a break goes up the road
If a breakaway forms, the Chimp's first reaction is panic. It will be thinking 'oh no, the break has gone, that's it the placings have been taken, we'll never see them again. If you want to win this race you'd better bring them back.' The Chimp always imagines the worst case scenario. Your human brain will think along the lines of how far there is to go, who is in the break, and whether other riders will chase. If the chimp and its worry overrides the human, you will start chasing the break like crazy, wasting a lot of energy.

Utter despair when dropped
If you do get dropped in a race, the chimp will think of doom and gloom. It will tell you that you are useless, that there's no point bothering to race ever again and that there is no point continuing. The human will be able to rationalize, and usually can kick in on the drive home. The human will convince you to train or rest a bit more and give it another go. So don't make any decisions until you've calmed down a bit and engaged your human.

Similarly, the chimp's desire to not be dropped can mean riding through red lights, drafting cars or sprinting on the wrong side of the road. When sitting at home in your armchair, you would probably say that these moves were too risky.

Bike throwing/ violence
15 seconds ago you were cycling at maximum intensity and now you find yourself stopped at the side of the road as the race disappears. The chimp is in full flow, and it is easy to now throw your bike (or smash your tennis racket or kick the player next to you) which later looks ridiculous and out of character. This chimp vented its frustration in full view, and it might mean disqualification.

Overreaction in the case of a near miss
If a rider touches bars with you or perhaps swerves too close, the chimp can panic. The result could be a dangerous manoeuvre such as hitting the brakes or violent swerving, or a foul-mouthed outburst which could be quite out of character. It is important to realize that anything shouted in the middle of a race can be generally ignored.

The chimp can also cause fights. You have probably heard of punch ups at the end of races or people who have chased cars to start a fight with the driver. Try to think about your actions before the 'red mist' takes over. Did that car really mean to kill you? Probably not. Note the license plate, slow down and take a few deep breaths. Getting into a fight with a stranger isn't a great policy.

Convincing yourself not to train when it is a little bit cold or wet
The chimp is very good at telling you not to bother training. It will come up with many reasons as to why you're a little bit tired, deserve a rest, or should do an easier ride today. The human has to override the chimp to achieve the human's goals.

If the chimp had its way, we'd spend most of our lives watching TV on a comfortable sofa with or other halves whilst eating snacks. Indeed, that's the way many people spend their lives, but it isn't a path to sporting achievement.

Working with and around the chimp
Since the chimp is stronger than the human, there's no point trying to beat it. You need to develop strategies to accomplish what you want.

Programming the computer
You have probably heard of using visualization for performance. Sit quietly and imagine everything about the event. How you are feeling, how is your breathing, where are other riders, what the corner looks like. This works well for key sections of the course, such as a climb or finishing sprint.

Now is the time to decide what you will do in these scenarios. Will you be near the left or the right of the course? will you try to attack early? where will you launch your sprint?

With all this thinking done in advance, during the race you will just be able to follow the computer and perform the plan. There won't be a need to bring the human and chimp together to make a quick decision. If that happens, the chimp's decision will win and you'll probably ruin your race.

The best state to be in for your important event is this 'autopilot' state. The race is not the time for interpretation and feelings. Your mind should be clear and you should ride as you've trained for this moment. There's no need to rise to the occasion. It is more a case of doing what you know you're capable of in training, and no less.

Know the course
If you take the time to learn the course and major hills, then you will feel a lot more at ease during the event. If you are feeling lost during the event, the chimp will begin to panic. It will start to ask 'are we there yet?', or 'how many more hills are there to come? I bet there are loads, and we will get dropped'. 'You may as well slow down now as you won't make it to the finish otherwise.'

If you know the course, you and your chimp will know that there is only 20 miles remaining with one big hill near the end. You can then direct your energies to winning instead of worrying about a fictitious worst case scenario.

Trick your chimp to going training
Your chimp may convince you that a set of intervals should not be done today. You are allowed to agree with the chimp after you have considered the facts. Perhaps you have already ridden hard for 3 days in a row, perhaps you have a sore throat. Resting instead of blinding following a training plan is a learned skill and a key ingredient of sporting success.

However at other times you just need to go out there and do the hard intervals.

A good technique is to get dressed and get out the door. Tell your chimp that you will only ride easy and will see how you feel after 10 minutes. More often than not, you will begin to feel great after a warm up, and can complete the intervals. If you do feel bad, just continue to ride gently and try the intervals another day.

The best long term solution is again to sit quietly and think about your training and what you will do when you are not in the mood. Consider why you are training in the first place, and how good you will feel if you reach your goals. At this quiet time you are programming your computer to send you out the door when it is time to train. If you have rehearsed this well, then the chimp won't even get a look in.

Chimp takes over at night
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night panicking about something? Worst case scenarios are imagined and the thoughts go round and round in your head. In the morning you gain perspective and wonder why you wasted so much energy during the night.

The reason for this is because when you sleep, the frontal brain is switched off. These night time thoughts are chimp thinking.

You can safely tell yourself that you can ignore all thoughts made before properly waking.

Practice frontal thinking during intense efforts
Try to engage your frontal brain during a race. Try to calculate something, remember a list you made earlier or remember the plan you made for the race. Like anything, the more you do this, the better you will get at it. Obviously, don't mess up your race because you were thinking about something else!

Keep your chimp happy
This is known as nurturing your chimp. If you have a secure income, comfortable place to live, loving partner and food on the table, then your chimp is less likely to be anxious. If your life is not comfortable then it will be very difficult to perform well at sport as you will have other priorities and worries.

Our personality is essentially made up of a combination of our human frontal brain and our chimp limbic brain. The nature of the chimp cannot be changed, but it can be controlled. Our ability to control and work with the chimp is a vital ingredient to success in sport and life. It requires practice and thinking time.

For your best race performance, you should be running on autopilot - following what you've drummed into yourself in training. Input from the chimp and the human should be minimized.

For a comprehensive book on this subject, take a look at The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters. He is the resident psychiatrist with the British Cycling and Sky ProCycling teams. The book does not discuss cycling or sport in particular. What I have presented above is my interpretation of how the Chimp principles could be applied to cycling. The book is well worth having a look at.

The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Program to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence, and Happiness Link to to the book mentioned above.

comments powered by Disqus