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.




23 Responses to “10 Mental Strategies for Staying Positive During a Hard Ride”

  1. Kayt says:

    Great piece, Heidi!

  2. Kimberlee says:

    Excellent post. I used 8 of these tricks on Sunday when my legs started cramping 50 miles into the McKenzie Pass ride from Sisters to Belknap Hot Springs and back. Nice to have two new tricks up my sleeve!

  3. Damien says:

    Great stuff, all of it, but I really like number 6. I think I’ve got way too many stats my main screen on the Garmin. I’m going to trim it down to time and cadence and see how that goes on my next ride.

  4. Kris says:

    Number 10 and number 3 are the ones I rely on the most. Another trick I use is to mentally do checks on everything I know I should be doing and adjust my riding to compensate for it (plays on to #3). How’s my water situation? Am I drinking enough water? When was the last time I ate?

    Something that is specific to me but might be useful to someone else is I also do some quick mental math on time-distance calculations – I’m really good at math, but anything you’re normally good at that requires a little effort would work here. If I’m struggling to do something that normally would be easy for me like basic mental math or making lots of mistakes then I know I need to reassess how I’m riding and make changes – most times I’m either pushing too hard or not eating/drinking enough.

  5. Tori says:

    Heidi, great article. I think this is super helpful and good reminder even for us who’ve done longer rides.

    I find the caffeine “reward” really helpful. I hold off on having any caffeine on my ride until the last quarter of the miles. When I rode the Rapha Prestige this year, that was mile 90 of 124– and I still had one more big climb. Ooof.

    A nice cold coke or shot of espresso isn’t just lovely, but a boost for your mental and physical energy to get you through the last push. Caffeine helps your watts and can relieve any late-day pains you might be experiencing. It’s like having an extra set of legs!

    If you don’t have access to a coffee shop or store, a caffeinated gel will do the trick (though it’s not as much of a treat).

    Good luck to all those training for a big ride this summer!

    • Heidi Swift says:

      Good point. I always forget about caffeine because I drink so much of it all the time, it never does anything special for me.
      Also, you should put together a Nutrition Strategies type list! I tried to keep this one focused on mind-games, but I think stuff like “save caffeine til the end” is super valuable above and beyond the normal eat XXX cals and XX bottles per hour nutrition strategies I often see.

      And I love this phrase, “Caffeine helps your watts”. It gave me this mental image of little caffeine dudes giving little watt dudes a big push up a hill.

  6. Love this, Heidi! I definitely could use a little of this advice during races.. especially the longer ones. I’ve also found that depending on the course/length I also sometimes have trouble with losing focus/motivation that isn’t necessarily ‘negative thought’ related, but just, well, keeping focused on putting the power down for 3+ hours can get tough!

    • Heidi Swift says:

      I feel this, Wes. I don’t do a lot of road racing, but I had a lot of this emotional fatigue/lack of focus in the peloton during the Tour. There were hours that would go by where all I had thought about was the distance between my wheel and the one in front of me and not letting it grow. It was mentally exhausting!

      I practice this by doing long intervals sometimes – training for the tour I was doing LT intervals as long as 90 minutes (UGH). That takes a lot of mental stamina. I find I go into almost kind of a trance. I have this visual in my mind of my legs as a metronome. You can’t trance-out in a race, but I do think there is some sort of elevated mental state that you can get to. Interesting subject for sure.

      • Malachi Kirkpatrick says:

        Speaking of getting into a mental trance on a ride. I often try to meditate for at least an hour during my rides. I do this by breathing in and out by a count- for example one nuh two uh three uh. i count breath up to two hundred and back down and then i repeat for about an hour. I try to focus just on the breathing and the tempo of the ride. By doing this, that single hour passes swiftly and i am able to warm my body up,This is especially helpful on early morning rides. Thank you so much for these tips, they will help me immensely in my training for the Katy Flatland Century endurance race in Midland, Texas. :)

  7. Annie. says:

    Thank you for the article. Very helpful and fun reading!

    To me, it also is great to have good food with me. I’ve become a big fan of “The Feedzone Cookbook” as well as it’s “Portables” follower: There’s nothing more rewarding to me than the taste of some really yummy portables(like the banana waffles etc.) that is healthy and good for going on at the same time. It’s so much more than another ordinary energy bar…

    • Heidi Swift says:

      Annie – great point about “treats”. Like Tori’s mention of caffeine as a reward – on-bike rewards are a great idea! I, too, love the feedzone and portables movement, though I rarely have time to make things in advance. That said, I consider a PBJ a totally indulgent dessert, sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me out onto my bike!

  8. norm says:

    Nice article. I find when climbing I want to get out of the saddle earlier than I need to so I set a point up the road and tell myself that I can stand there. When I reach that point I tell myself that I reached it easily so stay seated and set another point further up the road to stand from. I’ll repeat this a few times before I finally get out of the saddle. It seems like a silly trick to play on myself but it continues to work and I climb more effeciently as a result.

  9. George L-P says:

    Perfect timing! Thanks for the cool article, I just signed up on whim to join a few riders from the club for a 190km ride this Monday (holiday here in South Africa), only 4 weeks after getting back on the bike. I think I’m going to be using all of these except 7… I don’t think they’ll invite me back if I do! Probably the most used ones will be 9 and 10 though. 9 = the inGamba trip next year, not only the reward of it, but the first stages of prep – mental and physical. And 10 – because that’s what I do everything I get onto a bike!

  10. Sarah says:

    My favorite trick is to focus on the muscles/body parts that are feeling sore and tired and give them their own positive encouragement. Instead of thinking ‘my thighs are burning up this never ending climb with no end in sight,’ I decide to accept the idea that it is unavoidable and painful, but focus on the feel of the muscles contracting, tell them how much stronger they are getting in the process of pushing the limits, and how bad ass they are for embarking on the process. Sometimes it’s the actual focus on the pain and paying attention to form that helps get me back in a good zone, but sometimes the other stuff gives me an extra burst of energy to get me back in the game.

  11. Jill says:

    First line of defense is always making up rewards for when I’m finished: 3 pizzas, a ginormous bottle of dark Belgian stout, potato chips, salted caramel gelato, stack of pancakes dripping with butter, shopping shopping shopping, etc. It never materializes, of course (well maybe some), but the mental game of bottomless rewards is fun and distracting when you’d rather be anyplace else.

    Second line of defense is for those harder times when you need to transcend yourself. I focus on friends or family who can’t do what I am due to health issues, or even people who have passed on and can no longer see the blue skies or feel the strength of being alive. When I’ve reached the point of feeling sorry for myself, I channel how they wish they could be out here, tell myself to quit complaining, and dig harder. Works like a charm and I often tell them afterwards how they helped me through the ride and they love to hear about being a source of someone else’s strength.

  12. My trick is to remember how much easier it is than running! Before I discovered cycling, running was such a chore, and my feet, shins, and knees hurt constantly. Now, even though I’m overweight, when I go cycling I feel like I’m flying almost effortlessly. (Until the climbs, heh.)

  13. Hayes says:

    One thing that goes along with the final tip, is to smile. When you look up and around and see where you are and what you’re doing, and realize that ultimately, we ride bikes for fun, just crack a smile. I often find myself smiling on long, winding descents by myself, or after I top out a climb and feel the breeze begin to to cool me. That realization that this is actually really friggin’ fun and even though you’re cold, wet, hungry, tired, and sore, this is what we love to do, and we are pretty badass for doing it.

    And pretending you’re Jens Voigt never hurts, either.

  14. Amanda says:

    Number 7 is what got my friend and I from Pittsburgh to DC along the GAP/C&O trail in 3.5 days (okay ibuprofen helped, too). We sang everything from Pocahontas songs to Notorious B.I.G. along the way.

  15. Ahh, I’ve just seen this! Thank you thank you thank you! This is awesome. I’ve saved it and am gonna keep re-reading it as I venture over to France for the big event next weekend. I find as the day draws nearer, I’m becoming more and more nervous, really worried about if I have the physical capabilities to do this (and yet, occasionally kicking myself for agreeing to do it and looking at my running shoes while sobbing). But these tips are really useful and I will most definitely be using them during the ride.

    Thanks again – really means a lot that you did this post.

  16. Bozidar says:

    Great tips with the computer. The active mental message of resting also helps, especially if you are expecting a lot more effort after the current moment of rest. So don’t push it in places where you can rest.
    I wrote something similar regarding going uphill, and it is more or less the same http://www.officecyclist.com/2013/08/5-tips-for-uphill-cycling.html. I would focus my thoughts on something completely off topic, from thinking about ideas for the next family weekend, a good recipe, or just what stuff I need to throw out of the garage.

  17. Tommy says:

    Great suggestions, wish I applied all 10 in Ayiti , many rookie missteps but lessons learned. Very positive piece, thank you Mrs. Swift