Need to take a mental breather? Here are some telltale signs that may be the case, according to experts. – James Stout
Riding is fun, and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the benefits of hard training in faster times and longer rides. We all know that you have to work hard to get results, and the messaging around cycling never fails to reinforce the idea that more suffering makes you stronger.
But just like a baking a cake, training is about finding the balance between undercooked and overdone. Cycling rewards dedicated and determined athletes, but the best—and happiest—athletes are those who dedicate themselves to balance rather than sacrificing everything for their training goals. It can be hard to acknowledge that your training might be making you slower, sadder, and frankly not much fun to be around, so we caught up with sports and exercise psychologist Dr. Simon Marshall, to give you the tell-tale signs that you need to chill, sit down, and maybe enjoy a cupcake or two.
Dr. Marshall says that what he calls an “immature athletic identity” can cause athletes to make decisions that lead to overtraining and an unbalanced set of priorities. For many athletes, this means putting training above other elements of a healthy and happy life (like family, hobbies, and social commitments); or training in a way which isn’t sustainable, such as riding too hard or too much. Marshall sees a mature athletic identity as having seven elements; when these fall by the wayside, training can play a destructive role in an athlete’s life. A healthy athletic identity is when:
- You currently participate in sports or exercise.
- You are comfortable calling yourself an athlete.
- You are comfortable being called an athlete by others.
- You “own” your athletic ability. You’re neither embarrassed by it, nor do you feel the need to prove your ability to others.
- You don’t engage in excessive self-criticism or self-aggrandizement (e.g., telling people how awesome you are) when talking about your riding skills.
- You maintain a healthy balance between your sport and other interests. Your performance on the bike is not the sole contributor to your self-worth. You have friends who are not athletes, and you frequently talk about non-sport-related topics in social situations.
- You have emotional reactions that most people would consider reasonable when things go south (e.g., losing, failing, getting penalized, getting injured, etc.).
If you find yourself freaking out when your knee hurts, or telling someone you’re pissed because another rider took your KOM on Strava, it might be a sign that it’s time to back it off a little. Take a few days off the bike and think about what cycling really means to you and why you train. Riding bikes should be fun, and no amount of training should cause you to lose sight of that.
The second tell-tale sign is what Dr. Marshall calls exercise dependence. “A dependency is when you experience physical and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms after stopping use of a substance or behaviour… When the behaviour stops, you feel crappy.“ There are seven diagnostic criteria here that can, if we’re honest with ourselves, be easily identified.
- Tolerance. You need to ride more to feel the same “buzz.” This is not to be confused with an increase in training stimulus required to increase physical fitness—this refers to the need for a bigger exercise “hit” for the “feel-good” sensation.
- Withdrawal. Some athletes develop withdrawal symptoms (often in the form of anxiety, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, or sleep problems) when they cut down their training and would rather train more to avoid these symptoms, even if their plan has a scheduled rest. Have you noticed people around you seem to get really annoying when you take a rest week? The chances are, it’s not they who need to chill out, it’s you.
- Intention effect. Why are you really riding? If you genuinely want to improve performance, then rest is as important as training. If you find yourself riding more than your plan says, or going harder than suggested, you’re not going to get faster. If this rings a bell for you, be honest with yourself and make a list of the reasons you ride your bike and what your long term goals for yourself inside and outside the sport are. Think about how overtraining might negatively impact those goals.
- Lack of control. A persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control exercise. For example, you might know that you should cut down and have even had periods when you tried to, but you end up going back to old habits.
- Time. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain exercise. This refers not only to time spent actually riding, but also time spent planning how, when, and where you can train. Fretting about Christmas with the family already? Relax, a couple of days off and a a slice of pie won’t kill you.
- Reductions in other activities. As a direct result of riding, your social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced. For example, you might consistently pass on social activities because they require staying up too late, or you avoid early morning commitments because of your training plans. As we get towards the holiday season, this one should be easy to spot.
- Continuance. Exercise is continued, despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the exercise. This might include training through an injury, exercising despite knowing that it will cause interpersonal conflict, blaming yourself for not being able to meet expanding goals, or exercising to increase feelings of control over your body.
Ultimately, we all ride bikes because it feels like being a kid again. Cycling should be a release from stress, not a cause of it. If you find yourself tired, angry, and constantly aching, then cycling isn’t playing a healthy role in your life. We suggest you take a week off and schedule activities off the bike (like hiking, climbing, or swimming) and spend time with the people you don’t get to see because you’re always trying to cram a ride in. Once you get back out there, leave your GPS head unit at home and schedule social rides with people you normally see as “not serious” enough to train with, then stop and buy them a coffee and a pastry. This is a great time to try a discipline you’re less familiar with and focus on skills, not training volume or intensity. After a few weeks of trail rides and coffee stops, you should be in a much happier place with your riding.