As I got older and more experienced with pacing myself on long distance rides the mental aspect began to play a greater part as I became aware that due to age I could no longer physically push myself as intensely as when I was younger. As a mate once said, “Andy, you have to realise you are no longer 22.” At the time this was devastating, but gradually over time I realised that it was about coping with change. So I thought I would share some of the strategies I use for when times get tough. Alongside them I will share some personal examples of how I apply them.
1) Break large tasks down into smaller manageble chunks.
Probably the mantra that most people are familiar with although often overlooked. The obvious way to apply this on audax calendar events is to stage your ride between controls. On DIY events which are what I mostly ride these days I had to find a different technique. Technology helps with this as the Garmin I use to navigate by and to log my rides has a progress bar along the top of the screen broken into quarters. A mentor once taught me to break any large task into four quarters. He said that during the first and second quarters are you are normally excited by the buzz of the event and by the progress you are making. He suggested that mental doubts often creep in during the third quarter, because fatigue and exhaustion are building up but you still have a long way to go. He went on to say that by the final quarter you can often get a lift because the finish is in sight. So, be aware that the third quarter could well be the most difficult and keep mental energy back to compensate for it. I have found this advice so useful in the 25 years since I first heard it.
On multi-day rides I treat every day as a seperate ride in itself to stop myself becoming overwhelmed by the really long distances. Only as I approach the final leg do I begin to think about what I will have achieved. I use the distance of 300km as a kind of ‘anchor’ or internal reference point for each day. That distance is one I am comfortable with at my pace but know that much more than 10% over it and I will be struggling with sleep deprivation. Some riders can cope with no sleep on long rides whilst others of us simply can not. My favourite quote on the matter is when a reporter interviewed Steve Abraham about his Year Record attempt in 2015.
Interviewer: How do you cope with sleep deprivation?
Steve Abraham: I don’t. I sleep.
2) Reframe the game
By slightly altering the frame of reference you can significantly change your mindset.
In my case as Audax is essentially a timed event over a set distance, I re-frame one of the main requirements and have found that it gives me an amazing advantage. I NEVER refer to a time limit. Instead I think of it as a Time Allowance. By doing this I turn a liability that is working against me into an asset that I now have control of. You don’t have to be an exceptional time manager and I think about time allowance as a type of budget. I then use money management skills to make sure I don’t run out of time in the same way as I make sure I dont run out of money during the month. To take the budgeting analogy further, just as I don’t blow all my cash in the first week after payday, neither do I expend all my energy in the early stage of a long distance ride. Instead I use self control to build up a bit of credit early on to cater for any uncertainties later on. A type of reassuring safety blanket.
Another favourite way is to calibrate my Garmin to time remaining and distance to go. The time remaining really helps with time management as I can do some mental arithmetic and compare it to my actual time allowance to gauge how I am doing on the road. I visualise a clock face to help with the calculations when I am tired or if the numbers become a bit fuzzy.
The distance to go provides a real mental boost as instead of mileage accumulating to large numbers they are in fact decreasing as I approach my destination. The task appears to be getting smaller as fatigue starts to build. I set little goals such as less than 100 miles to go, less than 100km to go, less than 50 miles to go and so on. The final 10,9,8,7,6, etc. miles always feels amazing as I home in on the finish. Blast off.
It is said that achieving goals releases the neuro-chemical dopamine which some call a happy chemical. So it surely makes sense to set several intermediate goals to help motivate yourself during the long hours of an event. This has helped me a number of times over the years when I would otherwise have been struggling.
3) Positive self talk
While initially this may sound a bit pink & fluffy I have found it to be very effective at dealing with negative thoughts when they appear. I treat negative thoughts as just that: thoughts. Self talk is the dialogue that is constantly happening when we are thinking and can be turned around with a bit of effort. Without getting too technical, the amygdala or what is called the ‘fight or flight response’ inside us releases hormones such as cortisol at times of danger or stress. It is natures way of helping us survive dangerous situations but can also be triggered at times of emotional stress or anger. It is why I never engage in negative social media arguments! A 2002 neuro-science study found that when people use self talk to reassess upsetting situations, activity in their pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain that controls behaviour & decision making) increases in an amount correalated with a decrease in activity in their amygdala. In other words the study suggests that it is possible to regulate your emotions. Others argue that emotions are nothing more than ‘guesses’ your brain is constantly making and that you aren’t at the mercy of them. That you can literally re-wire your thoughts.
One of that ways you can do this is to imagine you are taking part in an important event such as a marathon or cup final and that your family, friends and colleagues have come to watch. What if, instead of supporting you as you would expect, they shouted things such as, “You look terrible, why don’t you call it a day” or “Why dont you quit and hop in the car and go home, it would be so much easier.” I just cannot imagine how devastating this would feel. So I say to myself, “If I would NOT want other people to say that to me, why on earth would I choose to say it to myself”
You soon come to find that low patches dont last forever and often quickly pass. In fact the high points do not last forever either and this has made me really appreciate and really savour the moment.
4) Instinct vs. Analysis
I have always been quite instinctive and found that most of my intuition and gut decision making seemed to stand me in good stead. In fact I would get irritated by those who were too analytical. I often thought they suffered from ‘Paralysis by Analysis’ and avoided too much contact with what I considered dithering types. That is, until I crashed and burned a few times (metaphorically not literally!) and those experiences really do teach you deep humility. So in my late 40’s I became an Open University student to try and learn how to be a bit more analytical (and humble).
It was an eye opener and felt like pressing a reset button. I realised that being too skewed in one direction was like swimming with one hand tied behind your back. I swung more towards analysing situations and wanting to know WHY something worked or didn’t work rather than just taking results for granted. Nowadays I consider myself much more balanced in how I operate. It no longer feels like a violent tug-o-war between JFDI & caution. That by mitigating risk, the same level of reward becomes proportionately greater. I suppose I came to realise the goal is to find that magical sweet spot between risk aversion and over confidence. I do not claim to have mastered this by any stretch of the imagination but these strategies I have listed are a combination of personal experiences and applying learning to help find this balance.
So those are a few of the things I have learned and the beauty is that you can transfer these skills to other aspects of you life.
Or vice versa…
The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit – Plutarch –