This post might ruffle some feathers though it is not intended to. If you find yourself getting upset, believe me, you’re misunderstanding what I’m laying down – either I didn’t explain myself well enough or you’re emotionally attached to why you’re having a tough time getting faster. Assuming, of course, you want to get faster, but you just can’t believe that it’s easy as managing the gray matter between your ears better. Stay with me now… This post is my experience, meaning I had to battle through this myself to put my estimation of being so-so in the past.
How often have you been completely, entirely spent after a ride? If you’ve followed my blog for the last two months, you know I’ve ridden a lot in that time. Well, a lot for a guy with a full-time day job, a wife and two kids. A little more than 1,300 miles. I’ve been that smoked, so far on just one weekend long ride – last Saturday as a matter of fact. One of those where I had to will myself to the finish line each of those last eight miles.
I’m not talking about those rides where you’re pushing hard and you just want to slow down for a minute, I go through two of those a week. I’m talking about a ride where you’re physically wrecked afterwards. You know, the character building rides.
Two weeks ago, long about mile 57 of a 63 miler, up hill and into the wind, my wife was in tears and struggling hard just to keep pedaling. As she described it, something miraculous happened when we turned out of the headwind… She started to feel better.
One of the harder aspects of cycling to grasp is what happens when you start to feel bad, when you’re really working. First, if you were a runner who is just getting into cycling, cycling isn’t like running, where your body pretty much says, “Screw you, I’m done.” In cycling, if you can back off just a little bit, you’ll almost always start to feel better within a mile or two unless you’re in a full bonk. I’ve been through this countless times and because the body doesn’t take a pounding the same way it does in running, pushing through a little bit of adversity isn’t as hard and the consequences of doing so aren’t near as bad. Second, even if you can’t back off – say you’re riding with a club, you an often come to feel significantly better just by hanging on for a few minutes longer. A few weeks ago, I was struggling to keep up with the club. We were well north of 28 mph, even passing 30 mph every now and again… absolutely hammering. Maybe seven miles in, I got to thinking it was just too much but I didn’t want to give up the speed and a really good draft (there were between 20 & 30 of us) so I decided to try to stick it out for just a little longer. Ten minutes later, still around 28 mph, and I’d relaxed, my breathing and heart rate calmed down and I was holding on like we were only at 25.
One of the better suggestions I’ve ever heard (and chosen to remember on a consistent basis) is “don’t quit when you’re feeling bad”. While that might sound sarcastic or facetious, it’s not. I’ve found that I can push through a lot more difficulty than a I could running (without injuring myself). I covered confidence the other day, so I won’t go back into that, but I will get a little deeper into the thinking aspect of speed on a bike. First, speed is attained through distance and intensity. The higher the intensity and the more miles you put into holding that intensity, the faster one gets. This is why I can easily spin away from my wife while she struggles at the pace we are going (though she’s catching up – it’s getting a lot harder). I train at higher speeds and over greater distances. The thinking comes in during those times when it starts getting tough and I want to lay off instead of holding the speed. Instead of my default being “okay, I’ll listen to my body and back off”, it’s “I’m faster than this (giving up), I’m stronger than this, I can hold on for just a little longer, I’ll feel better in a minute.” I don’t slow down but I do, usually, end up feeling much better after a few miles.
I obviously have my limits, just like anyone else – I’m not racing with the Cat 4 guys and I could if I gave it a little more effort, but my effort matches my desire for where I want to be. I don’t have to be any faster. On the other hand, should I ever have the desire to speed up a little bit, to “take it to another level of fast”, I know the first place to start: The gray matter between my ears. The legs will come around soon enough.
To conclude, it’s often difficult to accept or even acknowledge mental weakness, as if to do so would imply physical weakness. To tie the two together, mental and physical weakness, one makes a vastly egregious mistake: One assumes that one’s thoughts are as valid as physical strength. Think about this; if I say that you’re a loser, does that make it so? Now, what if you have that thought. You think, “I’m a loser”. Does that make it so? I say that it does not. What makes it so is the actions one takes. For instance, if I were to think, “I want to go live in the mountains as a monk”, does that make me a monk? Of course it doesn’t. What makes me a monk is actually following through with the actions… Or giving the thought validity. It means accepting that initial thought and taking action on it.
Thinking about how smoked I feel when I’m out riding doesn’t necessarily mean I’m smoked… Thinking about how I want to quit and take it easy, doesn’t mean I have to do it. I can discard that thought, treat it as my brain does a dream (as taking out the garbage). That thought only has validity when I sit up and quit. Try this, instead: Discard that initial thought that you want to sit up and spin back easy. Treat it as a rotten apple core. Pitch it. Then see if your situation improves. Then do it again. And again. If your experience is anything like mine, more often than not, you’ll find you weren’t as done as you thought.
The main point is, don’t buy the hype created in the gray matter. Do your best, be happy with it, and let the rest work out in the wash. After all, it’s just riding a bike, dude.