It’s all in your head: Are you mentally ready for ultra-racing?
Below are 5 tips I have found useful while training and racing, and which have given me a lot of mental strength during hard times. Everyone’s mindset is different, but I hope these few points can help you too. Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions and good luck if you are racing!
1) Be resolute.
Ultra-endurance might seem attractive but you might not truly realise what it means to get into that type of racing. Training for an ultra-race means long hours on the bike all alone. It means exposing yourself to heighten danger from extended period of time spent alone on the road, often at night and with fatigue. It means sometimes struggles with your relationship, family, friends, or even your career. To be honest, it is not even good for your health… So first thing first: know what you are getting yourself into, and truly commit to it. It’s ok if you realise quickly that it is all a bit too much for you: just drop it, but don’t make excuses about it later down the lane. The time of many people, even mine, could anyway be better used elsewhere than in hours of bike training. I choose to do it because I like it, and because overall it has made me a better person. I accept it means I have to sacrifice other things in my life for it. This is just how it goes, and this is what is required if you mean to truly get good at anything.
2) Get over yourself.
I have noticed athletes are often overachiever who put a lot of pressure on themselves. In cycling, it is made even more palpable by the fact it is a multi-disciplinary sport (e.g. tracks, sprint, crits, hill race, TT, CX, etc.) and by the fact it is highly social and therefore enjoyed in the company of riders with highly diverse skills and natural abilities. We are all different and I hate hearing “Oh this rider is so much better than that rider”, because very often it is totally circumstantial: there are as many ways to enjoy cycling and racing as there are riders. I know some incredibly strong cyclists who can crush the field at a criterium race but who have told me the simple thought of riding 100km on their own is their “idea of hell”. For your own happiness, and to actually properly dedicate yourself to ultra-racing, you need to understand and accept that getting good at ultra-endurance will likely make you less good at other areas of cycling. Sorry but after riding 200km you will not be the fastest rider on the club ride: you will be dead tired. Sorry but no, eating tons of food on and off the bike to survive riding 1000km mostly in Zone 2 will not help improve your watts/kg. This is not what it is about. When you train for an ultra, you have to set your ego aside and get over yourself when you get dropped doing fast laps or riding a criterium. You are not training for it: forget about yourself, celebrate others and learn to fail – it’s good for the soul.
3) Be resilient.
This one is a combination of both 1) and 2). It is important to understand that sometimes, no matter how much you train or sacrifice, things will not go your way. This is particularly true for ultra-racing where bad luck really can strike you down. You cannot be prepared for everything the road will throw at you. It is not uncommon to see racers win a race and DNF the following year. Be aware that months and months of training might lead to nothing. Moreover, because it is such a time-consuming sport, it can happen that even when you finish the hardest race of your life, once the elation passes, you find yourself wondering “what now?”. You will be left with an emptiness you might rush to fill with another race, instead of just learning to accept the downtime. Finally, you need to understand that some people are just more naturally endurant than you are, or maybe they do not have a job, or children, or they have more money and better equipment… You could be frustrated and feel this is unfair because how can you compete fairly against them. There is no easy recipe for all this: all you can do is to take it into consideration, learn to bounce back when you fail, and prepare yourself for the post-race blues. As for the competition, there is just absolutely no point in comparing yourself with anyone. The grass is always greener elsewhere and you would just be finding excuses for your own failings. Ultra-racing is a race against the clock and yourself: this is all that matters, not the other racers. So just give the best you can give considering your own circumstances.
4) Don’t overthink.
Once you have given a good thought about getting into ultra-racing, stop thinking about it. Of course, it takes preparation and training. But if you are just a beginner going for their first race, and unless you are a pro with lots of time on your hands, all you really need to do is ride, eat and rest; ride, eat and rest; ride, eat and rest. If you start looking at all sorts of structured training, nutrition plans, or all sorts of bike and material you need, you will get quickly scared or worked up about it, or worst, discouraged. My first ultra-race, I massively overshoot: 2600km of the Race Across France, with less than 2 months to train, a wedding to plan in the middle of it and training of the wrong bike. Obviously, all the problems I faced during the race could likely have been made better or even avoided if I had been better prepared. But I still finished, and importantly, I learnt a lot! So do not get too worried about it: make the plunge!
5) Trick your brain.
Ultra-racing is a mind game. Some people say that, to keep yourself going in a race, you need to know what your “why” is… Well, it does not work at all for me! I do not know “why” I race… On a deeper level I do, but it is not what gives me motivation when racing. If anything, if I started to ask myself “why” during a race, I probably would just quit. In fact, there are two things I do. First, to me, not finishing is not an option; it just is not. Unless I am genuinely not physically capable of moving my legs because I am injured, or if my bike is just not reparable, I cannot imagine not finishing. I am unable to picture it. I always finish. Even if I am last, even if I cannot make the cut off time, even if it means I will likely not be able to walk afterwards. I know that sounds intense, but this is how my brain works. And what it means is that when I race I never debate with myself whether or not I can finish: all I know is that I will finish and all I have to do is to keep going, even slowly, even if it means I need to walk and push my bike. Second, when I race, and very often when I do long rides, I do not think. I must be thinking something of course, but overall I am in a sort of meditative state and all I really think about is the race, the ride, the bike, the fuel, the kilometres ridden and the ones to go. I was not surprised when I learnt that Fiona Kolbinger mostly spent her time doing calculations and counting kilometres; I do it too. My mind is on the race, and this is what keeps me sane and going.
Photo: Cameron Prentice