In every race I have ever done, there comes a point where I get this big surprise when I realize how uncomfortable racing my bike can be. Having to push hard and ride at the pace set by the pack can be painful. The funny thing is that after over 25 years of racing, I am still surprised when it starts to hurt. Mentally I think that my brain keeps me from quitting the sport by hiding the painful stuff so that I will go back out next week and have another go.
Before I go too far in to this discussion, I want to make it clear that when I talk about pain I do not mean the pain from an injury, but instead that sweet miserable pain you get from a hard effort. The kind of suffering that can make you feel like you earned your placing with hard work and the pain that says that that is all you had to give in that race.
When I talk to my athletes about doing mental imagery to get ready for the race, I first have them picture the perfect race. They see themselves riding smart and being in the perfect position and the launching their attack or sprint at just the right time. Then after a few viewings of the perfect race I suggest they think about the “what ifs”. What if they have a flat tire? What if they get a bad starting place at the line? Basically think about what can go wrong with their perfect race and then come up with a plan for what they will do in those situations.
Something that, in the past, I did not make a point of suggesting is to make a plan for how they will react when it starts to hurt. In Chris McCormack’s book I’m Here to Win, he has a section titled “Embrace the Suck”. Chris discusses how in every race, there is a point where it just “sucks” to be out there racing. The big point he makes is that what an athlete does when that point arrives can affect the rest of their race and even their future races. Does the athlete push through and blow up? Do they crumble? Do they back away from the pain and stay within their comfort zone? Or, do they use the pain as their signal to focus on what they know about what they have done in training and set their level of effort to still reach their goal of a fast time or high placing in the race.
So the thing that I am getting at is that part of your mental preparation really needs to be about planning for when it starts to hurt. While you are training, there are plenty of chances to practice and learn what you can and cannot do when the pain starts. Too often riders will reach that point and begin to doubt that they can continue at the level they are racing. In the worst case the rider may simply stop pedaling. But if you pay attention to what it “feels” like when you are training hard, you will have a better idea of what you might be able to do when the pain comes.
I remember an interview with Davis Phinney (Tayler’s dad) from back in the 80’s. They asked him what he thought about during long training rides. He said that he thought about the effort of pedaling his bike. He said he focused on the effort and how it felt. He wanted to know what it felt like when he was making his best efforts and what he could “survive” when the pain began.
A great benefit of training and racing with your power meter is that you can use what you know about your power profile and the power you are able to hit and hold during efforts of different lengths to help you to decide what you can or should do when the pain starts.