How Was Your Ride? The Importance of Attitude to Recovery and Success
Effective recovery only happens if you relax. Without recovery, training gains are minimal, and you can even weaken despite working hard. The blissful rush felt when sitting calmly after hard training corresponds to a hormonal shift from work mode to recovery mode. That feeling means you are getting stronger. Zooming off to post-ride activities without relaxing first means a sub-optimal response to training. Top professional athletes are so strong in part because, theoretically, exercise is their only job. They don’t go to work or do chores after training. They can relax with their feet up, bliss out, and get stronger. If you don’t have that luxury, at least take a few calm minutes between training and other stresses, even if that means training a few minutes less.
However, what if a poor ride caused you anxiety so you can’t relax? Maybe you didn’t cover the expected distance, you were slow and tired, or you got wet and cold. Stressing over such factors reduces the benefit of the current ride and also delays recovery. Don’t dwell on a “bad” training session. When a ride doesn’t meet your expectations, let it go, relax and prepare to make the next ride better.
The Making of a “Good” Ride
The difference between good and bad experiences relates more to attitude than what actually happened. For instance, riding into a gusty, cold headwind can be miserable or exhilarating. One winter day in the mid-1990s, a gray sky threatened rain. Trees rubbed loudly against my windows. I lacked enthusiasm for a planned five-hour ride. I checked my tire pressure and brake pads, adjusted derailleurs, lubed the chain, trued the wheels, put the laundry in… and it was still blowing, maybe harder than before. In a last desperate bid to avoid going out, I picked up a cycling paper and read a story about Chris Boardman. He had done well in the Tour De France, winning the prologue three times in his carreer, and advanced the World Hour Record twice. As an amateur he had ridden with a club near Paris from which several other riders had graduated to the pro ranks.
The interviewer asked Boardman what had made that club special. He opined that the club’s “secret” stemmed from the fact that the coach made them go out in all conditions. Whether or not a rider had talent, they really learned to ride in the wind, Boardman explained.
“Is that what it takes? Riding in the wind? I can do that!” I said to myself. I set off as quickly as I could, hoping for a dose of the magic that had made Boardman a champion. When the wind slackened a few miles into the ride, I was bummed! I wanted to work hard, to barely creep along into the wind so I could be great. Years later, I figured out that the mysterious “knowing how to ride in the wind” had more to do with finding a draft and riding an echelon than simply fighting the wind alone, but on that day, I was stoked to ride in awful weather because I believed that riding against wind was the secret.
As I continued to race, I noticed that I did particularly well when it rained, a benefit of training in the rain so often that being soaked to the bone no longer bothered me. Dressed right, it wasn’t too bad, and I knew it made me stronger.
Such Good Luck!
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb about a farmer’s son who finds a wild horse. “Such good luck,” a neighbor says, but the farmer explains that the boy broke his leg trying to ride the horse. The neighbor sympathizes about the bad luck, but the farmer says that because of the injury, the son avoided conscription into the army. “Oh, that’s good luck then,” the neighbor replies. The story continues a few more rounds, but the point is that an experience is only good or bad within a certain context Even then, it’s hard to tell sometimes.
Say your muscles are sore from a hard workout. That’s bad, right? No one likes sore muscles, but then imagine it’s been years since you had that feeling and you are sore because you are starting an exercise program and getting back into shape or because you have done your first hard climbing of the year. Suddenly, feeling sore isn’t so bad, no? That doesn’t mean you seek soreness, but you don’t have to avoid it either. Soreness can be okay.
One year I slid out on a sandy turn at the bottom of a steep hill late in a crit. I was leading with a good gap, going for a prime at the time. Hitting the ground knocked the wind out of me, and I barely recovered in time to rejoin the field before the free laps ended. The pack had dwindled from 60 to 20. I managed to catch on but was unable to move up. I finished 15th. Most of my races had prizes to sixth so I had been bummed many times by finishes as high as 7th, but this particular event paid 15th. Picking up my prize, I was stoked. I had crashed and still won a prize! Surely I’d have done better without the crash, but I’d gone home without prizes often enough to count that day as a good one. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Was It A Good Training Week?
Some riders foolishly measure their weekly success by miles ridden. This metric is a lousy measure of training impact. Riding into a headwind for three hours and covering 30 miles gets you much fitter than coasting 40 miles in the opposite direction.
Time and heart rate or power provide a much better measure of training effort than does distance. Still, a low-hour week can still be the best choice, if you are sick, tired, or tapering for instance.
Setting personal records in training indicates improving fitness, but if record chasing leads you to ride harder than your plan, it undermines your longer-term goals. Distinguish training days from performance days. Wait until the right time for testing and feel stoked after setting a new record on a performance day. On training days, don’t push beyond planned training pace or time to achieve a new record. Record chasing and using new records to maintain your mood is counterproductive if it reduces training quality and slows your progress.
Being an athlete means striving for improved fitness, skills and competitive abilities. You have to try, but being depressed or angry when you don’t improve doesn’t make you faster. For me, any week with as many bike shorts in the hamper as work outfits, is a success. People who race need to set the bar a bit higher.
Here’s a fair way to judge your week: Did you stick to your training plan? If you have a good plan and you stuck to it, you will get stronger. Did you get the planned hours or have a valid excuse for missing? If you wasted time or missed training because you were tired from not sleeping or from riding harder than you should have, be frustrated and swear to do better but then move on. If you missed hours because the weather was bad and you didn’t feel like going out or riding the trainer, berate yourself, swear to do better and move on. If you stuck to the training plan, ate well and got plenty of sleep but had to take an easy day because of accumulated fatigue, don’t curse not making your goal hours. Rather, recognize that your plan was harder than necessary. Recover and return to training with an adjusted plan. Know that you did as much work as you could handle and that you trained exactly the right amount.
The Feeling of Control
People who perceive themselves to be in control of their destinies are happier and less stressed than those who feel like the victims in their own personal stories. Less stress means more productive training, and one person really can feel control or victimhood in the same situation depending on how they look at it. You get good at what you practice, so train your sense of control. Rather than curse the wind, remind yourself why you are training in it. Rather than curse a slow day, figure out why it happened and what you need to do to avoid another one.
Discomfort is Inevitable but Suffering is a Choice
You need to train. You can’t control the weather but you can control what you think about it. Will you think, “Tough weather makes tough athletes,” or will you whine, “This sucks!” Your attitude when it starts to rain or blow determines whether you’ll have a good ride or bad one. Of course, carrying appropriate clothing to avoid hypothermia or overheating facilitates this positive outlook!
You need to race to develop tactical skills, but racing before you have those skills means losing. Getting beaten doesn’t mean you had a bad day. You don’t have to be happy about a defeat, but you should be able to extract lessons from any races you don’t win. Additionally, be glad to have learned that knowledge because afterwards you won’t lose as often or as badly for the same reasons.
Physical pain challenges even the best attitude. Your brain is programmed to make the jump from “I feel pain” to “I want this to stop”, but when you are racing, the hard bits are going to hurt. Still, you have to keep going.
A common but less than ideal way to deal with racing pain is to remember that there is no chance the group can keep up a hard effort forever. If you can go just a little longer, the rest of the pack is bound to ease up. Unfortunately, that’s a fragile position. The longer the pace keeps up, the harder it is to convince yourself that they’ll let up in time. You don’t control your destiny.
You could remind yourself that however much you hurt, the others must be having a similar experience. If they can keep it up, you can keep it up. That attitude works until it doesn’t.
When hurting on hard climbs or during attacks, remember that this is what you trained for. This is what bike racing feels like. You chose to be here. You may not be in total control of whether you stick with the pack, but you do control your effort. Do everything you can to make the necessary power for as long as it takes. It’s not about whether you succeed but whether you make the effort.
Have a Good Ride
Attitude makes or breaks each ride, and it impacts how well you recover. A good attitude makes a faster rider, so find a way to stay happy or at least accept your fate. Suffering makes you stronger. Pain is the feeling of weakness leaving your body. Fatigue means you have trained hard enough. Also work on the stress-recovery balance so you feel good when you train and recover well after. Don’t lie to yourself, saying that you feel great as you roll into the ER with pneumonia. Take care of yourself so you don’t get pneumonia, and practice such a great attitude that you enjoy every ride, even when you don’t get what you expected or wanted.
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching help our clients follow training plans that led to 180 podiums in 2015. Our coaching includes psychological, nutritional and mechanical support along with training guidance. To inquire about working with Scott or any of the Wenzel Coaches, please call (503) 233-4346 or visit www.WenzelCoaching.com. We are also looking for new coaches all across the US. Visit the website for information.
This article first appeared in the March, 2016 issue of ROAD Magazine.