training weakness

Cycling Training Challenge: Can You Get Better At These Things?


By Chris Carmichael,
Founder & Head Coach of CTS

One of the habits that separates champions from everyone else is the willingness to do what they are the worst at. Your greatest strength will not be enough to overcome weaknesses you neglect or refuse to address. To use cycling as an example, being the best climber in the world isn’t going to matter if you can’t go downhill fast or are afraid to ride in a peloton. If you want to improve your overall performance, it’s time to start doing the things you are terrible at doing.

How big is the problem?

This might be the biggest problem holding endurance athletes back from achieving their goals. It’s fun to do the things we are good at, particularly when we have limited time available to ride bikes or run on trails. It’s fun to ride the mountain bike trails where we know every line and every berm. It’s more fun to do the strength training exercises you have the most expertise with and that make you feel strong. And it’s more comfortable to continue eating the way you are right now or following the dysfunctional sleep routine you have now.

Nobody wants to do the things they suck at, and that’s a problem.

The bigger problem is the disparity between what you’re best at and what you’re worst at. The more time you spend only doing the training or following the habits you’re best at, the worse you get at all the other things you’re not doing. As this gap widens, your overall ability to be a successful athlete declines dramatically. You don’t have to be the absolute best at every aspect of your sport. However, in order to maximize the impact of your greatest strength you have to be at least proficient, competent, and good at the other aspects of the sport.

Perhaps the best example in cycling is the road sprinter. People joke that the more heavily muscled sprinters who gather in the grupetto on mountain stages must be terrible climbers. They’re not. They spend a lot of time making sure they are proficient climbers so they can get over mountains and stay within the time cut, and get over hills so they can be in contention to sprint. A sprinter who can’t climb, for whom the disparity between their greatest strength and greatest weakness is too large, won’t reach the final kilometers in contention to win, or reach them at all.

What are you bad at?

Fall is a good time to focus on getting better at the thing or things you do badly. When you have the longest runway to your goal event your training is more generalized and less specific to the demands of the event. This leaves room for skill acquisition and changes in routine. But the first step is determining what you are terrible at. More precisely, you have to determine what you are worst at doing that has the worst effect on your performance.

Here are some examples from conversations with athletes:

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  • Getting enough sleep
  • Consistency (avoiding skipped workouts)
  • Going out to ride when it’s windy
  • Challenging/redirecting negative thoughts
  • Staying on a wheel/in the draft
  • Going up the harder hill
  • Taking the longer route
  • Eating the vegetables instead of everything else
  • Finishing the whole interval set
  • Letting go of the brakes
  • Riding in the group instead of solo
  • Riding in the cold or rain

You’ll notice, some of the examples are relate to skill and confidence, like being comfortable riding in a group or going downhill. Most of them, though, relate to decisions and habits. Training outdoors when it’s windy isn’t as much fun, but events are held on windy days. The hill on the right might be more appealing because it’s not as steep, but you’ll only get stronger on the steep hill to the left by deciding to climb it.

You know all of this. You’ve done the hard stuff before, in school, in your career, in other areas of your life and earlier times in your training. And while I realize this is a generalization, what I see with athletes over 50 are trends toward complacency and risk aversion. I’m guilty to some extent, too. I don’t descend as fast as I used to on the road or take as aggressive lines as I used to on the mountain bike. But that doesn’t mean I avoid descending or stick to the easiest trails.

What you can do about it

My challenge to you is to push back against complacency. Pick something your terrible at doing or a change you’ve been avoiding, and commit to addressing it, starting right now. Don’t let this become something you’ll “get around to”. Take the first step. Go to the group ride, go out when the weather is less than perfect, turn out the light at 10pm, choose the harder hill.

Understand that in order to be successful at changing the things you’re worst at, you have to be OK with doing them poorly for a while. Many people talk about the benefit of having a growth mindset, where you continually seek new knowledge and skills (as opposed to having a fixed mindset that assumes your knowledge and skill levels are set). But the key for high performers is continuing to expand your sphere of knowledge and skill, not just continuing to grow in the things you are already good at or knowledgeable about.

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Comments 10

  1. Thank you !! I definitely needed this article. It was like a pep talk and reinforcing what I know I should do but haven’t done. So get to it!!!

  2. Another good read Chris,
    Some of my most memorable times are in nasty weather with tough terrain and no where to bail.
    There’s also ways to “trick” ourselves into doing the tough thing; Mark Allen used to ride his cheap bike to work as a lifeguard and many times leave late, (not on purpose), and have to hammer to get there on time. I’m remember the Nike ad when Lance was on top where they showed him riding endless miles in heavy rain, or in heavy, polluted traffic, ( maybe to make us believe he & the others weren’t really :enhancing” their training).
    The confidence factor when we show up at an event or tough group ride, (run, hike, climb etc.), knowing we’ve put in the training & made some “sacrifices”, can be a big help too.

  3. Excellent post with wider application than cycling. I picked up a copy of the Time Crunched Cyclists at the beginning of the year to give me some focus. It’s been very helpful but I have also found these regular (free) posts fascinating and look forward to them appearing in my inbox

  4. I loved this- really great article! Makes me think of the quote…”Choosing the hard road is good practice for when the hard road chooses you.”

  5. Chris,

    Great article, as ever. I think the same holds true in every aspect of life, at home, work or training. I put it down to a matter of will power. If we really want to achieve something we have to make it happen ourselves and stop telling ourselves we’ll do it next time.

  6. What a great way to look at things. I make a living in a creative field and the same thing holds there as well. I suck at business but to be a more successful creative I should work more on the business aspect of my professional life or go bankrupt. . Ect Possibly same holds true in maintaining personal relationships like marriage.

  7. Thank you, Paul.

    I refuse to give up! I have invested so much time, energy and my life into a sport in which I love.
    Thank you for your words of encouragement!


  8. I worked my ass off this past riding season in order to ride in some tough cycling events. By doing so I was able to climb ginormous hills with ease and peddle strong for several century rides.
    I cycled close to 4000 miles since the beginning of 2019.
    I worked really hard on my nutrition and core.
    I went cycling when the weather was windy, cold, raining, hot and just plain miserable, and by doing so I excelled in my overall cycling.
    I overcame many of my fears by cycling outside my comfort zone. It all payed off, but tragedy has broadsided me like a moving locomotive!
    I was currently diagnosed with a double hernia! You have to be kidding me!!!!
    All the hard work and training I put into cycling, what know?
    I’m still cycling. My doctor told me to live my life as usual; I’m definitely not giving up cycling,
    but when I begin to experience pain or discomfort than its time for the chopping block.
    I pray that God will heal me. I believe our bodies are wonderfully made by God, and can self heal.
    Until my body tells me otherwise, I will continue my cycling journey, indeed!

    1. Attitude is everything? Not sure “everything” but it is powerful! With your attitude you will certainly succeed!
      This is the best article i have read from Chris regarding content. And it hits home!
      Best of luck with your battle!
      And Thanks to Chris for moving me to do more to be better!

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