You’re starting to go into the red on a climb. Your energy and motivation are starting to wane in your training. Or you’re way into the red with your riding and its role in your life. Do you just push through? Or is it time to back off? The mentally fit cyclist challenges internal limits, yet respects them, and takes action quickly after going too far.
By Marv Zauderer
A few months ago in this Sport Psychology column, we explored desire – how you can discover and sustain maximum passion for riding, training, competing, learning, improving, and everything else you experience on the bike.
Yet desire also has a dark side, a destructive side. It’s Frodo slipping the Ring on his finger in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Darth Vader under the Emperor’s power in the Star Wars films, and Homer Simpson gorging himself on doughnuts at the local Lard Lad. It’s diving into a corner and cutting riders off in a criterium, training without rest days for far too long, and letting your relationships suffer during race season.
Think for a minute: How and when might you be pushing too hard in your riding? What makes you think so?
Let’s look at some common signs of being out of bounds or out of balance in cycling. First, some feelings and thoughts:
• Apathy. If cycling has been important to you, and you’ve lost motivation for riding or racing, it’s cause for concern. Repeatedly looking at or thinking about the bike and then turning away? Bad sign.
• Anxiety. Are you excessively nervous before rides or races? Do you feel stressed about fitting your riding in with everything – and everyone – in your life? Are you worried about what other people think, or might think, about your cycling? Do you feel a great deal of pressure to stay with the group, win the race, finish your first century, achieve your goals? Is your mind filled with negative self-talk – “I’ll never….,” “I always….”, “I can’t…”, “I’m going to get dropped,” “I should just stop,” “I suck,” or other such thoughts?
• Depression. Are you feeling down? Irritable? Down on yourself? Unusually tired? Have unexplained aches and pains? Over- or undersleeping? Lost any of your appetite(s)? If it’s winter where you’re living, might you have the cyclist’s winter blues? Note that although depression is often equated with sadness, it doesn’t always work that way, particularly for men.
Of course, any of the above could have nothing to do with your riding, but they might, and it’s always worthwhile to check them out.
Now, on to some common behaviors/actions that can be indicative of being out of whack in cycling:
• Blowing up or bonking repeatedly. Blowing up (going anaerobic for too long and having the body start to shut down) or bonking (not eating and drinking properly and going irreversibly far into the body’s energy stores as a result) are normal once in awhile, particularly early in riders’ experiences with the bike. But if you’re continuing to do either of these, it’s a sign that you need to discover and attend to the cause.
• Endangering or lashing out at other riders. Both of those point to something going on “underneath the hood” for you.
• Sleep problems. Poor sleep and excessive sleep can be signs of anxiety and/or depression. And going deeper, anxiety and depression are not just experiences in and of themselves; they are also clues to what is causing your distress.
• Unhealthy or disordered eating. Are you paying attention to what you eat and drink? Is your eating controlling you? Are you overcontrolling it?
• Overtraining. Periodization has taught athletes and coaches that harder, longer, or faster is not always better. Do you know how much riding – and what kind – is best for you? Do you how much recovery you need? How about the effect of your top stressors on your body’s ability to perform and recover well?
• Neglecting other important parts of your life. If your close relationships, work, spiritual life, community involvement, recovery and leisure time, finances, or whatever else is truly important to you are being unduly affected by your focus on cycling…alert!
So, if you’re experiencing any of these feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, how do you get yourself back into balance?
• Connect fully with yourself. Your self-awareness is a necessity for balance. First, you need to be able to notice that something is awry. Sounds obvious, but you may have a blind spot. Setting aside even a brief period of time – occasionally or perhaps regularly – for self-reflection, meditation, writing, focusing on the breath, travel, or other forms of “checking in” with yourself could be just what you need to see that something unwanted is happening. Second, get curious about why things are awry. Ask the immortal question: “What’s that about?” Follow it all the way through. You may be trying to compensate for something, avoid something, or assert some control in your life during a time when you don’t feel it elsewhere. Third, riding within yourself is about knowing your limits and setting the internal limits that you need. Make sure you do both.
• Evaluate your stress-handling systems. How have you been handling pressure? How about disappointment or failure? Those experiences create stress; stress and control often go together, sometimes in unhealthy ways. For example, you could aim the control at more/harder riding, more eating, less eating, lashing out at others, and so on. The control behavior is not the only problem; it’s also not having other ways of handling the underlying stress and anxiety.
• Take a hard look at your goals. First of all, do you have any? If so, do you have the bar set too high? Are you giving cycling the right role in your life? Goal-setting and goal-management are critically important skills for successful athletes, and can have a profound influence on whether your cycling is under control.
• Get help, or at least consultation. Educate yourself about the causes and signs of overtraining (and watch for a forthcoming article here on that subject). Confide in friends or family who know you and your riding, and ask them for feedback on what’s going on with you. Have a consultation with a sport psychologist or psychotherapist, and explore whether it makes sense to work together.
• Commit to learning from your experiences. You could go through all of this and completely forget everything you’ve learned the next time you get out of balance. Remember Mark Twain’s wise words: “How do you acquire good judgment? Experience. How do you acquire experience? Bad judgment.”
I leave you with a song sung by Bilbo Baggins (clearly, a cyclist) after he gives up the Ring to Frodo:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
As you pursue your own unique mix of passion and restraint, freedom and limits, play and responsibility, I wish you well on your journey. Ride on!