Dr. Colleen Gulick: “Trust in your own hard work and relax”

As far as stopping bad habits, I’m still working on that. My best advice would be don’t be too hard on yourself. I have a sweet tooth and it’s so easy to grab junk food when you’re hungry and haven’t gotten to the store. I used to drink way too much soda, like 3 diet […]

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As far as stopping bad habits, I’m still working on that. My best advice would be don’t be too hard on yourself. I have a sweet tooth and it’s so easy to grab junk food when you’re hungry and haven’t gotten to the store. I used to drink way too much soda, like 3 diet cokes a day. I gradually cut out soda from my diet but every time I go to the grocery store I get myself a diet coke and some chocolate just for fun. It’s exhausting to try and control every single aspect of life, so give yourself a break every once in a while.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewingColleen Gulick, Ph.D (ExPhys), MS, BS (BioE), EIT (ME), CSCS, Podium Sports, LLC Founder & CEO.

Dr. Colleen Gulick, a 29-year-old professional cyclist and exercise physiologist, and her teammates are bridging the gender gap and empowering women one race at a time. Engineer, doctorate in exercise physiology, researcher, 2-time D1 field hockey national champion, All-American, professional cyclist, 5-time national cycling champion, Pan American medalist, and business owner, Colleen has done it all. Plus, she not only created but also races for and manages one of the most winning cycling teams racing in America today, the Pickle Juice Pro Cycling Team.

Colleen’s athletic skills are rooted on the field. She played D1 field hockey for the University of Maryland, where she won two NCAA national championships and All-American accolades. Today, Colleen is a professional cyclist, specializing in the disciplines of track and criterium. On the bike she earned a Pan American Track Championship silver medal, represented the USA at a world cup, earned 5 national championship titles, 47 national medals, and a Red Hook Crit Championship win. She has raced in 8 countries and amassed over 145 wins in the past 10 years of an 18-year career. She has used her experience to help others, creating an international women’s pro team with the help of the Pickle Juice Company. The team has grown to have a consistent presence on top of podiums around the world. In addition, Colleen started the team’s mentor program for young women, “Pickle for a Day” to help young women excel on the bike.

Colleen’s academic pursuits have combined the areas of engineering and exercise physiology to analyze multiple avenues of athletic performance. Colleen earned her BS in bioengineering and EIT in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland. Her MS in exercise physiology was obtained from California State University, Fullerton. She recently finished her PhD in exercise physiology with an emphasis in endocrinology from the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand).

Colleen owns her own coaching and consulting company, Podium Sports, LLC. She currently works for Levels Health and Upgraid as an exercise physiologist, allowing her the opportunity to share her knowledge of exercise physiology and passion for athletics.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thank you for having me.

My childhood was spent in ice hockey rinks, field hockey fields, running tracks, lacrosse gyms, velodromes and road courses. If I wasn’t in school, I was at a practice, bouncing primary between ice hockey, field hockey and cycling, often hitting two different practices in one day. I honestly don’t know how my parents managed transportation, let alone their jobs and their own lives. Funnily enough, I started playing ice hockey at 6 years old because I loved the movie Mighty Ducks. Much to my parent’s demise, I fell in love with the sport and played in a boy’s league until I was 13, before bring recruited to an all-girls team. I continued to juggle three sports though attending boarding school at The Hill School. Despite ice hockey being my first sport and earning a U16 National Ice Hockey bronze metal, I knew I didn’t have an elite future in the game.

Field hockey and cycling were my passions. Field hockey always came easily to me. My mother played D1 field hockey in college and taught me the basics, setting me up with an early lead on other girls my age. I have won a field hockey national championship in every age category possible, both indoor and outdoor, from U14 through NCAA D1 and one national title as a U14 coach. NCAA D1 field hockey was always an expectation I had for myself, and at 16 years old, I was accepted into the University of Maryland’s Honors College. There, I signed for a field hockey scholarship with the Terps. At Maryland, I earned a BS in bioengineering and, on a bet with my roommate, earned my EIT certification in mechanical engineering. I could go on for days with fond memories of my time with the Terps field hockey team. In short, in my 4-year tenure (I started all 4 years), we won 3 ACC Titles, 2 D1 National Championship Titles, earned a place in the final-4 all 4 years, and I earned an All-American Honors. Unfortunately, after college there isn’t much in the way of opportunities for field hockey. So, I set down my stick as a player and coached for a year while I applied to graduate school.

Throughout high school and college, I continued to pursue my cycling ambitions, a sport where, to be honest, I don’t believe I have a great deal of natural talent. But, I’m never one to back down from a challenge and cycling was one massive challenge. I was confident that I could work my way through the ranks and become a pro-level rider. At the very least, I could guarantee that I would work longer and harder than anyone around me. So, in my junior years (18 years old and under) I won three national championships and at least one national metal at every national championship I attended. In fact, my final year as a junior, I medaled in the men’s Madison event. At the time, the Madison event was not offered for women, but I loved the high pace interval and tactical game of the Madison. I had been practicing with master’s riders at my home track for years because no other girls would race this high-risk event. I went against the grain and entered the junior men’s national Madison championship with the only junior man that would ride with a girl, we were huge underdogs, but I loved every minute of it and we worked our way to a bronze medal.

Through college I continued to ride but field hockey came first, so I didn’t attend any national championships. I raced track when possible and earned a Rider of the Year title at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center at 21 years old. I also rode the USA Crit Series and won the U25 USA Crit Series title along with a 2nd place in the USA Crit Pro Women’s Series.

After college, I continued to enjoy the struggle and challenge that is the sport of cycling. I earned two elite national championship titles, represented the USA at a Pan American Track Cycling Championship (where I earned a silver medal in the Madison event), and represented the USA at a Track Cycling World Cup (earning 11th place). I specialize in track and criterium events and have had the privilege of racing in 8 countries and earning over 145 wins in the past 10 years of an 18-year career.

In addition, in men’s racing they have a special category for racers aged 19–23 years old, which is a great period of growth for riders to reach the elite level. Women’s cycling has no such category, leaving many young riders left without mentorship. I wanted to fill this void. So, on the plane flight down to the Pan American Track Championships I wrote 109 emails to try and acquire sponsorship for an international, young, elite women’s team. The Pickle Juice Company called me the day before my race in Mexico and expressed their shared vision for a pro women’s team that bridges the gender gap. With the support of the Pickle Juice Company and other dedicated sponsors, the Pickle Juice Pro Cycling Team was born. I am proud to say that we created a team run by women that has excelled in every sense of the word. 2021 will be our 5th year and in that time, we have had team members from four different countries race in 222 races and earn an impressive 184 podiums with 109 wins. I can go on for days about the team and the sense of pride and honor in the members and sponsors, and the incredible work everyone has done for women’s cycling.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I’ve always identified as an athlete, even from elementary school gym class when we ran the timed mile around the school. I always wanted to be first, not just the first girl, or the first in my grade, but first of anyone. So, it wasn’t so much of a specific person or event that pushed to towards being a high level professional athlete, rather it was more of a competitive drive. The internal drive to learn new drills, grow faster, and become the best is what have driven me forward. Reaching higher levels came almost as a byproduct of tons of mini competitive goals.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have been surrounded by inspiring individuals throughout my life. For her encouragement to always be my own advocate from a young age, I see my mother as one of those individuals. She is an incredibly driven and successful individual that taught me the value of speaking up for myself, working hard, and the opportunities that can arise from both education and sport.

In the sport of field hockey, my first club hockey coaches at X-Calibur Field Hockey took a talented young kid and taught me how to take my game to the next level. They not only taught me the skills necessary to succeed but also the invaluable ins and outs of the college recruiting process. I remember showing up to practice one night and we were told to bring folders, pens and a file system. Clearly an odd request for 13-year-old field hockey players. When we arrived, Mollie Reichard (our coach) had created personalized lists for each of us detailing what division and colleges she thought we would realistically play. I had multiple D1 schools on my list but the top few were missing. I asked why she didn’t think I could play at that level. She responded that I might eventually get there but she didn’t think it was realistic. I stood up straight and told her that I would prove her wrong, and I smiled. I’m pretty sure she laughed and said something to the effect of I’m sure you will. She was a huge positive force in my life and supported my drive for success. Thanks to her help, I was one of the top five recruits in the country and I received a full scholarship to start at the number one D1 field hockey school in the country. We still keep in touch today.

On the bike, my coach of the past 12 years has taken my racing from that of a good local rider to the international level. At the beginning, I was the annoying teenager always wanting to learn why we did a certain workout or “how is this going to get me stronger on the bike.” Over the years I learned his thorough study of the sport is what made him so successful as a cyclist. I learned to listen, and I started to see the sport through a new lens. I was taught the skills needed to be successful when no coach or teammate was there to help. These skills allowed me to think through a strategy and a race in the moment, when coaches are absent; I needed to be able to figure it out for myself. He taught me how to be a student of the sport and that ability to be smart on the bike makes the difference between a win and a pack finish.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The funniest and most interesting mistake of my cycling career led to one of my best cycling memories. My entrance into the discipline of Fixed Gear Crit Racing, racing bikes without brakes at high speeds on a technical course with the rowdiest crowd imaginable, was quite unusual. I’m not sure if David even remembers me from this account but… years ago I went with my coach and a few friends to a New York City bar for a roller race event. I was definitely the youngest one there and I was the only woman. I did well enough in the roller race competition… probably got like 6th or something, I don’t remember exactly. But I was waiting between races and David Trimble was at the bar watching. We started talking and he mentioned that he promoted a fixed gear crit called Red Hook (the premier fixed gear crit series) and that there wasn’t a women’s race at the time, but he asked if I thought I could beat the other girl in the race (Kacey). I was way more confident that I could, and I was like, yeah sure I think I could win. And he bet me that I couldn’t beat her. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a challenge. So, of course, I had to accept. I showed up on race day horribly sick with a fever, but I was determined to win. Well, I lined up for the one and only race (men’s race) underprepared and way out of my element. I got my ass kicked! I think Kacey got top 3. She was prepared and skilled at fixed gear crits and just demolished me. I was bummed but kind of wrote it off as something out of my element and went about my normal racing, until a few years later when my coach came across the Red Bull Last Stand. I had just returned from Pan Am Track Championship and my season was practically over, so we decided to fly down on a whim and give the race a shot (plus they had a geared crit at the same time so if I really sucked at the fixed gear it wouldn’t be a wasted trip). I ended up cleaning up and winning the geared crit, lap leader in both fixed and geared, double down award, and second in the fixie crit. I had a great time at the event and spurred the ambition to try Red Hook with the women in Brooklyn, one of the most prestigious fixed gear crits in the world. This time they had a women’s category with almost 100 of the best fixed gear crit riders from around the world. I was determined and rose to the challenge, winning the 2017 Red Hook Crit. This propelled me to the second race of the series in London, where I had an unfortunate flat with two laps to go. I decided to go for the win anyways and ride out the flat, I wound up losing 3rd place by inches. Despite all logic, taking a bet from a random stranger in a bar turned into an incredibly successful introduction to a new cycling discipline.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

If you really want something, don’t be afraid to think outside the box, be an advocate for yourself and go for it, no matter what other people think. There have been plenty of times that I’ve been told “you can’t”: play 3 sports at a high level, race in a men’s event (Madison), pass the mechanical engineering exam as a bioengineer, be successful at starting your own team, race at an elite level and get a PhD. More often than not, I have found that the people who say “you can’t” really mean “they can’t.” Just walk away and SHOW them that you CAN!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I have two exciting projects in the works. The first is the 5th year of the Pickle Juice Pro Cycling Team. The past four years have flown by and I am so proud that the team has become a model women’s pro team, working to bridge the gender gap, become role models for female athletes, and given back to the sport. And I certainly can’t be upset with the racing results… in four years, the team has competed in 222 races and earned 184 podium spots with 109 wins. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The second is a children’s book on helmet safety. Unfortunately, I’ve suffered five concussions in my sporting career, so I am well aware of the importance of wearing a helmet. I wrote, and had professionally illustrated, a children’s book starring a female cyclist that emphasizes the importance of wearing a helmet for safety. I’m hoping to find a major helmet manufacturer to partner with and include a book with every kid’s helmet purchase. In this way, I’m hoping to educate and empower kids to ride safely.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Prepare, prepare, prepare! Preparation and control what you can. In my experience, people fear the unknown. Train to the best of your ability, walk the course before the race to see the flow and road conditions, and do your homework to see the strengths/weaknesses of your competition. After that, you’ve done your homework and you are as prepared as you can be.

Trust in your own hard work and relax.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Funny you should ask, I don’t currently do any breathing techniques, but I have been looking into box breathing. I’ve been meaning to try it before bed in order to calm myself down and relax for a bit. I usually go to sleep very quickly but I have a hard time staying asleep so I am wondering if box breathing might relax me enough to help jump start the REM sleep stage.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I have a routine before every race. I like to get there early, walk the course, watch how earlier racers take the corners, and really analyze the course. When I get back to the team car and do a nice long warm up where I can prepare my legs for the race and make sure I’m not forgetting anything (water bottles, tire pressure, Pickle Juice, number, etc.). I’ll be completely honest, I don’t like to talk to people outside of the team before a race. I try to control my environment as much as possible, get away from people and do my thing. I’ve been racing a long time, 19 years now (yikes!), so I know most of the courses and my opponents. I share this info with my teammates in order to make sure we can all have a successful race. The bottom line is you aren’t going to get any faster on race day. All of your preparation has been done before the event. My confidence and focus comes from the realization that I consistently train as hard and intelligently as possible.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Dialing in my training is a process that is continually evolving. I have my basic plan down pat, but each year I try a few new training techniques in order to see if I can edge out just a few more improvements.

On race day, I am very consistent. The morning of the race (most of my events are crits in the evening), I go out for an hour easy ride, then use my Pressure Positive tools to prep my muscles for the best race possible. I have my bag packed and food laid out the night before, so I just pack the cooler, load up the car with the Pickle Juice Team and we are off to the races. I know I need a long warm up. Before my race, I drink a Pickle Juice to prevent cramps, which is especially important in back-to-back races or races after traveling. Then I’m ready to roll to the line.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

I completely agree that habits are a key to success. Cycling, in general, is very repetitive. Same people, same races, same long hours on the bike. With this high amount of repetition year after year, being prepared becomes a habit, and I think this leads to success. As we spoke about earlier, I have found that being prepared helps to ward off nerves and produce the best performance. So, having a good plan and being organized is key. I am a huge white board girl. I have multiple white boards throughout the house with my training, my daily activities, and to do lists. This helps me stay organized, and let’s be real, I’ll forget everything expect my training if I don’t write it down. Plus, everyone loves the feeling of crossing something off a to do list. My whiteboard organization has been my go-to ever since boarding school and has helped me organize academics, athletics, and work.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Integrate habits you don’t want to do with something you enjoy. For example, I am terrible at stretching. I absolutely hate it. However, as I get older, I’ve noticed that I need to stretch in order to increase my performance. So, I’ve tried to work this habit into my morning routine by integrating stretching with coffee and a Netflix show. I’ll watch one short episode of whatever Netflix show I’m into at the moment and stretch while I watch. This way, I’m distracting myself and, before you know it, the episode is over and I’m done stretching for the day. I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s like bribing yourself. At the end of the day I know it’s necessary for performance, so I might as well enjoy it. I’m on a 3 month daily stretching streak.

As far as stopping bad habits, I’m still working on that. My best advice would be don’t be too hard on yourself. I have a sweet tooth and it’s so easy to grab junk food when you’re hungry and haven’t gotten to the store. I used to drink way too much soda, like 3 diet cokes a day. I gradually cut out soda from my diet but every time I go to the grocery store I get myself a diet coke and some chocolate just for fun. It’s exhausting to try and control every single aspect of life, so give yourself a break every once in a while.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

Looking back, I can think of multiple times when I’ve achieved a state of Flow. I’ve found that Flow is easiest to achieve when you are relaxed. I know that’s easier said than done. It’s so easy to overthink a situation, especially when a lot is at stake. For me, I know I tend to overthink situations when I have high expectations of myself or am racing people where I expect myself to produce a winning outcome. On the flip side, I always perform best when I am the underdog and race people better than myself. Part of this is enjoying being the dark horse, and part of it is having the freedom to make impulsive moves and take chances that you wouldn’t ordinarily take. This is when I have achieved a state of Flow. When I raced the Tour of California I was in a field of 109 of the best women in the world and I was only 22 years old. I wasn’t expected to win, but I was coming off a three-race win streak. My coach and I call it “rolling the dice”… basically it’s when I have the freedom to take risks and see what happens. More often than not I surprise myself. In that race I distinctly remember there were tons of crashes, the speed was super high, riders were coming in from the wheel pits almost every lap and disrupting the race speed. However, I remember being so calm. Everything came so naturally that I distinctly remember mid-race taking a deep breath and listening to the roar of the crowd. I thought, “wow, how cool is this that I am one of the youngest racers in such a talented field with a deafening crowd. Not many people have this opportunity.” I managed to instinctively not only avoid every crash but also be in the lead group to finish the race in 11th place. In this instance, and many other times I’ve achieved a state of Flow, it has been a combination of preparation and releasing yourself of expectations so that your natural abilities can shine.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I have a very unusual meditation ritual. I don’t sit still very well so staying seated and quiet is a challenge for me. However, I know it’s important to have some way to unwind and let go of stress. So, I take my mediation on the move. I incorporate at least one long ride each week on a route that I enjoy. This gives me 4 hours where I am “off the grid”, I don’t answer my phone, I always go alone, and I just sit on the bike, pedal, and look at the scenery. If I feel like going fast or doing intervals I will but I don’t have to. These rides help me to decompress, clear my head, and have a more productive day when I’m done.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

I’ve found it very helpful to think about the worst-case scenario. It usually illuminates the choices and the situation. For example, in a race I could be contemplating making a risky move off the front to catch the break. On one hand, I could sit in the field and settle for a safe 10th place, or I could take a big risk and go for the break. Going for the break could result in winning or blowing up in my face and getting last. At the end of the day, I’ll always choose the chance to win. At the very least I would end the race knowing I gave it everything I had. So, instead of negative self-talk and saying “wow, that’s a big risk. I could lose everything” you are changing your perspective and saying “let’s take the chance to WIN and make it work”.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Athletics and academics have provided me with countless opportunities, so I try to give back whenever possible. I started the Pickle Juice Pro Cycling Team to bridge the gender gap and provide a platform to advocate for women’s cycling. Through the team I’ve created the “Pickle for a Day” mentor program, where we bring on 5–6 young riders each year to guide and mentor through elite level racing. In addition, every year the team promotes a downtown criterium in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the Pottstown Bike Race. In fact, last year we saw a gap in the racing calendar so we stepped up our game and promoted 4 races in order to provide fun events for the community and racers in our area. It is my hope that even after I am done racing, I will be able to help manage or pass the torch to another woman that will continue to help female athletes through the Pickle Juice Pro Cycling Team.

I love sharing my experiences and helping others, so I started a coaching company in 2016 with my own coach, Podium Sports LLC. Over the years we have coached multiple riders with a range of abilities to national championship titles. Recently, I have started working for two different companies, Levels Health and Upgraid. I work as an exercise physiologist breaking down the science behind sport and metabolism in order to help other athletes become as successful as possible. I thoroughly enjoy giving back and I look forward to helping others achieve for years to come.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before”-Albert Einstein

I am well aware that I have taken an unusual path through life. There were countless times where I was scoffed at for trying something different or forging my own path. I’ve never been one to follow a crowd. I’ll learn from them, pay attention to my surroundings, but I will never blindly follow. For example, when there were no cycling teams that fit my niche or age bracket, I made my own team. This could have easily had my fall flat on my face but, with the help of family, a few friends, a lot of hard work, and amazing sponsors, I made my own path.

Academically, I took this same uncommon path, I knew I wanted to earn my PhD and the best program in the world was in New Zealand, so I pursued that will relentless passion. I moved half way across the world, without knowing anyone, without ever having been to the country before, and completely alone. But when you “walk alone” you have no choice but to succeed and I think people will surprise themselves as to what they can accomplish. I hope to empower other young women to forge their own path and pursue their passions, no matter where they may lead.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Melinda Gates! Who wouldn’t want to sit down with someone that has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s most power women? She was a Time Persons of the Year, wrote an incredibly insightful book, and is an inspirational woman. Her career as a woman in science, philanthropy, leadership and entrepreneurial success is beyond admirable. She is an incredible role model and advocate for women around the world. I would be honored to sit down with her and learn her approach to business and hear about she effectively advocates for others.

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