Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mental Toughness: Dealing with "It"

A torture device designed to develop mental toughness. Yes, those are MTB pedals.
A thought (yes just one) occurred to me today as I was riding nowhere on my fluid trainer in the garage with headphones on, watching a puddle of my own sweat pooling slowly on the concrete floor below.  It is not uncommon for me to be in this position as of late especially with the 2011 season looming, limited warm weather riding time, and in this case, a wife who is out of town accompanied by only one of our four kids.

 To me, everything on a trainer seems magnified: time moves slowly, I feel like I am working harder than my gadgets say I am, I sweat like mad, there is never any downhill, and the scenery just plain stinks.  In my book, the worst of it all is that I am ALWAYS at the finish line with the option to bail at every pedal stroke.  Few people I know enjoy riding like this (myself included) but in the absence of an option for non-simulated riding, simulated riding is better than not riding at all.

To add some context, I should say that I have been spending some quality time lately reflecting on the 2010 race season and getting some training-specific book learning under my belt in hopes of making 2011 easer on me and especially my family.  With only one season in the books, there is little personal experience to draw from.  To bridge the gap, I have been absorbing what I can from other more experienced riders (of which Colorado has no shortage. A big thank you to all who share your secrets so freely with a nubie). When I say riders, I should really say racers. I am not new to riding a mountain bike.  I've been riding one since the late 1980s when *everything* had a rigid fork and weighed 30 lbs.  I am new to racing a mountain bike which is a lot different than riding one for fun.  In terms of reading, it is no secret that there is a book commonly referred to by cyclists as "The Bible" and this has been my primary book of study for the past month.  I race mountain bikes exclusively but most if not all principles in this cycling book apply to mountain biking.  I recommend this book to anyone just starting out especially if you are interested in the science of training (and if you want to do well, you will need to be interested). Within a few hours of reading, I identified some common rookie mistakes I made during the course of the year. While I think it is important to understand things for myself, if you don't want to do it all yourself, you don't have to.  There are a number of very qualified coaches that can create personalized training plans to fit your needs or general event-specific training plans for you to use.

Back to the trainer and my deep thoughts.

I was riding, still watching sweat drip on the floor, music cranking, trying to push away the voice telling me that 40 min is just as good as the 90 min I was planning on riding.  I was thinking of what aspects of my riding game need the most work: endurance, force, speed skills, muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance, power?  All of these are listed on the racing abilities triangle on page 90 of that "Bible" I have been reading (page 94 talks about some specific types of training one could consider doing to improve each).  While deep in thought on this I realized the one "ability" I wasn't taking into consideration was staring me in the face at that very moment.

 Mental Toughness.

What is mental toughness? I'm sure there is some academic / technical definition out there but the simplest one I have heard is the ability to just "turn it off". What is "It"?  That answer might be different for each of us. For me "It" is that voice trying to convince me that 40 min is as good as 90 min on the trainer.  "It" also comes in the form of pain in all parts of my body as the miles pile up during a race or long training ride.  "It" clearly defined itself for me multiple times in 2010 perhaps most prominently at the Park City Point 2 Point.  I'm sure if someone would have prepared a shallow grave somewhere along the trail between mile 60 and 80, I might have succumbed to "It" and laid down using what little energy I had left to cover myself with loose dirt.  But there was nothing of the sort and I pushed forward to the end.  Over the course of the season, I had unintentionally added some "mental toughness" training into the long rides, hill repeats, 20-40s, and yes hours on the trainer.  I had been learning to deal with "It" and when "It" showed up on race day, I was able to defend.

So ride your trainer.  Stare at your bike computer the whole time as it slowly clicks away second by second.  Sweat on the floor and love the hours of torture.  They are productive. You are training your mind to deal with "It".  And "It" will be there with each pedal stroke next season.

* More on Mental Toughness from Joe Friel (PDF).  I came across this while doing a little Googling after drafting this post.


Anonymous said...

Jeff...thanks for the article....very true even though i don't "race" bikes. Alan C

Jeff Higham said...

Glad you liked the read Alan.