How to train your brain for bike racing

Mental fortitude goes a long way. Here's how to build it.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

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I recently began working with an athlete who had followed a training program focused mostly on endurance riding. In her first race of the year, a stage race, she crushed it in the individual time trial, only to struggle in the road race. She simply lacked the mental confidence to follow the intense attacks.

This is something we can fix through training. Training gives us the opportunity to improve the physical attributes to meet the demands of racing. It also allows us to improve our mental conditioning and confidence before races.

Training for the unpredictable

Racing efforts are unpredictable because other people decide how fast or slow we go. Successful racers build unpredictability into their training to ensure their mind and body are conditioned for the unpredictable nature of racing.

Two-time Olympian Lea Davison simulates the unpredictability of racing using motorpacing workouts. During these sessions, her coach cues her with a horn to sprint around the motorbike. Or, her coach spontaneously speeds up to mimic sudden, unexpected attacks. Rather than panic at the shock of the sudden intensity, Davison trains her ability to mentally stay calm and composed, focusing on what she needs to physically do to meet the challenge. This experience develops confidence and mental strength that she can lean on in similar race situations. This experience and confidence helps reduce stress and anxiety during the race, saving energy that can be applied to the pedals.

Now, not all of us have the resources to do motorpace workouts. Luckily, there are other ways to simulate the unpredictability of racing. One method is to change your ratio of interval work to rest.

During the preparation phase of training, we control the recovery-to-work time based on the level of intensity, to ensure quality work is completed and recovery mechanisms trained. For example, a VO2 max effort has equal rest-to-work time, whereas a threshold interval has 50 percent rest. However, as we start fine-tuning for the race season, these work-to-rest ratios can be manipulated to better simulate unpredictability.

Fast-paced group training rides are another great way to mimic race intensity and unpredictability. Zwift is a great substitute, too. Davison has become a big fan of Zwift races because they mimic real-life race conditions, allowing her to mentally and physically sharpen the pointy end of her race fitness.

Lea Davison rounds a dirt corner on her mountain bike
Lea Davison competes in the women’s cross-country race during the 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Making the unknowns known

Training is your opportunity to rehearse all aspects of performance and to make as many of the unknowns known.

Katerina Nash, a five-time Olympian and member of the Clif Bar pro team, loves racing in bad conditions because her years of experience give her a mental advantage. For years, racing in heat was Nash’s Kryptonite. Rather than avoid hot races, Nash started training in the heat.

By using training to put yourself in situations that you will confront in races, you learn to train your mind to contend with the physical environment and sensations. As a result, you develop confidence knowing that you can successfully pedal through the discomfort.

Neilson Powless, who rides for the UCI WorldTour EF Education – Nippo team, analyzes his goal races for the pivotal moments that he can capitalize on, based on his strengths. He then develops training sessions specific to the demands of these sections. For example: a 5-minute, 12 percent climb. Neilson does hill repeats to simulate this, so he knows exactly what to expect, mentally and physically. These intervals improve his power and allow him to develop mental strategies to contend with the physical stresses.

Get comfortable with the discomfort of racing

Use training to get comfortable with the discomfort of racing. A workout is most effective when an athlete connects the dots as to why they are doing that workout and how it helps them achieve their goals. This connection also focuses the mind on something other than the pain of the effort. For example, Davison will visualize herself on a section of the Tokyo Olympic course, surrounded by key competitors, making a decisive move. Not only does this allow her to physically get more out of her interval session, it allows her to focus her mind away from the discomfort.

Another strategy to contend with discomfort is to laser-focus the mind on an action — a pedal stroke, rhythm, posture, breathing, or staying relaxed in the upper body. Davison uses hard intervals to create the same focus she will have in a race situation.

“I chase feelings, not numbers,” she said. “I don’t look at data during races, so I don’t solely focus on it during training.” For Davison, the training data is just one piece of the puzzle. When you train your mind to focus on actions, you automatically lean on the same strategy in high-intensity race situations.

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