The quickest way to get from point A to B is a straight line. Applying the same logic, the fastest route to success in endurance sports will also be taking a straight line from your starting point to your end goal. Many of us are aware and have come to find that the hard way: training is not a linear path. Whether you incur injury, sickness, or personal matters that get in the way, sometimes your neat and tidy plan for success gets messy. Workouts get moved around, sometimes even taken off the plan entirely. Races you have had marked and circled on calendars may even be canceled, so what do you do? We begin to reset, replan, and reassess our goals.
2020 brought its own series of challenges that forced athletes worldwide to think outside the box when it came to training and racing. When races were canceled, athletes discovered ways to motivate themselves during periods of uncertainty. Thousands of cyclists and triathletes found themselves racing in the virtual world to curb their competitive appetite. Others found themselves discovering the joys of training for the sake of becoming a better athlete again. Sometimes in the midst of competition, it is hard to remember the core reason why we take part in endurance sports: to find our own limits and then push them. This search for our own ceiling had us taking to Strava to see just how much faster and higher we could set a route segment bar. Many discovered their limits only existed in their head and that when given no boundaries, they reached new peaks. Perhaps this has motivated us more than anything else; the need to discover new potentials.
While some athletes found intrinsic motivation, others struggled. Not having tangible race timelines threw many off-balance and searching for motivation to train. No Strava segment or Zwift race could really take the place of the head to head competition, which is what many of us thrive on. Athletes missed the euphoria that comes from the cheers of crowds and spectators alike. This pressure can crush some, or create an atmosphere for others to flourish. Many of us will patiently wait for our chance to shine again in front of crowds of family and friends.
It is not just this year that plans in training and racing go haywire, as this can occur at any moment in time. There will always be changes in our own lives that we must adapt to. When these obstacles occur, how you respond or react can help guide your new path while still remaining focused on your long term goals.
It takes a big blow to your psyche to have prepared months, even years for an event and only to have it taken off the schedule. Whether this is due to injury or factors out of your control, it can hurt all the same. Life is not predictable, as much as we like to believe we have some type of control over it. We plan to the day what our training will look like, and then all of the sudden the train is off the tracks. Best option: stay in the present moment while also keeping a focus on your long term goals. Sports psychologist Dr. Julie Emmerman suggests,
“Tumultuous times offer an athlete the opportunity to establish a more intimate relationship with their own self…”
We can be reactive, which doesn’t get us very far, or we can do our best to be mindful in response. Ask yourself: what is there for me to learn about myself given this experience? Is my reaction trying to teach me about patience? Creative perseverance? Loss? Self-motivation? Is it a reminder to recalibrate one’s thinking around process versus outcome? A set back can fuel and strengthen an athlete if you use it to expand upon your mental skills and self-awareness.” By performing a self-evaluation (and making it an honest one at that) athletes can capitalize on time “lost” by growing as both an individual and as an athlete. No matter what level you compete at: amateur or professional, we all have areas we can improve upon, and more often than not, these are things that can’t be improved by riding, running, or swimming. Most of the time it is our mental game that can derail a performance, and this is a perfect time to work on this competitive edge.
While every athlete and individual has unique and different reasons as to why they compete in sport, time off can help you rediscover the original spark that started the fire beneath your feet to compete. Sometimes going back to the basics can help to reignite a desire to continue. As much as this downtime makes you uncomfortable, use it as a tool to discover your “why.” More often than not, athletes can get lost in the routine of training and nailing specific power numbers, pacing efforts, etc. Using time away from structured training can be viewed as a brain refresher to go out and ride for the fun of it.
Facing new and uncharted challenges will bring out different responses and reactions across the board from individuals. With the uncertainty of racing schedules, many athletes find themselves searching high and low for competition wherever they can find it. Apps such as Strava or Zwift can offer respite for the competitive athlete who is craving some physical pain and rivalry. Is this the solution for everyone though? While you may find many in your circles taking to the virtual world or trying to best Strava segments, this may not be your cup of tea. If you are working with a coach, having a conversation about what can be gained by adding these types of challenges will be worthwhile. Dr. Emmerman adds that “If you tend to shy away from Strava or Zwift, think of what might you gain by leaning into your discomfort? These tools can be used to work on one’s own relative weaknesses. Having these types of tools is a good way to mix things up.” Hint: Growth Mindset!
“If you tend to shy away from Strava or Zwift, think of what might you gain by leaning into your discomfort?
One of the most important pieces to remember when going through periods of uncertainty is to know that it is normal to experience periods of highs as well as lows. Each day will present its own unique challenges and sometimes, our body (and especially our minds) just simply say no. Mental highs and lows depend on a multitude of factors that are distinctive to each individual. Dr. Emmerman states that “Whether it’s anxiety about the future or sadness about the past, acknowledge and comfort yourself when needed. It is advantageous to allow yourself time to feel and process emotions rather than repress or ignore them. It is also advantageous to learn the skill of compartmentalization so that you can, put simply, shift gears, and get the job done. Sometimes just getting into your workout is the best way to afford yourself an opportunity to practice being present and see where that takes you. Any skills honed now will serve the athlete later when he or she returns to competition.”
This year has shown that we cannot control every variable. In fact, it has shown that there is very little we can control out of our own bubbles and circles. Knowing what you can do for yourself to improve your own situation can allow you to set yourself up for the best result. While short term goals may need to be renegotiated, it is important to always think of the long game and how achieving your process goals can still point you in the right direction. Dr. Emmerman sums it up perfectly, “Set yourself up as best as possible, hold yourself accountable, and allow room for your humanness. Reach out to people who are generally positive, caring, and compassionate for support and camaraderie.”
Endurance sports may seem like individual pursuits, but in the grand scheme, it is a community of individuals who may understand your struggles better than most. Whatever challenges you may come across in the coming year or beyond, keep your head up and always approach each obstacle as an opportunity to grow.
Become a mentally tougher athlete with The Sufferfest mental toughness exercises.
Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships and World Cups on both the road and track.