Practice Makes Perfect? Practicing good athlete habits and avoiding bad ones

There is a widely quoted old adage that says that practice makes perfect, and like most old adages, especially when applied to bike racing, this one is a gross oversimplification. What practice really does is make habits. Practiced habits become stronger habits, easier to do again and harder to break. Practice doing something well, and you become better at it. Practice doing something poorly and you become worse at it or at least don’t improve. As your skills improve, your practice must improve if you are to progress on your quest to being a more perfect cyclist. Since every instance of poor practice reinforces a bad habit and makes it that much harder to break, take every opportunity to practice good habits and avoid bad ones. Since the training methods that brought you to a particular level of performance often won’t take you beyond that level, examine all aspects of your training and eliminate those types of training which are no longer beneficial, even if they used to be great.

Frustrated yet? So far I haven’t suggested a single interval, cornering drill, or nutrition strategy or anything else that you can go out and do to get faster. Instead I’m suggesting a whole new approach to each of these and all other aspects of training and life that will help you get the most out of any of them that you choose to do. Following are some examples. I hope at least one of them will show you a way to improve your cycling

Improving Cornering

For the absolute beginner, simply riding a bike around a corner helps the rider learn to corner better. Soon the rider reaches a plateau of cornering ability if all he or she does is ride around the corner. Starting to think about the choice of line, body position, when to brake and pedal and properly leaning the bike brings further improvement. Still, many riders will plateau again in cornering ability at a speed well below the limits of the bike and the physical body. This relates to the emotional quality of the cornering practice. Now you are thinking this coach must be from California, and I am, but keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.

If practicing downhill cornering to you means going as fast as you can, pushing the envelope, riding a wave of adrenalin almost if not entirely out of control, then you are practicing to ride in fear and not in control. Training is in part about learning, and your brain doesn’t learn well when you are scared. In order to learn to go faster around corners, you have to be in control. To be in control you have to go slow enough that you are not afraid, so one important step in increasing the speed at which you can corner is to slow down enough that you can feel safe and in control. Then you will notice what your bike and body are doing in detail, and be able to maintain control as you go faster.

One terrible habit that you must break, if you have it, is the pattern of reviewing a mental video of a cornering crash that you’ve seen or experienced or just imagined. Each time you see the video, it may give you a little thrill, but it is also teaching you to be afraid of cornering, which makes it that much harder to learn to corner well. For many athletes, simply refusing to review this mental video has made the difference between back-of-the-pack descending and being really competitive on descents.

Improving Group Riding Skills

The difference between the power output required to ride in the draft and the power output required to ride alone at the same speed is often larger than the difference in fitness between the weakest and strongest riders in the pack. This means that practicing to draft as efficiently as possible is just as important, if not more important, than purely physical training. When you ride off the back or side of the training group, or pull the whole day, you reinforce the bad habit of inefficient riding and miss the chance to practice a vital collection of skills. When you are accustomed to riding off the side or the back when it “doesn’t matter because it’s only a training ride”, it will seem natural to do so in a race as well. Make riding as close as is safe and possible a habit on every training ride. Then anything else will seem odd to you in a race.

Maximize the Quantity of Quality Training

We all know that the pros train big miles and that their success somehow relates to that volume of training. The mistake is to think, “If I could train 20-30 hours a week I could be great too”, and then to just try to do it. The true statement is that if you could train well 20-30 hours a week, you could be great too. What do I mean by “well”? Bike road racing is an aerobic sport. Riders with tremendous aerobic fitness do very well. Aerobic fitness is not the ability to ride hard, but the ability to ride fast without riding hard, and then the ability to ride tremendously fast when riding hard. If you can train to a level where you can ride fast without riding hard 20-30 hours per week, you’ll be able to be an elite racer. How do you develop that skill? An important step is the development of a habit of self-monitoring.

Remember that you get good at what you practice. If you want to be good at riding fast with little effort, you have to be in the habit of asking your body for feedback and deciding whether training on a given day will be practicing what you want to be good at or not. Riding long or hard when you are already tired will not be nearly as beneficial as taking an easy day when you are tired and then doing the more challenging training when you are fresh again. What do I mean by tired? My elite clients mostly have learned to go easy if they feel anything but totally excellent, and in fact developing that habit is in several cases what has helped them distinguish themselves from the other riders who go hard for various reasons other that being ready and knowing it. Bad reasons include wanting to set a new record on a training loop, wanting to stick to an arbitrary training plan and wanting to go on the Wednesday group ride regardless of how you feel.

Riding hard when your body is not ready for it is a bad habit for several reasons. Riding other than recovery when you are already tired makes you more tired without making you faster and delays the time when you will be able to do quality training again. Riding hard when you are tired increases the chance of illness or burnout and then missed training days and decreased quality training time. Training hard when you are tired makes you good at going hard without going fast. Why would you want to do that?

Don’t Give Yourself Permission to Mess Up

There are certain things you know you need to do to be a great racer: Train right, eat right, sleep right, stay focused while racing, keep your bike in good repair, talk regularly with your coach, avoid people who undermine your confidence and surround yourself with supportive people. And guess what? It’s not okay to mess up on any of these, at least not if you want to win bike races. Most of us want to win much more than anyone else cares if we win or not, which means that ultimately we are only responsible to ourselves for all our racing related behavior. If you give yourself permission to polish off a six pack, stay up late, skip training days, ride at the back of a big pack, or let the frayed brake cable go a few more days, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself when you don’t perform. Make a habit of taking responsibility and having self-respect. If there is something you can do or can avoid to improve your racing, do it. If you honestly want to race better, say “no” to things that make you race worse.

Make Use of this Article

Like any training information, the material in this article is only beneficial if you practice it. Make a habit of examining your life and training methods. Identify and eliminate the bad habits that hold you back. Identify and reinforce the good habits that are helping you achieve your goals. If you are not sure which habits are bad and which good, talk to a mentor or coach. Good luck.

This Article by Scott Saifer, M.S. originally appeared in ROAD Magazine in July of 2007. Scott works with all levels and ages of challenging cyclist athletes. Inquire about working with Scott here.