10 Mental Strategies for Staying Positive During a Hard Ride
In honor of the upcoming Rapha Women’s 100 event, I wrote a blog post for their site with some thoughts about conquering doubts and mountains. A few weeks ago, Julie Krasniak provided a very useful guide to preparing for a big ride like this. Her post covered things like hitting the road with a full stomach, knowing your route and checking your equipment.
Then recently I had the pleasure to exchange a few emails with Muireann Carey-Campbell whose blog, Spikes and Heels, I featured here not long ago. Muireann is riding L’Etape as part of the sponsored Rapha 100 crew – an accomplished athlete, she’s very new to cycling, and it’s been fascinating to follow her foray into the sport.
She expressed some concern about how one stays focused during a ride as long as L’Etape (130K). I have a running background, so I knew exactly what she was getting at – this bike riding stuff takes an excruciatingly long time compared to runs of equivalent intensity. Consequently, you have a lot of time to think. And think some more. And think some more. Thinking – especially the wrong kind of thinking – can get you into trouble. But the good kind of thinking can help you remember to enjoy this thing that you are supposedly doing for… fun. :) These are some tools and strategies I occasionally employ when my mind (or body) is trying to sabotage my ride.
1. Send negative thoughts packing: I think I learned this in one of the endless retreats I was forced to attend in college. Needless to say, I never used it for whatever introspective purposes the peer leaders might have intended, but I do use it a lot when I’m having a negative day on the bike. Every once in a while I find that my mental talk is nothing more than a string of whiney crap like myfoothurts, Ididn’tsleepenough, Ihatethischamois, it’stoohot, itstoocold, therestoomuchtraffic, therestoomuchwind, itstoofar, imtoooutofshape, itstoosteep, mykneehurts, thisjerseyshouldhavemorepockets, whyisthisgearskipping, blahblahblahblah. When this happens, I imagine packing up all the negative thoughts into a box, like cleaning up an untidy room, and shoving it off to the side of my brain. I’m not saying that stuff isn’t valid. I’m not saying I can’t come back to it. I’m just saying, not now. The visual really helps me do this in a concerted way.
2. Switch to positive self-talk: Remind yourself how rad you are, how great it is that you motivated and got out the door, tell yourself the top of the hill is just around the way (you’re sure of it!). I will admit that I do not do a lot of this kind of self cheerleading, but I do give myself a lot of instructions and orders, sometimes out loud. Most often? “Just shut-up and ride your bike, Swift.” I’m pretty good at taking orders, even if I have to be the one to dish them out.
3. Re-focus on what’s going right: Earlier this year in the middle of a century when I found myself without food for almost 3 hours, I decided not to panic. I kept reminding myself that I would be ok as long as I had water. I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d run out of water but this did the trick until I finally reached a store. Then I ate a corn dog, a bag of potato chips, a soda and some healthy crap I can’t remember. I won’t lie to you – I was really hungry out there. I probably would have eaten you if we’d crossed paths. But instead of obsessing over the fact that I was pedaling toward certain bonkdom, I told myself a story that facilitated hope instead of dispair.
4. Actively acknowledge recovery moments: Whenever I am on a hard ride and I get a little rest on a descent or a good draft in the back of a pack, I remind myself that my body is using those moments for micro-recovery by saying inside my head, “no watts no watts no watts” or “recover recover recover recover”. This always makes me more aware of how refreshed I am when I hit the next big climb or have to match an acceleration. I used this mental tool endlessly while riding in the Dutch-Belgian peloton during the Tour de France last year. It was often cruising just a little faster than I would have liked.
5. This too shall pass: Whatever is not going right in any particular moment is probably going to go away eventually. The first 20 or 30 miles of long group rides are always hard for me – I guess I warm up slowly – so I’ve trained myself to ignore every and any sensation that occurs during that window. I had foot pain for the first 2 or 3 hours of almost every stage of the Tour de France, but it always got better eventually. Always. By the end of an 8-hour day I would be comfortable and loose, having completely forgotten about it.
6. Computer Tricks: If you have a computer, set the screen up so you’re not looking at distance or speed - pick something more in the moment, like cadence, or something more positive, like total elevation gain, so you can focus on what you’ve accomplished instead of obsessing over how much is left. Watching miles tick over on a computer is a recipe for misery. Watched pot and all that. Cadence can actually be a fun game and good training to boot. When I am going out for a big day when I don’t have any focused training to do, I will usually start the ride with my computer screen set to either cadence or time, then I let myself get lost in conversation or thought. By the time I actually think to check my progress, I’m usually pleasantly surprised.
7. Sing: Singing relaxes you and relieves some stress. If you’re not into singing, hum a song inside your head and let it drive the rhythm of your cadence. This brings up the issue of music, which is generally contentious. I listen to music when I ride alone, but only once I’m out of town onto quiet roads. Some people feel listening to music is dangerous, which is why it’s a good thing that we have singing as a nice alternative :)
8. Break it up: Mentally break difficult sections into parts. This works particularly well with climbs (or 20-minute LT efforts). If you know the climb ahead is 10 miles, break it into 2.5 mile segments in your head. This is a place where having a computer telling you your progress can actually be helpful. You can even put a foot down and catch your breath as a reward when you hit your pre-determined milestones if you need to. I did this once to make it up the infamous “glass elevator” climb in Borrego Springs on my 75-pound touring bike – by feeding myself a quarter of an orange every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. Similarly, my boyfriend got me to do my first 80 mile ride by convincing me that it was just one of my normal 40 mile rides, but with another 40-mile ride right afterward. I wanted to kill him afterward but it did work.
9. Promise yourself stuff (focus on the reward): I spend probably 50% of my time on the bike promising myself things. Mostly I promise pizza, pasta, beer, and booze. Sometimes I promise myself Marni dresses, APC denim, Margiela shoes or Rick Owens jackets. I never actually give those things to myself at the end, but that’s ok because I am usually pretty happy just to have the pasta and beer. You can use this strategy on this small scale to get through a hard ride or, what is probably even better, is to set an attainable-but-challenging goal and then designate a reward. I have a friend who set out to lose 40 pounds and then bought a new bike when he finally made it. What’s at the end of the rainbow for you when you finish your first 100k ride?
10. Look up! Look up! Ohmygod! You’re on a bike in the wide, wide world. Maybe you’re hurting and maybe you’re hungry and maybe you’re a little bit uncomfortable and maybe you’re a little scared because you’ve never ridden this far before or – geez – maybe you’re feeling bored. Or maybe all those things at the same time. But… my god! The world, the wind, the warm sun, the pesky rain. Look around – what do you smell? What do you feel? Make a catalogue of sensations, file away the images, the colors, the feeling of your organs reacting to velocity, the sensation of blood pumped extra fast like crazy oxygen race car drivers. This is awesome. Don’t forget to look up. This is awesome.
Have anything to add? Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite
Jedi mind tricks.