Smutty Fitness: The mental climb
I am not and have never been an endurance athlete. My whole life I have been a competitive athlete in sports that are more sprint based. This season I took on a new challenge with Mountain Bike Enduro Racing. These bike races entail both long climbs and quick, sprint descents. The great part is that the uphill sections are not timed, so I can ride at my own pace. The problem is that my pace is so slow that I am constantly being passed, not that it matters in the results of the race but it makes me feel worse and worse about my own abilities. If I tried to go faster, I probably wouldn't end up finishing the day which is usually around 4 hours of riding. My friends will always wait for me but sometimes that makes me feel bad too. What can I do to get faster on the up-hills and still feel lively when I get to the top? I ride 4-6 days a week but I am obviously not training effectively.
The first question I want to ask you is that if the uphill sections are not timed, then what does it matter how long it takes you to get up to the top or how many people pass you? But since you asked, here is my advice.
I am going to take a guess that you are like a lot of people I know and that when you train, you spend more time working on what you are good at and what you enjoy over spending time on what is difficult. If I am right then this needs to be reversed because if you find yourself struggling while climbing then the only way to get stronger is to spend more time climbing.
A big part of excelling at something is being able to push yourself mentally and not succumb to all the negative thoughts in your head, such as feeling tired, feeling like you want to give up or feeling like you’re not good enough. You need to start really pushing yourself when you are training and find the point in your workouts where you want to give up but have to force yourself to keep going and keep pushing. You need to teach yourself that it is ok to be tired and that even when you feel like you have given all you can, if you dig deep enough you can find more. As much as racing requires physical fitness, mental toughness is almost more important and if you are not pushing yourself in your training then how are you ever going to learn to push harder in a race? You need to get comfortable at being uncomfortable.
I dropped out of my first race this year, the first race I had ever given up in, and the only reason I did was because I did not have the mental toughness to keep going. I did not believe in myself because I had not challenged myself enough in my training, therefore my mind had not learned how to push. So what did I do leading up to my next race? I punished myself. I climbed mountains in the pouring rain, I went out for long rides by myself day after day and found the strength I forgot I had.
But along with the mental game, there are other issues that need to be addressed. Biking, and other endurance sports, are all about your power to weight ratio. What does that mean? How much power can your body produce (watts) in ratio to how much you weigh. If you were take two athletes, both outputting the same power, but one weighs less than the other, the lighter weight athlete will go faster.
It is also important to know what zones you should be training in so that the days spent suffering up the sides of mountains are not wasted workouts. Invest in a lactate threshold test or a VO2 Max test which will guarantee that you are pushing your limits correctly. The key to endurance racing is to be able to produce as much power as possible while maintaining an aerobic heart rate, as well as recovering as quickly as possible in between higher intensity bursts (such as steep climbs) so that you do not waste energy. Knowing exactly what zones these are for you is key. And because you have been more of a power based athlete most of your life it is going to take some training to learn how to train slower so that you are improving your aerobic power. Weekly long, slow rides are going to be your new best friend over the off season!
And last, remember that it does not matter how hard you train, there will always be someone faster than you. So, be kind to yourself and make sure you race your own race. If it causes you stress and puts you in a negative place knowing that your friends are waiting for you then maybe its best you race solo. I never race with training partners and after our final good luck at the start line I do not think about them until the hugs and high fives at the finish line. It should be about you and only you out there. You only get out what you put in so if you want more you need to put in more. Doing the best that you can in your training means whatever happens on race day is the best you could possibly do.