Will You Win Your Races or Your Training Rides? Control Your Competitive Drive!

Joe stomped hard as the light changed. It was supposed to be an easy day, but a few hundred yards ahead he spied prey, another rider. Accelerating, he dropped into an aero position, elbows deeply bent and knees in close to the top tube. Powering up through the gears he began closing the gap. His legs felt good. A hundred yards, fifty, forty, thirty… Joe wound up a massive sprint, but not too massive. He didn’t want the other rider to think he was working hard. Finally, triumphantly he pulled ahead. He resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air, especially as he realized the other rider had stopped to make sure that Barbie was comfortable in the basket hanging from the bars of her tricycle.

When it comes to training for a goal, excessive competitive drive makes many riders their own worst enemies. They know how they should train for the coming season or the next race, but their urge to ‘win’ every perceived competition derails them.

Training of any intensity from gentle spin to max effort can be the perfect workout, or can be a terrible error, depending on two factors: Timing and readiness. In previous articles I’ve discussed the importance of training appropriately given the time left before racing. Since the body takes longer to complete its response to aerobic training than anaerobic, it makes sense to do aerobic training year-round and to save large volumes of high-intensity work for the final months before racing. That’s not because there’s no place for higher intensity in the “base” season, but because if one rides hard enough and often enough to reduce the amount of base training one can handle, later performance is hindered, not helped.

Excessive hard riding compromises the development of competitive fitness in at least two ways: First, there’s a strange psychological effect: Riders who ride near LT for an extended time on the majority of their rides often burn out, especially riders with jobs that impair relaxation and recovery. They lose interest in training and racing well before racing season. Even if that doesn’t happen, anyone who is tired from hard riding yesterday produces less effort today. Reduced effort produces reduced results.

A useful way to think about the optimal balance of harder and easier riding is to consider ‘quality’. Competitive fitness comes from high-quality training. A ride has good quality if you feel good compared to the speed or power you are making, whether or not it is the appropriate intensity for the day or the time of year. If you are struggling to produce a power that usually comes easily you are doing a low quality ride and wasting training time. (If you are reasonably self-aware, you don’t need a power-meter to know when quality has dropped, but using one can make reduced quality easier to spot.)

Ride quality can be reduced by fatigue, dehydration, glycogen depletion, home stress, lack of sleep, or excessive heat, among other factors. One common cause of reduced ride quality is too much intensity compared to recovery. Most riders with decent recovery can handle one or two days per week of going harder than base pace to the point of fatigue, once they have developed aerobic fitness and recovery ability. More than that, week after week, will wear down the vast majority of riders, even pros. That’s why it’s important to avoid the temptation to test yourself or compete on every ride.

There’s an old saying that if you never go slow, you can never go really fast. Going fast requires being on a good day, and being on a good day requires being fed and hydrated, caught up on sleep and recovered from previous workouts. That requires recovery days that are really easy.
If you train daily and every workout is long enough or hard enough to leave you fatigued for more than a day, you can never do high-quality work. Generally, the perfect endurance workout leaves you just tired enough that you can be back to 100% the next day or the day after. Learning to back off when you have reached just that level of fatigue rather than burying yourself is a real challenge, especially if you tend to fall into the competition trap. Some workouts need to be easy so that others can be hard. Otherwise one ends up going medium all the time and not getting close to one’s potential. Many riders know this intellectually, but have difficulty acting on it in real life.

The Brain Switch

Years ago a local pro told me his theory that cyclists have a switch between their legs that turns off their brain when it is pressed, as by sitting on a saddle. Even though they start each day with a goal for training or each race with a tactical plan, once riders are on the bike, all bets are off. In the heat of the moment, the plan is often forgotten.

What can you do to reduce the chance of your plan going out the window once you are pedaling? At some level, it’s a question of discipline. You need to be able do the right thing now to get what you want later. On another level, there are some common triggers that cause riders to forget their plans and ride hard, compromising later training and racing. For most riders, avoiding the triggers allows riding with better discipline and better results.

Triggers for Poor Training

Most triggers for over-enthusiastic training relate to competition, either with others or with oneself. If you sometimes train harder than you know you should, don’t back off when appropriate, or have trouble keeping your efforts under control, being aware of your competitive triggers can help you avoid being controlled by them.

Many people say that group riding and racing are the best training, and they are right… if the group rides are done when what you need is high intensity and you are fresh and ready to benefit by hard training. At the same time, side-by-side competition on a club ride or when riding with buddies is a common cause of flicking the brain switch. If your plan calls for an easy ride and you know you can’t ride easy with the club, or you are tired, don’t ride with the club that day. If you must ride with the club make a plan to drop off the back when the pace gets too hot for your goals. If your ego won’t let you be dropped, don’t start with the group. It’s hard at first, but gets easier as discipline makes you faster.

To benefit by the social and pack-skills aspects of group riding, invite a few riders of similar or lesser fitness to ride with you.

Sometimes sitting in gives you the perfect effort but pulling means pedaling too hard. The answer should be obvious: don’t pull. If your ego or group dynamic won’t let you skip pulls, skip that ride. One of my favorite tricks used to be sitting in early in a club ride while others were attacking each other and jumping around. Then when the hammerheads got tired, I went to the front and pulled for miles. Sometimes I had to let myself be dropped on hills in the first half of a ride, rejoining on the flats and downhills only to end up leading the pack home.

Luckily for weak-willed riders, there are only a couple of hard club rides each week in most neighborhoods. If you do one killer club ride per week and stick with a periodized training plan the rest of the time you won’t race as well as if you focus more, but you’ll do a lot better than if you hammer every day.

The Power-Meter trap

Before power meters and speedometers, other riders were the main triggers for too-competitive riding. For the weak willed or the poorly committed, meters and the possibility of setting records daily provide a new reward for bad behavior even for solo riders.

Riders may head out with the best of intentions, but when they see they are on course for a record, they ignore their plans and dig deeper. If you find yourself chasing numbers as much as the next rider chases team-mates, turn off the meter, turn it where you can’t see it or make a deal with yourself that you’ll only record records that are set on days where the record attempt is compatible with the planned training. Avoid testing your legs with hard efforts. If you feel great, you’ll only know you were recovered before the hard effort.

Riders use Strava.com to compare their times on particular courses to those of other Strava users. It is fun to know how fast you are compared to local riders or to visiting pros that have ridden your local routes. Moving up in the standings is quite motivating. Strava also makes it possible to compete for places and records on every segment of every ride you do, solo or not. For the sorts of people who chase down tricycles, that can prove to be an irresistible temptation. To enhance your discipline, agree with yourself before each ride if it is a Strava record attempt or a controlled training ride.

Eyes on the Prize

You get maximal benefit from hard training done at the appropriate point in the annual cycle and when fresh. You also get to be good at what you practice. If you practice riding when tired so you suffer while riding slowly, you’ll get to be good at suffering while riding slowly. If you practice riding effortlessly at high speed when fresh, you’ll get to be good at riding fast and feeling good. If you want to win races, you can’t be compromising your training by riding hard all the time, nor compromising your racing by riding hard to the point of fatigue in the few days before an important race.

If you know that you are susceptible to triggers for inappropriate competition, make adjustments to your training to avoid those triggers. Ride with less-fit friends or spouses on easy days. Do a ride out to a berry patch and back. Skip the race-like club ride unless you have done your aerobic training, and are well recovered and ready for the intensity. Avoid setting new records for speed, power, or time unless that record attempt is compatible with your training goals.

Riders who have the discipline to stick to the plan when temptation beckons will be amply rewarded in the real races. As a bonus, if you train well for a few seasons, you’ll find yourself burying club riders without hurting yourself.

This Article by Scott Saifer, M.S. originally appeared in the November/December 2013 edition of ROAD Magazine.

2 comments on “Will You Win Your Races or Your Training Rides? Control Your Competitive Drive!
  1. Bill Kund says:

    Amen to that. When I came back to the US from Europe I found the whole concept of “base miles” had gone out the window. Every ride seems to turn into a “hammer fest”. The only way I can get in base miles any more is to ride by myself, then join an occasional group ride and try to hurt some kids.

  2. DJ says:

    Bill, I realized a similar experience upon coming back to riding/racing, after being away from competitive cycling for 16 years. Thankfully though, after re-acquainting with seasoned racers and coaches, I refreshingly found that base training methodology was alive and well. For me, the competitive aspect of racing is what brought me back to the sport. Now missing (due to my 80-90% solitary training schedule) is the social aspect of riding. This “loss” though is more than surpassed by the euphoria I receive during/due to the social aspect of RACING. Newer racers, and many riders, don’t understand the vast differences between riding and racing. They certainly do though see the results of my solitary “ride-style”.