The Pep Talk You Need Right Now


Recently I’ve had the opportunity to ride and talk with a number of athletes who aren’t performing at the level they would like to be. Their stories were all a bit different but boiled down to life getting out of balance, eating and drinking habits changing for the worse, and exercising less. There is a lot to balance in life, and at times the table tilts. Here is some of the advice I have for anyone struggling to find their way back to fitness:

Stop punishing yourself

You can’t change the past. You can only make changes that will affect your future. If your power output is lower than you want it to be, or your pace is slower than you think it should be, driving yourself into the ground to achieve those markers right now is not going to help. It is great that you are now motivated to work hard, but getting back to where you were – and exceeding your past performances – means working with the fitness you have now and taking smart steps to incrementally improve. You can’t play catch-up by piling on more workload than you can handle; the human body doesn’t work that way.

Just get out the door

Athletes are often their hardest critics. Instead of being a pressure valve or an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, athletes who are unhappy with their current state of fitness often over-analyze a workout and find a hundred reasons why it sucked. The most important thing you can do is just get out the door and exercise. Stop overthinking it. You know that consistency and cumulative workload will move you in the right direction. If you’re just getting back to training after focusing on other priorities, losing fitness, and gaining weight, then stop worrying about the numbers. Yes, you’re slow. Focusing on exactly how slow is not productive. Being out there is what is productive, and the only way to get to where you want to be is to get out there and enjoy it.

Actively counter negative self-talk

We all have an inner narrative, and endurance athletes spend a lot of time engaged in self-talk because there’s no one else around to talk to. Your inner narrative can be positive or negative; it’s your choice. When you are not performing up to the standard you set for yourself, it is easy for self-talk to become very dark. I encourage athletes to acknowledge that negative self-talk and actively counter it. When your inner narrative says “you suck”, it’s not enough to just ignore it and keep moving forward. Instead, respond with affirmation: “This is what I have right now, and today’s effort will make me better.”

Don’t give up

I can relate to this one personally. During a period when I had gained a lot of weight and lost a ton of fitness, I went on rides and reached a point where I was so frustrated with being so slow, out of breath, and uncomfortable that I just turned around and went home. Unfortunately that meant I was just delaying the progress that would get me over the hump and back to a workload that would deliver significant improvement. My advice is to pause, but not turn around. Take a break. Catch your breath. Curse the decisions that led you to be in this sorry state of fitness. Then keep moving forward. Break the ride or run into smaller goals. Get to the top of this climb. Get to the next intersection. Keep going for 10 more minutes. I have never met anyone who has regretted the ride or run they completed, once it’s done. Talk yourself into getting it done, rather than giving yourself an excuse to quit.

Be patient

You didn’t gain 20 pounds overnight, nor did you lose 100 watts at lactate threshold in the past week. It’s going to take time to get back to where you were, and your progress is not likely to be linear. Fitness is the product of time and workload, and you can only apply finite amounts of either one. There are no shortcuts, so stop looking for them. Embrace the process, not your current position within it.

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Celebrate the small wins

In coaching we refer to these as ‘process goals’. Sometimes they can be as simple as compliance to a training schedule. You’re goal was to train 4 times this week, and you did it. That’s a win. You stuck to your dietary plan for the past two weeks. That’s a win. You took pulls at the group ride instead of just sitting on wheels. That’s a win. Some athletes scoff at process goals as akin to participation medals, but they’re wrong. Process goals should be challenging and incremental. When you build a ladder you don’t just install the bottom rung and the top one. You put rungs in between so you can gradually climb higher and higher.

The best thing about endurance sports is their accessibility to athletes of all ages and levels of fitness. As long as you are having fun, there’s a place for you in endurance sports. And it’s up to everyone in the endurance sports community to be supportive, encouraging, and welcoming to athletes beginning their journey or getting back on track.

Chris Carmichael
CEO and Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 29

  1. I really needed this today. To be reminded of turning negative thoughts into positive and to break down goals into many smaller wins (taking a pull on a group ride instead of sitting in back).


  2. Jeeezee.. how did you know that I needed this pep talk as I’m trying to find an excuse not o get on the trainer in 5minutes.

  3. A closely related issue is picking the right standard to compare yourself to.

    I am a grumpy old bastard who returned to riding after a long hiatus. Therefore comparing my performance to a 22 y/o who seems to have been born on a bike is unreasonable and unhelpful. I find that usually the best comparison for me is yesterday… Am I better today than yesterday?

    Occasionally, comparing to others can be helpful, if one picks carefully. An example is a 500 mile race last year in which I finished dead last. Many folks would call that a dismal and embarrassing performance which warrants selling all my bikes. However, the year before I had a big fat DNF in the same race. I had improved dramatically from the previous year! Further, when I looked at the race results, I discovered that about a third of the starters didn’t finish. Thus, simply finishing was something that many others didn’t do.

    I re-framed how I look at my “Lantern Rouge” result: I think of it as the “Last FINISHER” rather than the “LAST finisher”.

    Thank you for this blog post!

    1. Anyone who attempts a 500 mile race is a winner at the start line. Anyone who finishes is a beast. And the last finisher is the most admirable beast.

  4. This is a good one Chris. As a client told me one day, “Getting old is hard work, Getting old is not for sissies.”

    I’m facing a crossroads right now with either an injury or undiagnosed problem. It causes me to evaluate how I move forward with fitness, and perhaps taking a break from my “go to” form of exercise. A big takeaway from your piece is “don’t panic”.

  5. I love this! Every spring I go through the feeling of being out if biking shape despite cross country skiing all winter. I love the small wins concept and the idea of having an effort progress your fitness faster. Thanks for the pep talk.

  6. Pingback: From Dark to Light – GFNY Racing

  7. Thanks Chris, great article. A great reminder and having one of the CTS coaches to remind me of this regularly is a great investment! Well done all around.

  8. This type of article is so helpful. While so many of your articles are very technical and apply primarily to elite athletes, this is an article that a much wider audience can connect with. Thank you!

  9. This really struck a chord with me. My wife always reminds me, when I’ve bitten off more work-wise than I can chew, how to “eat an elephant”. “Bit by bit” is the answer..

  10. My wife and I spent the past two months (Jan-Mar) working in Greece with refugees. Upon returning to Colorado, I did the unthinkable…I jumped on the scale. “Holy crap, where did those 12 pounds come from!?” Besides the long work days in Athens and vying for the stairs, up and down to the metro, life was consumed with bread, coffee, sweets, second-hand smoke, gyros, full fat yogurt 6%+ and more bread. Ugh. One consolation, we walked a lot. This article was so timely! Thanks guys! While we certainly can’t “fake fitness”, here in Colorado, we can wake up to clean, crisp air, and relatively uncrowded streets/paths to throw down some miles. How quickly one forgets that there is no air at 6,000 feet. Ha ha. Happy, blessed, and fat. Today, I actually felt hungry, this is going the right direction now.

  11. Great article. When I feel discouraged I remember why I started riding. Not to be the best or fastest but to have fun! Choose to have fun! Ride with people who are having fun. It’s contagious. You’ll have off days but at least you are on your bike! It’s not the climb you conquer it’s yourself.

  12. Avoid becoming totally absorbed in an immediate reality such as one’s present loss of fitness.Instead remember your ULTIMATE goal.Focus on the task at hand.Climb one mountain at a time,starting with the one right in front of you.It will come.

    1. Defiantly applies to me at this moment, but with help from my coach, arrivals like this and Spring classics it’s all combined to help me get back on track

  13. Spot on and I have done everyone one of these self destructive thoughts and actions. A great reminder starting out a new season after all the holidays, bad weather, and other life events. Now I am going to go out there and have some fun and enjoy!!

    Thanks Chris!!

  14. I’ve found it’s “reaching for the stars” that frustrates me. But when I just get out and ride I’m always grateful for the earth beneath my wheels.

  15. Excellent article. The rungs on that ladder make so much sense. Having achievable goals, focus, being willing to learn from mistakes, enjoying your rides (yes, even hard intervals) and being positive is what will get you there. Right now I’m off my bike for health reasons. Sudden late onset asthma means I can’t cycle 4km without getting breathless. A new inhaler is gradually sorting that. I also have kidney cancer (op to remove tumour in a couple of weeks). I’m being treated for prostate cancer and due to the hormone tablets I have to take, I’ve lost a lot of strength and piled on weight and inches round the waist. You’d think I’d be depressed but the reverse is true. I know I’ll recover and I’m mad keen to get out on my bike, lose that weight and regain some of my former fitness with further goals once I’ve achieved those milestones. It will take time but I know what I have to do and I’ll get there. ‘There’ means eventually returning to racing as a veteran. There are a lot of steps on my road back but so many of them are enjoyable and I can see each and every one in my mind’s eye.

  16. Good article. I’ve talked my self through some rough rides. Even though I’ve known I’ve been slower or more tired than usual I’ve given myself a pat on the back for roughing it out and not turning back. Flip side a kick up the arse when needed IT works!

    1. Thanks Chris. Some great counsel here. It’s helped me to embrace where I am and cut my group rides to similar fitness level folks and avoid the T-rides and riders. I’m seeing steady gains and occasionally have a glimpse of that fitness I once had. The best graphic is spot on…Appreciate the support.

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