Misery Is a Choice: Developing Mental Toughness in Endurance Athletes

If there was ever an actual secret to turning highly-talented athletes into champions it is simply this: Toughen them up. Whether you’re trying to win the Paris-Roubaix, get through a 200-mile gravel race, or hang with the fast group ride, it’s going to take more than talent, available training time, and hi-tech gear. You’re also going to have to get tough.

What Is Toughness?

We have a lot of misconceptions about toughness. It has nothing to do with being aggressive or mean. Toughness is your ability to absorb abuse and handle adversity, all while staying focused on your goal and keeping a level head. Legendary Irish cyclist, Sean Kelly set a standard for toughness that has influenced my life and coaching style ever since I trained and raced with him as an amateur and pro in Europe.

Off the bike, he was unassuming and spoke so softly you could barely hear him. But on the bike, he didn’t care if he was outnumbered, out of water, freezing cold, or riding through floodwaters. He was able to push himself further than anyone else. It certainly helped that he had an enormous aerobic engine, but he earned many of his victories because he was too tough to let adverse conditions or circumstances slow him down.

When I was a young coach, getting young riders over to Europe was one of my big priorities. We went to Belgium. The weather was terrible and the food was worse. The accommodations were half a step up from squalor. It wasn’t that I was trying to punish them; that was simply the reality of elite amateur racing in Europe at the time, and the Belgian and Dutch guys they were competing against could thrive in that environment. They had been racing, aggressively, in wind and sideways rain, over cobblestones and narrow roads, since they were boys. To win, our guys had to embrace the discomfort and get on with the job, because everyone else already had.

These days my coaches and I work more with time-crunched career professionals and working parents, but teaching toughness is still a big part of the coaching process. As an athlete, the key to getting tough is accepting that nothing will ever be perfect.

Misery Is a Choice

Some riders are defeated the second they open the blinds and see rain. The prospect of a wet day in the saddle destroys their morale. Rain may be the reality, but your response to it is your choice. You can choose to be miserable, or choose to gear up and get on with it. Better yet, spin the situation to your benefit: use the weather as your teammate. Riders who gripe about the weather are quicker to quit when the going gets tough, so go on the offensive and let the weather multiply the impact of your effort.

There are racers who could be World Champion if the race was held on a sunny, 75-degree day in Boulder, CO; provided there was no wind and they could have their raw food smoothie and perfectly made latte beforehand. And I’m not picking on Boulder; there are athletes everywhere who can only perform in ideal conditions. They are usually the local superstars who have never had a notable result on more than a regional level.

Train for Toughness

Your power and fitness are important, but you also have to develop your toughness by proactively exposing yourself to discomfort or uncertainty. This means training in the rain or when it’s ridiculously hot or blowing like a tempest. It means getting comfortable eating whatever’s available rather than stressing over a perfect nutrition plan. It means staying in an event even after a crash or a mechanical has taken you way off goal pace or off the back of the pack. The more you can embrace discomfort and uncertainty in training the better prepared you will be to work through it in competition.

Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche taught me a valuable lesson about toughness following the 1986 Paris-Nice. They were staying in the same hotel as the 7-Eleven team in the south of France for the week between Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo. My teammates and I were thinking a rest week was in order following a tough stage race, but Kelly and Roche invited us out for a strong midweek ride.

It was rainy and cold and all I wanted to do was lay in the hotel, but I joined them with a few of my teammates. The ride ended up being seven hours. Kelly and Roche pulled for the first 4 hours and although it was everything I could do to hang on, they seemed at ease with the pace, hills, rain, and cold. When Sean finally looked behind him after 4 hours, it was just me and, I think, Davis Phinney left. “Where’d everybody go?”, Kelly asked with his lilting voice.

A few days later I had perhaps the best ride of my pro career, cresting the top of the Poggio in Milan-San Remo with a fighting chance to be in the finale. Kelly won and I got caught behind a crash on the way down, but that midweek ride with Kelly and Roche had pushed me beyond what I had previously known I could withstand. Getting tougher is that process of pushing beyond your perceived limits and realizing you can do more.

Turning on Your Toughness

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But how? Take some cues from elite athletes and soldiers: stay calm, eliminate extraneous thoughts and actions, rely on ingrained routines, and stay positive. When it’s time to get tough, you have to narrow your focus to exactly what has to be done now. Don’t think too far ahead. Get through now and then move on the next step. Stop thinking about what could go wrong or how you got into this situation; clear your mind so you’re just making the decisions necessary to go forward. Above all, use positive self-talk to maintain a mindset for success. You’re already carrying on a conversation in your head; make it a positive one.

Toughness is less measurable than power output, but there’s no doubt that improving your toughness yields real results. It’s a big part of the reason CTS-coached athletes have always beaten the overall finishing rates at challenging events like the Tour of Flanders Sportive, La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, the Leadville 100, and Dirty Kanza 200. Prepare the mind and the body will follow.

“Adapted from Chris Carmichael Column in Road Bike Action”

 

32 Responses to “Misery Is a Choice: Developing Mental Toughness in Endurance Athletes”

  1. John Brown

    I don’t think that I’ve ever climbed to the top of a mountain pass on my bike without overcoming doubt or the desire to quit. But that is where you discover who you really are in life and as a cyclist. However, everybody who rides them suffers and that’s why the famous mountain passes of the Tour du France, The Giro, and other great races so Iconic.

    Reply
    • Francis

      If you don’t do the groundwork including misery managment, chances are it won’t be there for you in competion.

      Reply
  2. Jon Janzen

    I just read this to my young gymnasts. I talk about being mentally tough at all times. It was great to see the reaction they had as I was reading it to them. We are involved in a sport where mind and body must learn to get along. Whether flipping through the air or charging down a mountain on a bike, it’s about confidence. Thanks again for a great article. Thanks to CTS I’ve enjoyed racing with confidence.

    Reply
  3. Andre van Rooyen

    The only difference between an Adventure and an Ordeal is attitude.

    Reply
    • Melanie

      Great one and so true!! In life and on the bike!

      Reply
  4. Glenn Thomas

    I love the idea when training in adverse conditions that I am getting stronger – leaner, meaner – while all those who don’t are getting weaker – fatter and likely happier!

    Reply
  5. Bob Machlin

    I think Selene Yeager (“Fit Chick”), pro-MTB rider and prolific author, captured this advice best many years ago when she said: “Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable”.

    Reply
  6. Erica Brann

    Thank you Chris, I’ve been faithfully reading your training tips for years and lately you’ve been more direct, and I like it. That said, if you want to see some mental toughness in the Boulder Bubble check out the 50+ Women this weekend at The Boulder Roubaix, looks dry and warm, but we’d show up either way.
    Best,
    Erica

    Reply
  7. MIke McDonald

    Enjoyed the article and the responses where everyone tells their war stories! I have a few too. A few years ago at the Hincapie GF, most people thought me completely crazy (including my teammate) and I wondered too, later. I took a steep switchback too fast, over the edge, crashed, cracked one side of my handlebars so it flopped down hanging on by a few carbon fibers. There was a SAG there but no way had I come all that way, trained all that time to SAG out. After the end over into the trees, I didn’t feel too banged up other than cuts and bruises, so I rode holding on to the stem with my right hand and the good side of the bars with my left for 5 miles as hard as I could through the twisting rollers until I met a Mavic car which gave me a replacement bike. I finished the last 35 miles. I was riding a 50/34 with an 11-27 on my Felt AR1 with Di2. The Mavic bike had a 53/39 and an 11-23 and mechanical. That last big climb was painful for me. I guess I’m saying, when you overcome adversity, you gain a mindset of being an overcomer. I found out later I had a full thickness tear in my left rotator cuff but it’s funny that I smiled more after that event than just about any other.

    Reply
  8. Jim McGraw

    Just this weekend I was asking myself: “If you were already on the bike and the weather turned nasty, you would tend to continue. So, why is it hard to leave a warm, dry house and start riding when the weather is lousy? The weather is the same in both situations…. but the MIND is different!

    Clearly… I need to work on this! Thanks for the excellent article!

    Reply
  9. Joe rockbottom

    It sure makes a difference. I started riding during college in Montana, where it can snow any day of the year. This was back Iin the ’70’s and all I knew when I started was that there was some guy named Eddy that everyone talked about who was really fast, and the only pictures of him were all of mud and rain or sweating up some mountain.. That set the tone for me, so we were out in all kinds of weather, century rides that never got above 30, rain and mud roads, climbing passes with snow still on the road. I see people here in California jump on their trainer when a cloud shows up. Yeah, rule #5 should be the first lesson for any cyclist.

    Reply
  10. Steve

    If you have handled adverse conditions in the past you know you can do it again no problem!!

    Reply
  11. James McKenzie

    I know about kitting up and getting going.. Still have my Winter gear out, and its made the difference. Leg warmers, arm warmers, gaiter, and all. My favorite phrase is ‘You don’t get to pick the weather on race day’. TBC training ride example, 20 MPH winds from the EAST. Not fun to ride in, but very much doable…

    Reply
  12. Scott

    Great article. I always tell the kid this,, that the difference between a winner and looser could often be mental fortitude when the going gets tough. This is a good metaphor for life across the board

    I love riding in the rain once i get going. It’s very liberating and refreshing but seeing rain outside the window can be an easy excuse to be lazy.

    Reply
  13. marc

    good article-no great

    Reply
  14. Becky O.

    Lucky me, I live in Colorado. I rarely race, but have done two sprint triathlons and a hill climb, plus six tours of Ride the Rockies. I used to train on perfect days, with clear blue skies, short sleeves and low 70s temps. Now I train whenever I can, regardless of the conditions, other than ice. I ride into headwinds, up steep grade, in the rain and at varying temperatures. What may start as 55 degrees at 7500 feet quickly turns into 11,000 feet and low 30s with a killer windchill factor on the descent. I am Batgirl, a bit of a Diva. I have all the gear for cold, rain, wind and sun. For me, it’s all about what to pack and what I’ll need to keep riding through different conditions, without overpacking. This came in handy on a “fours seasons” day two years ago. What started as blue sky/60s, turned to dark sky, rain, hail and snow through the course of 80 miles. People were cold, some were taken by ambulance for hypothermia treatment, others took SAG to the end (where they closed the route due to snow). My batgear served me well. I swallowed hail, kept riding through cold/rain and let the sweeps pick up others in worse shape. I finished the day and lived to tell. It was awesome.

    Reply
    • I loved this reply, inspirational. A big well done.

      I loved this reply, inspirational. A big well done.

      Reply
  15. Mari Holden

    This is absolutely the truth Chris. You have to know how to suffer and handle adversity if you want to win. Nothing is ever perfect and you have to know that you can take more than anyone else. That you can survive and thrive. Now I’m a bit soft and am a fair weather cyclist, but I know that back in the day I truly believed 100% the worse the conditions the better chance I would have. To my girls I tell them they should hope for bad conditions and that their chances will improve. Bring it on!

    Reply
  16. Christian

    If you want to read more about mental toughness, I highly recommend : “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald.

    Reply
    • Bill Arnerich

      I’ll second that, Christian. Fitzgerald’s book is a very good complement to Chris’s outstanding thoughts in this essay.

      Reply
  17. Ray Scott

    Good article. I can use this advice when I ride in the Hincapie GF in the mountains of North and South Carolina. My state is flat so I shudder when I start this ride and some mental toughness is definitely going to help me. Thanks.

    Reply
  18. Steve

    Great article! But I also think being prepared is also a part of being tough. Last June I did an event here in Wisconsin titled “The Horribly Hilly Hundreds”. The forecast that morning called for a warm day with only a slight chance of storms. Yep, that slight chance turned into 100%. It rained, blew and even hailed in the afternoon. Fortunately, I thought to bring along a pair of arm warmers and a vest. Made all the difference! I was able to stay warm and finish all 125 miles of the ride.

    Reply
  19. Anonymous

    Rule 5. ’nuff said.

    Reply
  20. Paul

    I think the comments about training in adverse conditions are spot on. When I trained for the Pan Mass Challenge, I explicitly went out in the rain several times to get used to it. I also went out the day after a hurricane to ride 40 miles into the wind again so I could get used to it (I personally find wind very demotivating). Guess what? The first (longest stage) day of the PMC it rained almost the whole time and was the coldest PMC on record. People were getting pulled off for hypothermia. I wore a cheap rain jacket I got the day before and clocked my fastest century ever.

    Reply
  21. Aaron

    I agree completely! I saw this first hand in the Iceman mountain bike race here in Michigan in 2014. Temps were around 33 degrees with moderate to heavy rain & I couldn’t believe how many people just quit! I just think of what Clebe McClary says. FIDO; Forget It & Drive On!

    Reply
  22. kevin

    I totally agree. I’m just in my first year cycling. I know cyclists who are probably more talented. But they see barriers, I don’t I’ll never quit. Always finish what you start. Injuries apart.

    Reply
  23. Fred

    I love this – every time I head out on cold, wet, windy day I think “I’m getting in 3 hours no one else is….”

    Reply
    • kevin

      I think the same. Great mind set to have.

      Reply

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