Training & Nutrition

How to: Win the Mental Battle When Cycling Gets Tough

Tips and tricks for racers, that apply to those wanting to perform on a climb or on the club run too

“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most” (Eddy Merckx). “Shut Up Legs” (Jens Voigt). “As long as I breathe I attack” (Bernard Hinault). Sorry none of those come from pro-women – perhaps they’re not so big on pre-match smack downs, but women certainly know how to attack and make a ride hurt.

An attack in a race format is when a rider decisively ups the pace to split up the group, or even get away on their own. When that happens – you’ve got two choices: give up, or follow (and perhaps get them back with a counter attack).

Tough moments don’t just happen in racing – they can happen when you’re struggling on a club ride, on a tough climb, or over the last ten miles of a sportive.

Choosing to follow can take guts, and it can hurt, but only for as long as the pace stays high – and the alternative to following is more than likely dropping off and letting someone else win the race.

Those short sharp efforts can be just as mentally painful as they are physically tough, and in many cases it’s usually the mind that gives up before the body. They don’t just happen in racing, either – they can happen when you’re struggling on a club ride, on a tough climb, or over the last ten miles of a sportive when that roaring headwind just won’t go away.

We spoke to Sports Psychology Consultant Dr Josephine Perry of Performance in Mind to gather some advice on how to deal with the really tough moments.

Start with confidence

Smile at the start (even if you’re not quite Laura Trott!)

Though of course much of the battle is physical, a notable proportion is mental. When a rider just gives up the chase it’s called ‘snapping’, effectively they’ve let the thread between themselves and the rider ahead go in their mind. More often than not, if they’d just pushed through the next few seconds, or minutes, the situation may have improved. But once they’ve snapped, they’ve snapped.

“If you are on the start line thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’m not as good as these girls’ then you will never feel like you have the right to chase them down”

Beating this takes confidence from the get go. Josephine says: “The key element to help you overcome some of the mental barriers in racing is building confidence.  If you are on the start line thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’m not as good as these girls’ then you will never feel like you have the right to chase them down when they make a break for it. You need to convince yourself you have just as much right to be racing and you are good enough to be there.”

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This applies just as much elsewhere. You have just as much right to be up there with the fast guys on the club ride, you have just as much right to complete that goal climb.

But how do you train your mind to believe it? Josephine says: “There are two things you could try to help you convince yourself of this. The first is the right training. The more you practice something in training the more mental reminders you have in a race situation that you can do it. Ask a couple of friends to ride with you on a regular Sunday ride but take turns in unexpectedly sprinting. This will keep you on your toes, keep you alert and prove to yourself you can keep up with attacks.”

Of course, if your mental struggle comes when climbing then practice that, if it’s at a certain distance when you suddenly feel you just can’t go on – then prove to yourself you can over longer rides.

Race your mates to the town sign!

The other piece of advice she gives is to gradually build your stamina for dealing with the tougher scenarios. For example, if you’re finding following attacks hard, start with just promising yourself you’ll follow just one in your next race, two in the one after that, three after that – and so on. She says: “This extends your comfort zone by just a little each race until it suddenly becomes the norm to follow attacks.”

The same applies elsewhere – if it feels hard to get to the top of the climb in the first bunch every time on your club ride, promise yourself you’ll be up there on just one climb, then two, then three – until you’re at the front all day!

Use a mantra

A common question we pesky journalists like to ask pro athletes is ‘do you have a mantra for dealing with tough moments?’ The reason we ask it a lot is because more often than not they do have a special phrase and the answers are so interesting and insightful.

10 Cycling Quotes to Boost Motivation 

Mantra phrases aren’t just for the pros, and Josephine suggests we adopt one too. She says: “Something sports psychologists find works really well for athletes here is a mantra. A short phrase you repeat to yourself to get you doing what you want to be doing. It needs to be short, memorable, and personal and help you remember to attack or keep going when it’s hard. It could be linked to your goal, your motivation, or something technical – such as staying strong on the pedals – which you can repeat over and over when you need a boost or a reminder.”

Have goals

When you rock up to your next event, you need to know what you’re aiming for – or it’s just all too easy to give up. Explaining this, Josephine says: “A well proven way to help you build your self-belief is to set great goals. And not just for your whole season but for individual races that are important to you. You don’t get on your bike to commute somewhere without knowing the route or following a map or Garmin, so why would you expect to do well in race if you haven’t set out a plan for it. Deciding on what you want to achieve in that race and working backwards to create a plan for it will give you the extra oomph you are looking for.”

Again, you can apply this anywhere – your goal might be to complete your longest distance, or keep up with your riding buddy over a terrain where you might usually struggle – regardless what it is, you need to have that goal set in your head.

Accept and learn

Cycling – be that racing or non-competitive riding – doesn’t always go your way. Sometimes it’s just not your day, and there’s no point getting hung up on that.

“After any race I would always recommend athletes follow three steps: Reflections, Lessons, Actions.”

Josephine tells is: “Bad races are inevitable. I’m sure even the greatest cyclists like Lizzie Armitsted or Dame Sarah Storey have had a couple. What is important is what you learn from them. After any race I would always recommend athletes follow three steps: Reflections, Lessons, Actions.

“Sit down with a mug of coffee and think about the race first from a positive perspective and then from a more negative one. Force yourself to write as many positives as negatives and understand how that race felt for you. Next, looking at those lists, reflect and write down what you learnt from the race.

“Finally, looking at the learnings you can write an action plan to improve for your next race. This can include anything from incorporating something extra into your training, different nutrition or trying a new race tactic.  Just a few actions which you will take away and work on. Then instead of being a ‘bad race’ it becomes an ‘educational race’ which will make you a better bike racer.”

We hope that advice helps you in your next exploits – be that at your local racing circuit, or when you want to just give up and get off the bike as the road ramps up.

For more advice on mental training from Josephine Perry, check out this post ‘How Breathing Properly Really Can Make You a Better Climber’.

If you’re thinking of dipping a toe into the race scene, take a look at these ten tips just you you. 


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