Cycling and Body Confidence
Cover photography courtesy of Abby Santurbane
There are just short of a million things that cycling is good for. Mental health tops that list with heart health, body composition, core strength, and endurance following shortly after.
For me, each mile brings something to be thankful for, but the most invaluable and positive change that I have experienced through cycling is a love and appreciation for my own body.
Before I found cycling, I struggled big time with body confidence. Mine never looked the way I thought it should. I always carried the idea that my body looked “complicated.” In actuality, that word was a better descriptor for my relationship with it than for how it looked.
I never wore shorts. I was embarrassed of the cellulite on my thighs. I avoided tight clothing because it accentuated my love handles. I spent much of my life being ashamed to be in my own skin.
As women, we are taught to compare ourselves to other women. We are taught that the most important thing is to be desirable or to be pleasing (to look at and to listen to). From a young age, I aimed my existence toward being likable. Because my body had never looked the way I thought it should, I carried a belief that it was a failure. It had two jobs, 1) to be healthy, and 2) to look good. Arguably, it had failed on both fronts, and accordingly, so had I. When I began cycling, the demands that I put on my body drastically changed. The jobs became 1) to be healthy, and 2) to be strong.
The day that I first climbed a mountain on my bike was the day that I fell in love with my body. I fell in love with my body's capabilities. I fell in love with the places it could get me and with how much harder it could push even when my mind sent it signals that I couldn't carry on.
I started to love my body for the experiences I was gaining and the relationships I was building that weren’t based on how good I looked, but were based on physical capability and shared experiences.
For the first time in my life, I didn't care how I looked. I was performing well above my own expectations. That was enough.
This isn’t to say that cycling performance will instantly change your reflection in the mirror or cure you of body dysmorphic disorder. It wont. Nor will it instantly convince you of your own sexiness. What cycling will do is give you the confidence to choose to be happy in your own skin.
A 2014 study out of McMaster University in Ontario analyzed the effects of regular aerobic exercise on the mentality of 46 women who self-identified as negatively body conscious. The research found that when these women exercised 3 times per week for 8 weeks they experienced increased body confidence and a decrease in social anxiety (1).
Along those same lines, a 2012 study, also out of Ontario, found that when young people pedaled on a trainer while listening to music twice a week for 10 weeks, the subjects experienced drastically improved body image, sociability and perceived scholastic performance (2). This feeling of self confidence was recorded equally between children who had not experienced any weight loss during the study and children who had.
I personally feel like a superhero after I cleanly ride a technical climb that previously, I couldn’t. Seriously.
It’s confidence from riding that convinced me to apply for my dream job at SRAM. It’s riding that has allowed me the confidence to ask out a really witty and cute guy that I had been crushing on for a while. It’s a positively changed self conception that has allowed me the nerve and the focus to pursue goals that once seemed impossible.
I don’t want to provide a misconception here. My life is not all roses now that I ride bike. Things don’t come easily to me since becoming a cyclist. Life is still every bit as challenging and demanding as it was before. But now, I’m fully aware of what I can do with a lot of applied effort and concentration. Now I have trust in my body and its ability to push in extreme circumstances. Now, I have self-efficacy.
Maybe you’ve heard this word before but don’t have a clear handle on what it really means. The American Psychological Association says, “Self-efficacy refers to an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments. Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment.” (3)
Self-efficacy defines our lives. It plays a huge role in how we think about ourselves and how we think of ourselves in relation to others. It influences the roles and opportunities that we pursue, it impacts how we behave socially and it helps us to choose how we motivate ourselves (4).
Having a strong sense of self-efficacy can be the difference between signing up for a race or not, between choosing a better meal plan or sticking to the same old thing. Our behavior drastically changes when we more regularly self evaluate and critically think about the wide spectrum of our own capabilities.
Self-efficacy isn’t innate or fixed. We aren’t predetermined or preordained to have a singular mindset, like the color of our eyes or the curliness of our hair. Self-efficacy is malleable. Self-efficacy can be grown.
Ways to Develop Your Self-Efficacy:
Determine a measurement of success. Would you like to hit a certain mileage each week? A specific weight where you feel healthy and strong? A number of days riding per week?
Develop methods to gather evidence of capability. What can’t you do now that you would like to be able to do in the near future? A technical climb? A 5 hour ride?
Repeat your mantra. Ultimately, you know what motivates you best. That’s why it’s smart to develop a quick phrase that you can resort to when the going gets tough. This should have an undeniably positive message.
Design a personal intervention program so that when you start to feel down on yourself, you can promote self-efficacy. What makes you feel good about yourself? A fun ride? A night spent under the stars? Whatever that is, make a note & take positive actions before negative self talk begins to rule your internal dialogue.
Celebrate your accomplishments. My personal favorite way to do this is with ice cream, but everyone is different. Make sure that you take the time to celebrate your progression. This is super important to staying a motivated cyclist.
Body Confidence & Nutrition
A huge aspect to falling in love with my body has been learning how to nurture it. Food, supplements, exercise, water, and sleep all combine in different ways to create a formula for successful athletes. There is no one recipe for success, since everyone’s physiology is different. The best overall advice I can give you is to start considering your food as fuel and begin to purchase foods consciously, as opposed to just grabbing whatever sounds tasty. When I started competing in cycling races, I bought all organic food. I drastically cut down on the amount of processed foods I consumed. I made an effort to get foods from all of the food groups in every meal (protein, carbs, non starchy veggies, fruit, and fats). Small changes tend to go a long way in the world of fitness, and you will feel the results in your energy levels rather quickly.
The best nutritional change I ever made was starting a food journal. By taking note of what I consumed each day, I gained visibility as far as what gave way to better performance levels, more energy, and better results. By knowing what my body uses best as fuel, I now know how to properly plan for race day. For two or three days prior to race day, I fuel my body with what I call my “power foods.” These power foods are what make me feel best after eating them: salmon, spinach, riced cauliflower, beets, broccoli, and peanut butter. By planning meals around these foods, not only do I feel stronger, but mentally I feel more prepared to give each race my best possible effort.
Michelle: Nutrition is such a minefield. Bogus studies tell us about some weird plant from the rainforest with a long list of benefits from curing cancer to inducing radical weight loss. Or, research isn’t peer reviewed or fails to have an adequate sample size. It turns the most basic question of “What should I eat?” into a rabbit hole of bad science and bullshit.
Anecdotally, some people swear by a low carb, high fat diet (especially ultra-endurance athletes) while others are committed to veganism.
After being a vegetarian for a year, a vegan the next, and the year after low carb, I wondered, Does it have to be this complicated? The only thing that has ever made sense to me is this:
Have a colorful plate as often as possible.
Homemade is almost always more nutritious.
Eat enough to have plenty of energy.
Stop eating when I’m full.
When I started training for an ultra-endurance event, I quickly realized I needed to eat. A lot. I ate well over 2,000 calories a day--sometimes close to 3,000. I was a ravenous monster. I ate fruits and veggies, and almost always drank a supplement (my favorite brand is EndurElite) during and after exercise, but I also ate Sea Salt and Malt Vinegar chips by the bag and candy during my rides. I just needed calories, and I simply couldn’t eat enough veggies to sustain my level of exercise (nor could I afford it). I had nutritious, tasty meals, but also junk like ice cream, and I still lost weight and toned up. Of course, once the race was over and my training slowed down, I quickly realized that I had to be more mindful again.
I am NOT suggesting that nutrition isn’t important. I’m also not suggesting that you mow down Snickers during every ride. Instead, I’m encouraging you to think critically about fad diets. I want you to read studies and call out bullshit. Most importantly, I want you to pay attention to your own physiology. While low carb may work for some athletes, I full-heartedly disagree. (For an excellent discussion on female physiology and the importance of carbohydrates, check out Roar, linked below.)
I’ll never forget, when on completing a 38 hour fat bike race that involved pushing my loaded rig through a blizzard, the day after the race someone told me that “carbs are bad for you.” As you might imagine, I responded by squirting ketchup on my greasy breakfast potatoes and shoving as many as I could into my mouth. I ate at least 5,000 calories a day to fuel that race, and guess what? They were mostly carbs. Actually, toward the end I ate mostly sugar. Gummy bears, Clif Bloks, and chocolate, to be exact. My stomach was too irritated to eat anything else. I found that for me, when I explore the limits of what my body is capable of, any and all food is “good food.” I simply need to eat whatever my body will accept.
One of my favorite ultra endurance athletes is a runner named Courtney Dauwalter. She won the Moab 240 outright, beating the second-place male by 10 hours. She’s incredible. When asked about her diet, she said it is “pretty American,” and that she eats “beer, nachos, and takes a multivitamin.” You can listen to her on Joe Rogan here. Her point wasn’t that she eats like crap and you should too--her point was that she didn’t need a weird diet to be the best in the world, male or female--she just had to run. That really resonates with me. Too often I hear of athletes who try some restrictive diet and feel like crap and underperform because of it.
I am by no definition an expert or a pro athlete, and I am absolutely not a nutritionist or personal trainer. To learn from a woman who knows your physiology, I recommend ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy Sims and Selene Yeager.
Positive Self Talk
We speak on this subject A LOT in our article, Riding Mantras, but honestly, I don’t think it can be stressed enough: Developing a positive dialogue with yourself while you are riding can pull you out of some seriously dark places during particularly hard rides. So much of cycling is mental, and if we forget to train our brains as hard as we are training our bodies, we get burnt out.
I can physically recognize the ways in which cycling has transformed my body - I see a more toned stomach and bulging muscles in my legs now when I look in the mirror - but the biggest change that I recognize is the relationship that my brain has with the rest of my body.
I see myself a little bit more clearly now.
I can conquer mountains. I can slay the beast inside my head telling me that I can’t. I can push so much harder than a year ago. I am strong. I am evolving. And I am proud to be in this vessel, this body, that has now done so many things I never thought it could do. I am capable, and I am thankful for the journey and the struggles that lay ahead.
Nowadays, I focus on setting new and relevant goals. I set expectations for myself that I think are achievable, if I'm willing to put in the effort and train (like taking a minute off my Buckhorn climb or pushing 5 miles past the point where my mind decides, 'I'm tired and ready to end this ride!').
Cycling has provided me the platform to see results that allow me to fully appreciate my own capabilities and my body's ability to perform. I'm not where I want to be with self-love and body confidence yet, but cycling has started me on a journey to a much healthier frame of mind.
I would encourage any one reading this to take the time to write down the positive transformations or mental shifts that they’ve noticed in themselves since starting cycling. Then repeat that again in a year. It’s important to note our successes so that they don’t slip by unnoticed and so that we can continue to build on them.
And who couldn’t stand to benefit from a little more confidence and self love?!
(1) Khodamoradpoor, M., et al. “The Effect of aerobic exercise and resistance training on women’s body image” in Archives of Applied Science Research, 2012, 4(6): 2345-2349.
(2) Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. "Overweight teens get mental health boost from even small amounts of exercise." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 October 2012.
(3) Public Interest Directorate. “Teaching Tip Sheet: Self-Efficacy” in American Psychological Association.
(4) Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.