Don’t let these hang-ups keep you from enjoying your bike time. By Nick Davidson
Cycling—like most exercise, we’re told—should ease stress. But sometimes we psych ourselves out and approach rides with a debilitating mindset or poor habits that translate to poor performance. Life is busy, and negative energy from the daily grind can seep into your cycling routine, whether you’re gunning at max effort or just trying to enjoy a spin with friends. Good news is, if you’re aware of the problems, you can fix them.
“If you’re stressing out because you’re riding, you want to take a look at what’s going on there,” says cyclist and sports psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, whose books include The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training and Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete Mind. “Because riding shouldn’t be stressful; it should be fun. It should be challenging because that’s one reason we do it. But stressful? No.”
Here are the six top ways Taylor says we stress ourselves out on rides—and how to handle them for better, more enjoyable riding.
Comparing Yourself to Others
The Reason: You’re afraid of being dropped on a group ride. Or you dwell on that rider who trumps you in every sprint or crushes you on hills; why can’t you keep up?
It’s easy to get caught up in these comparisons. To some extent, they motivate us to pedal faster and push harder when we’d like to quit. But focusing on others becomes a problem when, rather than helping us gauge our own performance, it hinders us. “That’s always the challenge of riding with a group,” Taylor says, “but the reality is that worrying about it increases your chances of being dropped. You’re not focused on just riding your best, on monitoring your physiology, on being aware of cadence and gearing. The fact is, in cycling, there’s always going to be someone faster and stronger than you, and you can’t do anything about that.”
The Fix: “It’s keeping your focus on yourself,” says Dr. Taylor. Keep track of your performance, and note your improvements. Rather than focusing on others, monitor your own performance and take stock of both where you struggle and where you thrive. Mindset is key, so think positively and do what you need to do to ride your best. “If you don’t want to be dropped,” Dr. Taylor says, “ride by yourself.”
Obsessing Over Data
The Reason: Strava is a wonderful tool for motivation, but it can get out of hand. You become obsessive about beating someone’s segment time. You get wrapped up in the numbers and the quest for KOMs/QOMs. You forget to have fun.
“It can discourage you because you’re not going to beat somebody up a Strava climb every time,” Taylor warns. “I have a guy I used to ride with who was so obsessed. Every time there was a Strava climb, he would just charge ahead like his ego was on the line. He wouldn’t even talk to me; he would just drop me. And I don’t ride with him anymore, because he’s no fun.”
The Fix: Ditch the data. Go on a ride and—gasp—don’t bother to record it. Once you’ve broken your obsession, start using those numbers and Strava segments constructively. “Find a balance,” says Taylor. “Strava can be a part of [challenging yourself], but it ties back to that notion of focusing on yourself and what you’re doing, what you get out of it, and what your goals are.”
The Reason: Heading out on a ride without the proper fuel or clothing diminishes your performance and your ability to enjoy yourself. If you spent a lot of time trying to track down your gear and had to rush your mid-day ride to get back to the office, that can spark the cycle of negativity and can ruin an otherwise worthwhile ride.
Keep your kit and everything you need for a ride in the same place so you have quick and easy access. Decide on your riding route beforehand and make sure you’re familiar with it and how long it should take. Like to choose your route last-minute? Keep a few familiar loops in mind and categorise them by time commitment or difficulty so you can quickly choose one based on your immediate needs.
The Fix: “These are areas you have total control over,” Dr. Taylor notes. “Instead of worrying about not being prepared, make sure you’re prepared. You’ve got the right clothing, you’re well rested, you’ve got enough food or drink for the ride.”
Dreading the Climb
The Reason: “Cycling hurts,” says Taylor. “As human beings, we’re wired not to like pain, because it triggers our survival instincts.” There’s that huge, exhausting climb on your route, and if you let it loom too large in your mind as something you dread, it can distract you from the rest of the ride and then diminish your climbing performance.
The Fix: In addition to breathing and mixing up cadence and body position to minimize pain, put that pain in perspective. Remember that part of why we ride is to see what we can overcome. “If it didn’t hurt, if a century was easy, nobody would do it,” Taylor says.
Research also shows that when you associate pain with negative thoughts and emotions, you feel more pain. Connect that pain with positive thoughts, and tell yourself you’re working hard and achieving your goals. (Here are some other helpful mental tricks for riding strong.)
Bonus: Revel in the challenge; doing so actually eases the pain. According to Taylor, other research “found that non-elite marathoners tended to dissociate from their discomfort, whereas elite marathoners associated. They paid attention to their discomfort and used that information to adjust their pace, their stride, and their body position.” If you’re serious about your ride, pay attention to the pain and learn from it.
Lacking Confidence or Motivation
The Reason: When you’re training for a big event, motivation can suffer. Taylor, who used to race Ironman, knows from experience that riding 100 miles and then running another 10 wears down the body and mind.
“Being able to maintain motivation and tie it in with listening to your body is one of the hardest things I see with cyclists, because their bodies tell them they’re tired and tired is weak, or so they perceive,” Taylor says. That ties in with confidence. “Can I maintain this pace or finish a ride in a certain time?”
The Fix: Listen to your body. “If they’re fundamentally motivated people and they’re not feeling motivated… that’s a red flag,” Taylor says. “That tells me they’re probably just tired.” Get enough sleep and eat well so that you’re rested and have plenty of energy.
Confidence, too, comes with experience, Taylor says, so get out there and ride. “Every time you go out for a ride, you’re putting money in the bank,” he says. “On the day of the race or the century, you can make that withdrawal. Confidence is a building process.”
The Reason: You’ve been in a big bike crash before, or maybe you’ve seen others crash hard, and that scares you. The psychological aftermath can be crippling. So you avoid speed or big downhills or lock up when it matters. Unfortunately, that can make downhills even more dangerous.
“When you’re scared, you tighten up, and when you tighten up, you’re not supple on the bike,” Taylor says. “If you just go hard downhill after a crash, that’s going to reinforce the fear.”
The Fix: When Taylor works with cycling clients after a crash, he has them start off slowly and work their way into it, progressively increasing speed. Focus on your breathing, he advises, and work on finding the proper line and proper technique again.
“That gives a greater sense of control and confidence,” Taylor says. “Another thing is that discretion is the better part of valour. How important is it that you go barreling down the hill? The Tour [de France] is not won on the descent.”