• Leigh Timmis discovered that breaking a cycling world record was as much of a mental test as a physical one

  • Here he shares the psychological tips that were integral to his success

  • Watch our interview with Leigh and psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal below on high performance mindsets and mental health

In 2018, I broke the world record for the Fastest Cycle Across Europe. Cycling 4,000 miles across the continent in 16 days, 10 hours and 45 minutes, I knocked an incredible eight days and 17 hours off the previous record. 

That performance was the outcome of a year of preparation with a multi-disciplinary team of sports science experts who developed an innovative approach to ultra-endurance cycling. However, the impact we made on the record paled in comparison to the impact the project had on my own personal development. As my physiologist explained in our first meeting: “You could be the fastest cyclist in the world on the start line but it means nothing unless you have a mind that’s strong enough to get you to the finish line.” 

Ultimately, that transformation of my mindset was the greatest outcome of the record attempt. Below are five of the key lessons from working with a performance psychologist that contributed to my success, which anybody can use to help achieve their goals.

1. Be the best at things that require no talent

Before I could develop interventions to maximise my potential on the world record, I had to build a foundation that nourished growth. This required optimising my lifestyle so I could dedicate the maximum amount of time and energy to pursuing my target. I focussed on three areas: 

  • Time management: Structuring a digital calendar to cover every activity including detail about travel time, who I was meeting and what I needed to take with me ensured I arrived on time and prepared to perform at my best. Appointments with non-negotiable times were colour-coded red, empty time in my calendar was populated with flexible tasks from my to-do list and coloured green. 

  • Organisation: To ensure I found my files quickly, I tidied my desktop and structured the folder organisation on my laptop. I did the same for my living space at home, also ensuring I prepared equipment in the evening, ready for the following day. I took this one step further by separating my life into ‘zones’ which included different places for work, relaxing and sleep. Each ‘zone’ was optimised for its purpose. 

  • Sleep: My performance psychologist would often say: “Sleep is the most powerful performance enhancing drug in the world and the least used.” Our record-breaking strategy was based on working smarter rather than longer, and eight hours of sleep every day ensured optimum physical and cognitive function.

2. What’s your 'why'?

If you have a strong enough ‘why’, the ‘how’ will find itself. My original motivations – ‘to break a record’ and ‘to gain the respect of the people around me’ – weren’t good enough. A powerful motivator must be intrinsic. 

To find my strongest motivator, the performance psychologist and I revisited my past, including the challenges I’d faced with depression and anxiety ten years previously. During the time that I felt empty, unfulfilled and questioned the point of life, I made a decision that changed the course of my life. I took an opportunity to go on an adventure. When I was at my lowest, I took an action that defined who I was. We took this powerful moment and built my ‘why’ from it. 

On the record attempt, when things got really difficult and I felt like I was up against the ropes, my motivation was to find out who I was and who I wanted to be; to take an action that defined myself.

3. Emotional regulation is strength

When I set my sights on breaking the record, I thought my result would be defined by having strong legs. In reality it came down to having a strong mind. 

The scientists proved this by running an endurance threshold test; four hours on a static bike in a lab with no distraction and every hour the resistance through the pedals increased. After three and a half hours I exploded in an emotional outburst, shouting at the physiologist and smashing my hands into the handlebars. 

In a debrief, the scientists explained that there was no such thing as an endurance threshold test, they had invented a situation to see if my mental strength matched my physical strength. The test revealed that my body could have continued for hours but my mind was holding me back. 

To develop my mental strength, for three minutes, on the hour, every hour of every day, I did a breathing exercise called ‘centring’. This introduction to self-awareness shocked me – I couldn’t believe my mind was so busy and I found it impossible to stay in the moment. Centring became a major focus of training for the record attempt and the results were impressive.

4. The view from the balcony

Of the many interventions the team developed to get me through the hard times, ‘the view from the balcony’, was most powerful. It is based on the fact that on the finish line of the attempt, the only person I had to justify my finishing time to was myself. Nobody else would know what it meant but I had to be able to look back and say I gave it everything, no regrets. 

We took that finish line version of me and put him on a metaphoric balcony and whenever I wanted to quit or slow down, I could ask Future Me on the balcony for advice. It was incredibly powerful for me because I realised that I was never truly against a competitor or the clock, I was just against the best version of myself. No matter what challenge we take on, that’s the only race we can ever be in.

5. Focus on task-based success

At the end of the record attempt, I was confused by contradicting feelings of achievement and disappointment. In honesty, I was hoping for some form of celebration; fireworks, a parade or a crowd of people congratulating me. However, I arrived at a train station in a city I didn’t know, in the rain and the dark, where we shot a brief video, continued to return equipment and caught a flight home. 

My ideas of success had been ego-based; I had to refocus on task-based success. Task-based success required judging my result against what I set out to achieve. Shifting focus, I looked back over a year of total dedication to achieving something extraordinary and acknowledged that I had given it everything, no regrets. The athlete in me accepted that I hit the target of our best-case scenario, and the human behind that athlete accepted that I was enough.

Leigh Timmis is the author of The Race of Truth

Further reading

What running an ultramarathon taught me about resilience

Bazball: The unlikely connection between cricket and therapy

Delayed gratification: Why patience is an essential skill 

Pilates as a treatment for trauma: Mindful movement

Challenging your thoughts: Are they helpful?