By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: Cycling is a test of endurance — the challenges you face are not just other riders. To be successful requires overcoming personal trials. These are your real enemies even if they exist only in your imagination. They have names: pain, fatigue, monotony, discomfort, malnutrition, fear, bad luck and hopelessness. Training must therefore aim to do more than just increase fitness. It must also build the mental strengths and skillsets to know these enemies, to prepare for them and overcome them.
This article is the first in a series that introduces a new dimension to endurance training. It does so by adding a new set of training challenges, those that affect the mind. It is not intended to replace existing methods, which tend to focus on physiology, but to complement them, to act as a “force multiplier” allowing you to get more benefit from every hour spent training for something whatever that something may be.
It does this by incorporating everything that affects end goal performance rather than just a subset. While aspects of this approach have been touched on elsewhere this is typically done piecemeal or as a completely separate process, independent from actually riding a bike and performing workouts.
The challenges are introduced here as “enemies.” Later pieces will deal with how training can be adapted so it prepares for them at one and the same time as it improves muscle function and wattages.
One of the most important rules in warfare is “know your enemy.” Sport is the closest that most of us will get to a battle these days, thankfully, but the phrase is just as appropriate there.
Your enemies when taking part in bike events may be invisible and seen only by you.
Because road cycling is an endurance sport.
The very word endurance provides a clue as to why it is different from many, indeed most other sports which pit person against person, individually or as part of a team. Except for the minority who are born with fast twitch fibers to spare and can battle it out shoulder to shoulder for a win in a bunch sprint, a cyclist’s main challenge often comes not from others taking part, but themselves. Their main priority is to overcome their limitations, not giving in to inner voices telling them to stop.
A road cyclist’s enemies are frequently, literally, a figment of their imagination.
This doesn’t make them any less real or any less daunting.
Pain, for example, feels real. But it’s really all in your head. You can’t measure it like you can power or heart rate. You can’t look at others and know how their suffering compares to yours.
The point when these internal enemies beat you may come as a surprise, causing disaster just a few yards short of triumph.
But they can be vanquished. Sometimes surprisingly when, from nowhere, you can turn defeat into victory getting a surge of energy from something like a passing rider or a shout of encouragement from the road side.
The better prepared for these enemies the more likely the latter will be the case and the less likely the former.
That requires familiarity that can breed contempt. If you know your enemies and test yourself against them frequently, you will get to know them and know how to beat them. You can train intelligently, with purpose, so you win not them. Succeeding in this will, in of itself, provide the best guarantee that you will be able to fulfill a cycling ambition. Even if this is measured in terms of competition against others.
Training should not just be about increasing physiology. Time during a workout is much better spent if it aims not only to just improve VO2max, but also help deal with pain and fatigue. Or as well as something like building stamina, you also train to maintain focus for the hours required to complete an event.
To me this is obvious. However I have never come across it as a suggestion as a priority, equal with that of, say, of increasing FTP. But it is.
Here then is an introduction to eight enemies to success. Future articles will go into more detail of each and how to overcome them.
Pain here is a special type of pain. The burn you feel in your muscles when going all out, the pain that is often blamed (falsely) on lactic acid. (There are other types of pain and these will be dealt with later.) This pain is special because it is so easy to make it go away. All you have to do is stop trying, just ease back a bit. Pain will be an enemy in almost all events. It is though a fair enemy, it attacks everybody. So the goal with pain is not to beat it outright. It is to be able to look pain in the eyes for long enough to keep it in its place for just a bit longer than is needed to be successful.
While, by definition, painful this can be done. One outcome of hard training is not just to improve physiology but to become familiar with pain and so learn to handle it. Cyclists are not alone in having to deal with pain, indeed they are the lucky ones since it is easy to make it stop. They can learn from others, less fortunate, who have of necessity had to develop natural, safe means to handle pain when it strikes.
Fatigue is almost the opposite of pain. The problem is that you don’t feel it. It creeps up on you gradually and the first time you may be aware of it is when you push on the gas pedal and nothing happens. The pace that seemed easy at the start now feels hard, the climb you sailed up the first time now feels like a mountain.
It too can be trained with practice. The difficulty can be that the training needed to accomplish this is itself long and hard. But still it needs to be done. If the critical moments are in the final hour of a multi-hour event or on the last very hard effort of many it is no good just hoping for the best. A training plan has to include some occasions that put you in the place where you will be when you need to be at your strongest (even if being “strong” in this case is relative, just enough to not crack and be able to push on.)
The mind is easily bored. Doing the same thing over and over again becomes harder with every repetition. Just counting from 1 to 10 over and over takes real effort, the brain complains, its built for better things.
A bike event that lasts hours demands total concentration on mundane things like pedalling, posture and paying attention to conditions that rarely change. Furthermore, the mind needs fuel and the fuel it needs, glucose, can become in short supply as the muscles burn it up. Just like your legs it will fatigue.
Succumbing to monotony might mean your ambition ends in spectacular fashion as you fail to notice some form of danger and crash. But more frequently everything essential to success will become sloppy. Power will be wasted by poor pedalling, poor position, poor bike handling or poor road tactics. You will forget to eat or drink. You will take the long way round corners not the short way. In this way monotony works hand in hand with fatigue to make longer efforts seem harder the longer the go on.
The “cures” for monotony are positive habits and intelligent awareness. Focussed practice on perishable skills will reinforce them so that they become instinctive and less likely to falter over time. The mind too can be trained to develop the habit of intelligent awareness, being constantly engaged in “systems monitoring” similar to an engine management system in a car. This will both keep it “switched on” and provide an early alert if form starts to fade.
Discomfort is the sum of all the negative sensations, including pain, that come from sources other than using muscles to produce the power needed to make a bike move. It can range from the extremes of the aftereffects of a crash (riders have been known to continue even after fracturing their legs) to an ever so slight rubbing from a piece of clothing that you cannot ignore. Whatever the cause discomfort is a distraction.
Informed Planning should remove the risk of discomfort from avoidable sources. Training should act as a test that you have succeeded in this regard. “Specificity” applies to many aspects of training but especially here. If you want to be a good time trialist you need to spend a lot of time training in a time trial position. If your challenge involves long hard days in the saddle then your saddle needs to be comfortable after 6 hours not 1. If you train at a cadence of 80 your gearing needs to allow you to turn the pedals at 80rpm up a 10% slope if it’s in your way.
If you have done this and just suffer discomfort from bad luck then (if it’s not too bad) it can be used as a spark to ignite your “Combativity.” The pain from a hurt elbow resulting from a spill that someone else caused can used to channel anger so the pain from your muscles gets less attention. This can be practiced during training. When things don’t go according to plan they can be used as an opportunity. Viewed in a positive light even an unfortunate experience may turn a run of the mill training ride into one that will give you confidence for the future.
Hard work needs fuel and for cycling that fuel is carbohydrate. Hard work makes you sweat, even when it’s cold and especially when it’s hot and dehydration degrades performance very quickly.
In short events this is not a big deal. But if when they take longer, if they are measured in hours not minutes, then a clock starts ticking, even before you start. The body can only absorb limited amounts of carbs and water so if there is a risk of emptying your tank then waiting until you are running on fumes to fill up is too late. Much better keep it topped up from the start. But this can be difficult in the hurly burly of an event. Even the pros, with all the support in the world, can get it wrong.
This can be a good news story. Malnutrition is the easiest enemy to overcome, it just requires a bit of foresight and practice during training. Better still the need to fuel can serve a double purpose. Getting into the habit of having a swig of drink and something sweet at regular intervals can not only make sure you are well fuelled but can also be a great way to refocus. As an example on a long climb rewarding oneself by eating a jelly sweet every half mile, at the same time doing a quick systems check to ensure other enemies are being kept at bay and a mental reset to turn a seemingly impossible task into a series of small manageable chunks.
Fear is many different things to different people. Of all the “enemies” it is the most variable. The same situation can inspire terror in some and exhilaration in others, bunch sprints and descending at speed are two examples. And fear is not always a bad thing, fear of failure is a powerful motivator to many, including me,
But fear can be debilitating. A sleepless night can mean an event is lost before it even begins. If riding in a big group at speed scares you then you will never be able to compete in many sorts of events no matter how many watts you can put out.
Fear needs to be faced fearlessly. With an honest self assessment of what frightens you in a way that degrades your performance. It then needs to be tackled and the best way to do this is in small doses. An approach used to deal with phobias works well, just expose yourself to a small amount of whatever scares you until you are confident then increase the dose. If descending fast and carving through corners scares you just pick one and get the hang of it. Then another in the opposite direction, doing nothing more than getting everything right so it becomes automatic. Then string a couple of corners together. Add a few more and it becomes easier each time.
But if you need fear to drive you to your best accept it, don’t fight it. It’s not true that the only thing to fear is fear itself. If fear makes you train harder or ride better then, so long as it’s a slave not the master, embrace it, it’s part of what you are.
Stuff happens. This is true of almost all sports and cycling is particularly subject to the fickle fates of fortune. If you are not prepared to get dealt a bad hand from time to time then the only solution is to find another pursuit like chess.
The golden rule for luck is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If you expect bad things to happen and they don’t you are a lot better off than the reverse.
The other best advice to make the best of a bad job. A positive mindset is always of value but most especially when things are not going according to plan.
I saved the worst to last. Hopelessness is a place you don’t want to be and will often be the result of one of the enemies above winning out.
Hopelessness can come at many levels. From not being able to complete a workout that should have been well within capacity to believing that an ambition that has been your driving force for years is beyond you.
The best way to deal with hopelessness is not to get there in the first place which is why it’s important to be aware of and do the best to conquer all the enemies above.
But sometimes you fail. But this need not the end, it might actually turn out to be for the best.
This can be achieved through a combination of a positive mindset and “Informed Planning”. The latter should always have prepared a Plan B in case things go wrong. One of the many uses for a power meter, for me at least, is that there is usually always a Plan B. If stuff happens, my default objective is to use the occasion to try to either set a new power best or gather power data that will be useful for the future.
One of the best rides of my entire life happened this way. I punctured a few minutes into a road race I had travelled a couple of hours to compete in. I was unsupported and had no chance of re-joining the race but I did not pack up and make the long drive home. I channelled my anger into trying if not to catch the bunch at least keep the gap down and not let them lap me. I ended up averaging over 300W for a full 60 minutes, the first time I had ever done so. This allowed be to reset my power zones and the confidence it gave me was worth far more than the few points I may have gained if I had not had “bad luck.”
At the end of the day it’s just a bike race. No matter how hopeless a situation may be it will most likely seem less so tomorrow when you regroup and replan. Even if an ambition is impossible that doesn’t mean all ambition is impossible. It may just require a bit of recalibration.
The enemies listed above may not apply to everyone or to every type of event. Some people are genuinely fearless, a tiny few, literally and dangerously for them, feel no pain. Cycle events vary hugely lasting just seconds in some cases to many days in others.
The enemies are those that occurred to me because I have encountered them, sometimes with success, sometimes not. There will no doubt be others, this is not intended as the final word on anything but the start of something that will hopefully grow and improve with time.
So there is no one size fits all solution for dealing with all possible enemies. But I would suggest as a starting approach to treat them as you would preparing for the physical demands of the event. List them in some sort of priority order and ask yourself if you are strong or weak right now in how you deal with them.
As a starter try considering each and ask some questions such as “How much of a threat is it to my ambition?” and “How confident am I that I can conquer it when I need to?” and “What am I doing now to improve my chances of beating it?”
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.
Jeff In Iowa says
Great article, thank you for sharing your wisdom on these mental/physical barriers. As a person with lots of fast twitch muscles, monotony and endurance are my leading enemies. Your article helped me in naming and knowing them. Thanks so much !
Richard Rogers says
Great guidance, well described!