They say cycling is 30% fitness and 70% mental toughness. You could have perfect DNA for a cyclist but if you do not have the mental fortitude to keep pushing the pedals when things get hard, you will fail.
Nobody really enjoys pain though, do they? Well, you’d be surprised. I once asked asked 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck why he rides bikes, and he said “If I don’t ride, I miss the pain”!
The fact is that if you want to become a better cyclist, there will be pain involved. You will need to find a way to embrace that fact. One quote that always helps me, as I suffer up the mountains, is this:
‘Pain is temporary. Failure is permanent.’
If you can follow a weekly plan of training, day by day and week by week, this will help to focus your mind. Consistency is key in cycling: consistency in sticking to the plan and consistency in your suffering.
When things are hard on a long climb or into a headwind, distract the mind and re-focus by counting your pedal stroke. I count my left pedal stroke when I need this, or I count my breaths.
Focusing on breathing is a great way to stay in control and to calm the mind. Deep breaths down to your stomach combined with long exhales – literally this is Zazen meditation breathing on the bike – is a great way to stay on track.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the mental side of cycling is not that we have to learn to embrace pain, but that when you do suffer, you have to strive to suffer more than everyone else.
What do I mean? Well, when you have for example a hard 10 minute full power section in a training block, or 5 x 25 second sprints, you have to go as hard as you possibly can. This is a critical aspect of training. Most people think they are at their limit when riding hard, but they are not. You have to train on the hard days as if your life depended on it.
Imagine your rival is next to you, or chasing you. Do anything to push harder, deeper, further than you imagined you could go.
When going full power up a hill, imagine that something terrible will happen to you or your loved ones if you do not arrive at the summit in a certain time – whatever you need to think of to push through the pain and beyond – do it!
My training, when I was racing, was harder than almost every group ride I went on. In fact, my training was harder than most races I did!
Embrace the pain, learn to love the suffering, and always remember your goals – to be better faster, stronger – and go do the work.
And remember – when you think you are done, finished, that you have no more to give – you are not.
You DO have more!
So after all this suffering, we come to the most important and most overlooked and misunderstood aspect of cycling: rest.
Rest and recovery is more important than the cycling itself, because you could train every day for 2 moths, become stronger than ever before, but if you don’t rest, your body will go into a deep fatigue (known as overtraining) and you will lose all the gains you made previously. Even worse, your immune system may begin to fail and you may never be able to reach your previous fitness levels.
What are the common signs of overtraining?
- Constant muscle soreness
- Loss of weight and appetite
- Sore throat
- Loss of power
- Trouble sleeping
- Lower heart rate
If you experience any of these symptoms, take a few (3-4) days off the bike completely, eat well and try to sleep for 7-8 hours. Then come back and do easy rides for 2-3 days.
Do not, if losing power and strength, make the common mistake that many cyclists do by training harder and longer. As a coach, I see people do this all the time and it is a huge mistake.
Learn to listen to your body. As humans, we often ignore the body’s signals. And yet the best system available for understanding what we need is under our skin. Encourage the brain to hear what the body needs and take care of it.
Of course, as cyclists hoping to become faster, we need to stress the system. But we also have to listen to it when it needs a break. And this is why a good training plan has rest built in.
Stressing the body – raiding hard – must be balanced with adequate rest. This allows the body to make adaptations to the stress, and then to be able to do more next time you stress it. This is known as ‘Periodisation’, and we build this into the week of training, and into a 4-week block of training.
Within the week, look for at least 2 days off completely from cycling. Traditionally this would mean Monday and Friday off. Tuesday and Thursday will be focussed, higher level training, with Wednesday being a recovery (easy) ride.
Within a month of training, a ‘3 weeks on / 1 week off’ system is what most coaches adhere to. This means 3 weeks of harder training, with week 4 being a rest week, where the athlete simply rides easily, without much stress to the system.
So, in summary, when the plan says ‘ride hard’, ride REALLY hard! And when it, and the body, demand rest, rest properly and deeply.
Respect your body, toughen your mind, and great things can be achieved!