Last weekend John Marsh and a buddy were slated to ride back-to-back centuries in a charity event. The course had about 4,500 feet of climbing each way over long, rolling hills. John and his buddy are both very fit and experienced century riders. John has ridden back-to-back days on multiple tours and events; his buddy has only ridden back-to-back days once in an event setting.
Chatting with John about the mental side of big rides like this got me thinking about all of the mental techniques and tricks that I’ve used over 40 years of riding and 20 years of coaching. Here are my tips for roadies doing any big ride. Big is relative to what you normally ride. Big could be a 50K, 100K, 100 miles, 200K, etc. Or back-to-back days or a multi-day tour.
Finishing big rides is as much about managing the mental challenges during the ride as training sufficiently before the ride!
Get Organized Early.
Some anxiety before a big ride is normal. You can reduce the anxiety by taking care of the details early. Check over your bike and see that it’s ready to ride. Do your laundry and have your full kit ready. Decide on your nutrition for dinner the night before and breakfast the day of the ride. You should already have tested your ride nutrition during your training rides. Figure out how to get to the start. Make a to-do list of everything you need to do the day before and the morning of the ride.
Have a Plan.
Lay out a simple plan. Given the terrain, how long do you expect each leg to take from rest stop/control to rest stop/control? This will help you get your mind around the ride and build confidence that you can do it. This will also ensure that you and any buddies have the same plan.
Set Your Expectations.
From your plan you can set your expectations, but remember that factors like the weather and drafting are outside your control.
I trained for Paris-Brest-Paris in the Santa Cruz mountains (lots of climbing!) with a buddy. When one of us got cranky, the other would ask, “When did you last eat?”
1. Frank Shorter, an Olympic gold medalist in the marathon, advised me on how to do endurance events: Start at the pace you think you can sustain for the distance … and then slow down by 30%!
2. Always ride at a conversational pace — no heavy breathing. If you go hard, you’ll just have to slow down to recover.
3. Don’t chase rabbits — you’ll pass them later when they’re fried.
4. Another way of thinking about this is to ride the first day at the pace you think you’ll be capable of riding the second day.
Ration Your Matches.
Imagine that you have a book of matches, and imagine that every time you ride harder on a climb, catching a group, pulling into the wind, etc., that you’re burning a match. Ration your matches so that you don’t run out before the end of the ride.
Divide and Conquer.
Any long ride can be a little intimidating. Don’t think about how long it is. Just focus on riding to the next rest stop.
Accept the Ugly Middle.
In longer rides a roadie feels great with fresh legs for the first part of the ride. In the middle part of the ride the roadie may get discouraged — it’s still a long way to the finish and the legs are getting tired. Then the roadie smells the barn. Don’t get discouraged in the middle — just recognized that you’re in Coach Hughes’ “ugly middle,” and you’ll feel stronger later.
Hopefully you’ll have trouble-free rides, but things happen that are out of our control: a strong headwind is in your face most of the day, you have another flat, you have a mechanical, the heat gets to you, you have GI problems, you start to develop a saddle sore, etc.
First, take a few deep breathes to relax and focus on the problem at hand — distinguish between what you can and can’t control. Is the problem one you can fix? Can you improvise a solution? If you can’t fix it, adjust your expectations and get back on your bike. To stay motivated despite problems, remember why you’re doing the ride and how hard you’ve trained.
Hopefully, the only things that will start to hurt are your legs. If something else starts to hurt, do you have a remedy? For example, lube for your chafing or irritation?
If you have a remedy, then stop and take care of the problem. The stop will take time but will save time in the long run.
If you can’t remedy it, then distract yourself. Talk with fellow riders, sing your favorite songs, focus on the scenery, anything to take your mind off the painful sensations. I like to plan in detail the meal I’ll reward myself with after the ride.
I have a client who rode his first double century this weekend – the Davis, California, DC, which features 7,000 feet of climbing – with a high of 94F this year. I sent the rider a draft of this column last Friday. He finished in 15:01, including 1:30 off the bike. Afterward he wrote, “No ugly middle for me, but the last 50 were tough with a decent headwind … Thanks for helping me prepare and most of all for giving me the confidence boost when I was wavering on my preparedness.”
Yankees legend Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” The same applies to your long rides.
For more, get my eArticle Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling. The eArticle is a workbook with 16 sections to teach you different techniques. It’s only $4.99; $4.24 for our Premium Members with their automatic 15% discount.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.