By: Chris Mehlmen
Sometimes, mountain biking, and biking in general, is painful. I’m not talking about the crashes or the occasional bashing of your knee on your flat pedals. I’m talking about the leg pain, the hard breathing, and the other physical and mental suffering that is required on most rides. Whether you are chasing a fast riding partner, or dragging a 30 pound trail bike up a long climb so you can rip an epic descent, you likely will ask yourself “why am I doing this?” a few times over the course of your riding life. Usually, these thoughts are brief and you soon are having a great time again, but it can be hard to push through the suffering so that you can reach the more enjoyable stuff. Here are five tips to help manage the suffering.
1) Break down hard sections or long climbs into short segments
Breaking down the less-fun parts like long climbs can help make them more manageable. If you constantly think about a 30 minute climb you have looming ahead of you, you are going to feel overwhelmed, and your body will begin to react to these negative thoughts. You’ll begin to feel as if the task is impossible and never-ending. If you break down that climb into shorter segments, either by time, or by landmarks, it will feel much more bearable and you will be able to conquer it quicker. By saying to yourself “I’m going to push myself to the fire tower at the top of the first fire road section” you will be able to focus your effort on that one part. You won’t feel as overwhelmed, and chances are, you will be able to ride harder because your mind is only thinking about that one shorter section. Once you reach the end of it, shift your thoughts to the next section. You’ll find that the climb will go by much quicker and will feel less daunting.
2) Much of your fatigue and your “limit” is in your mind
Fatigue is a complicated phenomenon. Physically, it can be because of glycogen depletion, muscle breakdown, overheating, and a myriad of other factors. However, modern research has shown that your mindset also plays into fatigue and performance. If you go into a section of a ride thinking that you are on your limit, and that you won’t be able to make it, you will essentially put a limiter on your body’s potential. Your body, in reality, can usually push quite far beyond this mental limit. Eventually, it will reach its physical ceiling, but even the best athletes can be held back by their mindset about fatigue more than by their physical limits. Try to think about each pedal stroke, and not the overall feeling of suffering. One thing I do when I am in the middle of a hard interval is think about how much I am selling myself short, and how much more I could give. Try to focus on the trail and your breathing. Much like what I discussed in my first tip, you can push yourself harder and raise your mental fatigue threshold if you don’t dwell over how long an effort is.
3) Think about the reward to come
Chances are, there is a reason you are suffering. Maybe you are in a race, trying to beat a competitor, or maybe you are getting to your favorite descent. Whatever the reason, use the end reward as a motivator. Think of it as a treat hanging in the woods at the beginning of the descent, or at the finish line of a race. Imagine yourself ripping the descent and the pain will take a back seat. You will be able to push yourself harder since you know there is a big reward at the end. Realize that the hard work will make the reward taste that much sweeter. Speaking of sweeter, if you are just on a hard ride, with no amazing descent or race finish line, think about a food or beverage reward you will get at the end. Will it taste sweeter if you just tried to make it through the ride, or if you know that you really pushed yourself?
4) Don’t stop pedaling!
I cannot stress this one enough. Pacing is hard, and it can be easy to overcook oneself and feel the urge to stop. However, when you stop on a long climb or on a long section of fire road, your legs will block up, your heart rate will drop, and you will get out of a mental rhythm. It is much faster and more comfortable to set a manageable, steady pace that you can maintain for the entire effort. Even if this means getting dropped by your friends for a short time, you will thank yourself for doing this because you won’t be spiking your heart rate, then stopping, then spiking it again, and then stopping. If you are going to stop, plan it out before so that you have a set goal to reach, and have something to look forward to. For example, maybe tell yourself you can have the cookie that has been in your pocket if you make it to the top without stopping.
5) Even if it’s type II fun, it’s still fun in the end
In the end remember that mountain biking is a mixture of type I and type II fun. Type I fun is fun that you feel in the moment, like the feeling you get on a flowy section of dowhill. Type II fun is the type of fun you feel afterward. It might not feel fun during it, but you will remember it as being a good experience. This could be on a long fireroad climb that leads to your favorite descent or one that has amazing views. Occasionally, there is some type III fun (not fun at all), but I hope that doesn’t come too often. After returning home and putting your feet up, you will probably soon forget about most of the suffering you incurred to get to the type I fun parts of your ride. You might have a laugh about how winded you were, or how you almost threw up, but chances are, you’ll be back at it again the next day. Our mind has an amazing ability to forget about the painful parts of exercise. If we didn’t have this ability, I have a feeling very few people would run marathon or ultra-endurance races, and everyday mountain bikers would not ride up the same “terrible” climb — the one that they feel like they are about to die on — over and over during the course of a season in order to ride their favorite descents.