Jan 24, 2011

A lot of it is mental

Disclaimer: The following is nothing I have ever read in any training manual, nor is it something that has ever been advanced by any coach to me personally. Below is my training philosophy and why I do certain things the way I do them, or at least try to. Try it if you dare.

I’m sure most of you, who have played any competitive sport, regardless of how seriously, have heard it before: “it’s all in your head!” Well, what is it that’s in your head? I have no idea – it is YOUR head after all. But here’s what’s in mine. What often screws up my performance  is the fear of the unknown or the unexperienced (not to be confused with “inexperienced”). To give a simple example: When I practiced martial arts, the brick was never going to break until I saw it break in my head. Once I saw it, then I knew and it broke. Once I knew, there was no internal mechanism in my mind that would stop my hand from driving through concrete. How I came to know in that particular context is way beyond the scope of this blog. So let’s move onto cycling and what I really want to share in this blog.

When I train, I like to train hard, I like to train until it hurts, and I like to train until the point where I can barely tolerate the pain, the fatigue and the muscle aches. (This is partially why I do all my hardest training alone – it’s not a pretty sight). Don't get me wrong, I'm not a masochist, and when I say I "like," I'm not trying to convey an idea that this pain brings me joy. What brings me joy is being done and knowing I can survive it. I feel that the only way I can be successful - an ambiguous term in and of itself - in racing is to not experience pain, fatigue or soreness in a race that I have not experienced in training. In training, there is always a safety net; you can always stop, pull over, sit down and have a breather. So there is no fear of pushing too hard or blowing up. It is training after all and the worst that can happen is you’ll discover another limit in your body that you can train, push harder and expand.

Of course, there are other considerations that play a role here. Not every training ride should be that extreme in it's entirety or overtraining is bound to set in. However, in every training ride, there should be at least one effort – be it a short interval, or one of the hills, or a sprint for a city limit sign – that will push you into the pain box in the way you haven’t been pushed before. I guarantee that the second time around, the pain will be more familiar and not as bad, and as you continue, your tolerance for such pain and the length and/or strength of your maximum efforts will increase. After all, one key element to a successful time trialist is the ability to tolerate pain.

This is one of the reasons why I regularly seek out some of the longest, hardest rides around. My teammates often question why I do double centuries with thousands of feet of climb if none of my races this year will be that long or that hilly. To me, the answer is simple: If I can ride two hundred miles and climb thousands of feet in a day, physically that will prepare me for some of the longest, hilliest races I have to face with knowledge that I can finish them and hopefully do well in them. The mental aspect of it is that during such long, hard rides, I will be in the pain box many, many times. Sitting in the saddle for 12-15 hours in a day is one of those discomforts. Climbing a steep grade at mile 150 is another, wanting to be done and hammering with all I’ve got at mile 198 is yet another. This is the reason I’m often tempted to answer questions like: “How do you train for such a ride”? With: “This ride is the training!”

Learning from all of those experiences makes my racing easier. When I’m in a race, trying to hang on to the pack, sometimes I’m in pain, but if I can go back in my mind and recognize that this is the type of pain I’ve already experienced and got through, there is no mental block holding me back. On the other hand, if the pain or suffering during the race is the kind I have not felt before, there is a good chance that my mind may force me to hold back in the interest of self-preservation and fear of the unknown, e.g, “if I push harder will blow up and finish dead last.” I don’t pretend that this is some sort of a winning formula, or that it will guarantee success – after all, no matter how strong the mind, the body has to be in shape to handle the load. However, while mental preparedness may not guarantee great performance, it’s absence will most likely dictate failure.

I recognize that not every person’s psyche works that way. Some can throw it all in without regard to anything else; others stop at the first instance of pain. There is something to be said of both of those. However, I just know the way I function and what I need to do in order to overcome my mental blocks. What works for me, might not work for you, but figuring yourself out from the inside is a step to figuring out what works.

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