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Training: The dos and don’ts of mental energy for bike racing

Here is what you should and what you should not do in the leadup to and during your race.

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The last couple of weeks I had the opportunity to travel with USA Cycling to the mountain bike World Cups in Germany and the Czech Republic. As we sat around the van one day after training, we began to discuss the allocation of one’s energy — and one’s mental energy in particular — as a limited resource.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could quantify mental energy expenditures?

Imagine if we had something like a power meter to monitor the mental energy used in real time to see how different situations, circumstances, and emotions impact us, and how much that affects our physical energy as well.

The things I’ve spent my mental energy on have changed over the years. and how much we can truly impact our performance through streamlining our thought processes. The brain does use a tremendous amount of energy and if you’ve ever been too caught up in thought during a hard ride, stressed about finding a solution to a problem, or just trying to distract yourself with a math problem during an interval you probably can relate to this in one way or another.

So here I’ve put together my dos and don’ts of mental energy for race week.

Things you should not spent mental energy on

Weather: You can’t control the weather so there is no point is stressing over it. The weather will influence many factors in the preparation for your race, so if the weather seems to be up in the air, make two plans. Create a plan for the best-case scenario and then create a plan for the worst-case scenario. Stop checking the weather app every hour. Stop waffling back and forth on your clothing. Create your plans and then decide when the time comes.

Other people: You cannot control how other people will race. It could be the best race of their life or their worst. If you are spending your energy planning your race around someone else’s, then you are wasting energy because they might have a mechanical in the first five minutes and leave you with no plan at all.

Trying new things on race day: Just set a hard line on this one. I often have athletes that I coach calling me a couple days before their A event, asking me if they should try this or that thing that their friend is doing or using. Don’t do that. If you have never tried something before in training, then do not do it in the race. It sounds pretty obvious until you feel like you’re at a disadvantage at the start because you’ve never used the latest and greatest thing that everyone else has. Be confident in your own system.

The future: When it comes to race day, live in a vacuum. You can worry about the past and the future once you cross the finish line. This is especially true for athletes who are competing in some type of series. It’s too easy to get caught up in the math of what place you have to finish in the next three events in order to reach your overall series goal. You have to live in the moment, because if you don’t perform today then the math changes anyways. I’ll boil it down even further: if you don’t power up this next climb then you might not make the selection. Think one pedal stroke at a time.

Training: This one always throws people off. Don’t think about your training while you are racing. Training is training and racing is racing. After the race there will be plenty of time to debrief, analyze your numbers, and search for improvements. If you are out on course thinking about what workouts you need to do in order to improve or what workouts you missed, you are wasting energy.

Sensations: Finally, stop thinking about how you feel. While there may be a time and a place to consider sensations if you are pacing a long event, most of the time you need to turn off that part of your brain and just race. Many people are so nervous about “feeling good” on race day that they analyze their sensations to the point of feeling bad. When you win the race, no one cares if your legs felt good or not.

Things you should spend your mental energy on

Now that you learned about all of the things zapping your energy unnecessarily, what can we re-allocate those resources to?

Nutrition and hydration: It’s very important to spend mental energy on your nutrition and hydration strategy. I consider eating during a bike race an intellectual accomplishment. That is because it is very rare that I’ll actually want to eat during a race. I eat because I’ve thought ahead, I’ve established a plan, and then I used my brain to remember and execute that plan.

Planning ahead: Sometimes when you’re packing for a race a couple days out or you’re looking at the course profile, you might just feel a little bit tired. You might have the thought, “I’ll figure it out later.” Stop right then. I’ve never regretted planning ahead and having all of my gear and logistics dialed going into an event. Why? Because then I have more energy available on race day when I don’t have to think about it.

Equipment: This can be a slippery slope for some. Equipment is very important and is worth your mental energy, but you can over-do it. It’s important to spend the time looking through your equipment before the race and to make sure that everything is in good, working condition. That is worth the energy. If you start second guessing yourself or waffling back and forth between two different options then you need to be careful that you aren’t wasting energy in the process.

The task at hand: Always focus on the task at hand. Be present in every situation. Less mistakes happen when you are focused on only one thing. When mistakes don’t happen, we have seamless races, and when we have seamless races, we win.