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.
John Mullineaux says
Here is a mental hack I learned from my first long (68 mi) ride of the season and it is a more granular version of breaking it onto bits. My legs felt tight at the start and I immediately had the usual concerns about being able to finish. I had downloaded the px file into my Garmin and because I didn’t know the route, I switched the Garmin to map view. The result of that was instead of focusing on how many miles I had left and how lousy I was feeling, all I had to do was ride the 1.2 miles to the next turn and I could easily do that. I literally rode the entire ride from one turn to the next. Easy!
Zvi Wolf says
Like John M, I keep my Garmin on map view. The two bits of info I keep visible on that screen are speed and distance to next turn. I purposely do not look at my average speed or distance travelled. For me not knowing those things keeps me in the moment. It worked well last weekend when I did the Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder, my first organized gravel ride. It was (mostly) on roads, so it sort of qualifies as a road ride. It had 6300-6900 feet of climbing, depending on whose Garmin you looked at, over 65 miles.
John Marsh says
Zvi & John,
Great tips, guys. This is the perfect example of using whatever is in your personal arsenal to get past any difficulties or get through any ride in the best way you. For me, just knowing the distance of a climb or ride segment works, but drilling down to the next turn is a great idea, too, if that works for you.
Zvi Wolf says
I should clarify that the roads it was on were mostly dirt, but were roads. There was also singletrack…
George Ferguson says
When I’m doing long rides (80-100 miles) my goal is to finish, and still want to ride the next day. I turn the computer display to just show the local time…I don’t worry about distance, average speed, or cadence. I look for interesting things, maybe things I had not seen before. One time going past a cornfield I saw like a line in my peripheral vision…I learned all the ears were at the same height. I stop to take pictures…found a beautiful rock wall that went for about 1/2 mile, that someone obviously spent a lot of time and love on…once stopped and took a pic of a huge field of sunflowers. I look for strange things, think about how to blog about them, then record some voice notes on my phone at the next rest stop. Big hill coming up? No problem…just gear down, get a good rhythm going, then let gravity do the work on the other side. Yes, much of it is all in the mind.
Bob C says
Coach, Just an FYI…the Davis DC had more like 8000 feet of climbing and I saw a high well above 100. So you’re client did an even better job!
Dennis FG says
An oft overlooked ‘tip’ especially by first timers is “Don’t add anything new to your diet, clothing or bike!” I have seen riders barfing up a ‘new to them’ gel or sport drink, I have seen blistered bare toes caused by those wonderful new shoes, etc. You get the point, ride only with what you have been training with. Especially, don’t change any measurements on your bike. Ride what your body is used to.
John Hughes says
Dang, it’s gotten harder! It only had around 7,000 ft. in the old days when I rode it!
John Hughes says