Train Your Brain to Survive the Ride

Pro Xterra triathlete and mental performance consultant Danelle Kabush shares her secrets. – By Molly Hurford

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Prepare for the Worst
A good ride, mentally, starts before you walk out the door. Have your route dialed, your nutrition planned, and maybe a kick-ass think-positive playlist ready for emergency use. But also take a second to acknowledge that a ride may have some sucky parts.”Before you get on your bike, be prepared that it could get hard at any point, and know how you’ll get through,” Kabush says. “Mentally, that three-quarter mark in long rides can be especially hard, so being emotionally and mentally prepared that you might have a bad moment can make it easier when it actually happens.”

Find Your Flow
Good preparation means that you will be ready for your ride, less likely to battle distracting logistical thoughts, and more primed to get into the coveted flow state. You’ll be able to skip the worrying or questioning and instead direct your thoughts more positively.”The more you think about the scenarios and are prepared beforehand, the more you can be on autopilot during the ride,” Kabush says. “If you start the ride questioning how long you’re going or what route you’re doing, you’re wasting energy.”

Change Up Your Distance—Mentally
Trick yourself into thinking that a ride isn’t as bad as it is. “Miles sound shorter, but when you do a lot of kilometres, they tick by faster. So I find that mentally, it helps to switch between thinking in miles and kilometres,” Kabush says.

However, some rides, like on those singletrack or with lots of climbing, may pass slowly if you focus on distance; instead, you may want to track your progress by focusing on marking time.

Plan Some Distractions in Advance
“For certain points of the ride, decide ahead of time what you’re going to think about,” Kabush says. “Mentally, we can only focus on one or two things at a time when we’re doing high quality physical activity, so planning your mental strategy can be hugely helpful.”

This might mean having a few songs that you can start singing in your head or knowing that on the long climb, you’re going to daydream about your upcoming vacation or picture yourself winning the Tour de France one day.

Think of it like planning a conversation for yourself, and know when to bring up each topic. For example, you might intend to spend the first third of your ride focused on cadence, the second third on daydreaming, and the last third on keeping a steady heart rate.

Set Ride Intentions and Mantras
Some riders will tape notes to themselves on their handlebars or scrawl a word or two of encouragement on the backs of their hands. There’s a reason why: Having a word or phrase to focus on when you get into a dark place can help you snap back to the present.

A word like “cadence” can keep you focused on your pedaling, or a word like “fight” can remind you to keep kicking ass.

“Think of a few words ahead of your ride or race, and when your mind starts wandering en route, come back to those words,” Kabush says.

RELATED: Top Tips for Mental Performance

Know When to Hold ‘Em
Not feeling the ride? Determine whether you’re truly tired or just being whiny, and take action accordingly.

“When my brother Geoff was coaching me, we’d have a protocol in place so if I was feeling a certain way or my heart rate was a certain way, there were steps to take,” Kabush says. “We’d know when I should cut a ride short or take a day off, guilt-free. But you have to have enough personal experience or a good coach, so that you know when a ride should hurt and how much it’s going to hurt, or when you’re over-reaching.”

Likewise, when you start a ride and are feeling great, be careful not to overextend yourself and end up in a deep hole later in the ride. Stick to your plan for the day.

Distract Yourself with Fartlek Riding
In running, fartlek intervals are about sprinting to a nearby landmark, like a mailbox a hundred metres in front of you. If you’re having trouble keeping your mental ride game rolling, try fartlek riding.

“When you get in that deep dark place, sometimes it spirals downward because you start thinking about how hard it is. But stay in the moment,” Kabush says. “Just focus on something as short as ‘until the next telephone pole’ or a key point in the route that you know is coming.” Repeat until the next landmark is your driveway.

RELATED: Recovery Food You Should Eat After a Hard Ride

Give Yourself Permission to Fail
Mountain biking can be tough mentally, especially if you’re still mastering your technical skills. But know that even the pros don’t ride everything, and there’s no shame in not immediately hopping over an awkwardly placed log.

“If something is tough or challenging, I have a three-time rule. If I want to ride something that makes my heart flutter, like a technical mountain bike descent, I will try it three times,” Kabush says. “If I can’t do it the third time, I leave it and will come back later. Because after three times, I have so much nervous energy built up that I’m just getting more tired and my success rate goes down.”

Use but Don’t Abuse the Group
Group rides are another time when you can use your mental game to save your ride.

“Try to use the group to bring you out of that dark place,” Kabush says. “You get there because you start wallowing in self pity while you see other riders being so positive, and then you start criticising yourself… but the group can get you out of yourself. It’s hard to do sometimes, but engage with the group. Try to capture their positivity.”

All the World’s a Stage
Sometimes, you don’t feel like a gritty, tough-as-nails cyclist. But that’s when a lesson learned in high school can come in handy.

“Being a cyclist is like being an actor or actress,” Kabush says. “You have to get into character.” Sometimes, that’s easy, but other times, you’ll need to think about your motivation and fake it until you make it.

“And when the scene’s over, then you can cry,” Kabush says. “That emotion won’t help during the ride.” Crying in the shower after? We won’t tell.

Keep It in (Positive) Perspective
As a last resort, remember the following: “You’re lucky to be on your bike and to be outside.”

Kabush underscores her point by adding that no matter how bad a ride is going, at least you have the ability to ride—and you’ll rarely be sad that you finished the ride you set out to do. “Maybe it’s raining, but how many people get out in the rain? Think instead, ‘If I get through this, I’ll be so proud of myself!’”

RELATED: 7 Things You Should Do After Every Rainy Ride

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