Use the Peak-End Rule to Improve Every Cycling Training Ride
Most of my cycling routes feature two optional endings: a steep climb followed by a descent, or a mile-long false flat uphill. Reaching the descent is the more difficult option and typically adds a mile to the distance, but I choose that route almost every time. Why? Cruising downhill at high speed is a much more enjoyable way to end a ride. Even if the previous few hours were miserably cold, brutally hot, terribly windy, or altogether exhausting, that short downhill creates a more positive final impression for the entire ride. Does the “Final Mile” experience matter? According to the Peak-End Rule, it sure does.
The Peak-End Rule
The ‘Peak-End Rule’ is a psychology term that essentially means people economize memory space by remembering highlights and how experiences end. We tend to forget the uneventful hours cruising down the road. But we remember the Final Mile.
The classic study that’s often referenced about the Peak-End Rule involved patients undergoing colonoscopy and lithotripsy procedures. Neither is pleasant, but patients’ memories of the procedures were affected more by the peak pain and end pain they experienced than by the duration of the procedure. Gradual relief, meaning less pain toward the end of the colonoscopy or lithotripsy led to more pleasant memories of the experience, compared to a shorter experience that concluded with some pain. (Redelmeier et al. 1996)
In addition to remembering the Final Mile, we’re likely to remember peak moments during rides. These tend to be moments that connect to our emotions, which is why you remember breathtaking vistas, thrilling descents, and special ride moments with good friends.
The emotional connection is also why you remember hard efforts, harrowing close calls, infuriating encounters with drivers, and the moments when you totally crack. These negative moments illustrate that the “peak” in “Peak-End Rule” is not always positive.
Dentists are experts at manipulating the Peak-End Rule. Parts of dentist visits are unpleasant, but it’s important for patients to return twice a year for ongoing care. If the “peaks” you remember most from a dentist appointment are negative (i.e. pain, scraping, gagging), you’re less likely to return. This is part of the reason pediatric dentists end visits with toys and sugar-free candy for kids. It may partly explain the free toothbrush/toothpaste/floss at the end of adult visits. A goodie bag is a goodie bag, even if it’s toothpaste.
Training Example of Peak-End Rule
There are examples from exercise programs, too. Convincing the general population to exercise more is notoriously difficult. You may enjoy the sensation of strenuous exercise but many people don’t. To see if they could make exercise more palatable, a 2016 study by Zenko et al. exploited the ‘recency bias’, which says people are more likely to remember recent experiences compared to older ones, and the “Peak-end Rule” together.
They divided 46 subjects (31 men, 15 women) who were relatively unfit (VO2 max 26-32 ml/kg/min) into two groups. A week after maximal exercise testing, the increasing-intensity (II) group completed a 15-minute cycling ergometer workout that started at zero watts and steadily increased to 120% of the watts associated with their ventilatory threshold from the exercise test. The decreasing-intensity (DI) group started at 120% and the resistance steadily decreased to zero watts over 15 minutes.
The exercise set-ups (15-minute ramp from 0 to 120% or 120 to 0% of watts at ventilatory threshold) weren’t something we’d typically prescribe for trained endurance athletes. However, the results may be more typical of what you’ve experienced in your training. Compared to the increasing intensity group, the decreasing intensity group reported significantly higher remembered and forecasted pleasure associated with the exercise session. Although they had a more difficult start to the exercise session, the decreased intensity by the end left a more pleasant final impression. And the differences between the II and DI groups’ remembered and forecasted pleasure remained significant 24 hours post-exercise and even 7 days later.
Using the Peak-End Rule to Improve Training
If you’re reading this you most likely enjoy training, so I don’t need to use an easy cooldown or give you a lollipop at the end of your ride so you’ll go out again tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean you are immune to the Peak-End Rule or that you can’t use it to your advantage.
As coaches, we know training is not all about the numbers. Performing well when you’re fit, fresh, and happy is easy – even when the workouts are hard. Producing good numbers is more challenging when you are tired and grumpy but still physically capable.
When the going gets tough, little things can make all the difference. Here are just some of the tricks our athletes and coaches use to leverage The Peak-End Rule
Save your best snack for the final 5-10 miles
Eating late in a ride sets you up for a strong finish and a jumpstart on the recovery process. But when it’s the last 30 minutes of a training ride (not a race), it’s not essential for your snack to be optimal fuel for hard efforts. So, make it a treat! I coached a rider who had a 10-mile rule. He started long rides with a pack of jelly beans in his pocket. No matter what other food he took with him or bought at store stops, he wouldn’t touch the jelly beans until he hit 10 miles to go.
Take the fun route home
See my opening example of finishing my rides with a downhill. But what if you live at the top of a hill? A solution I used with an athlete was to “finish the ride” at the bottom of the hill. He used the lap timer on his computer to mark when the training ride ended, after which he felt better about shifting into a very easy gear and leisurely pedaling up the climb to his house. The time and mileage were part of his training data, but backing way off didn’t bring down his average or normalized power, or his average speed. You can argue those metrics aren’t necessarily important to track, but he liked them and it was important for me to find a way to finish on a high note and keep him from crushing himself at the end of every ride.
Stop at the cool Coffee/Bakery stops
To leverage the “peak” part of the rule, plan routes around cafe and bakery stops. This is especially true when the ride is going to be tough because of weather or fatigue. Some riders save the “good” bakery loops for when they’ll most need something to look forward to.
Create a ‘Finale Playlist’
Although I don’t condone listening to music while riding outdoors, many people do it. And even more listen to music during indoor rides. Like saving your best snack for last, you can also create a finale playlist. This is a short playlist, 3-5 songs, maybe 20 minutes max, that helps you bring it home strong.
Pick up a friend
Many of the athletes we coach are on the stronger/faster ends of their friend groups. It can be hard to find training partners who can or want to join you. But for a great end to a long and/or hard day in the saddle, arrange to meet a buddy for the final hour. You can chat and catch up, and maybe grab a draft behind a fresh set of legs.
Always end on the high note
The older I get the more I realize nothing is guaranteed about tomorrow. The Final Mile might actually be the final mile. Injuries, accidents, sudden illnesses, and even sudden death are possibilities. I likely won’t know what ride will be my last. So, yeah. I’ll go a mile out of my way to finish today’s ride on a higher note.
By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Redelmeier, Donald Aa,b,*; Kahneman, Danielc. Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures. Pain 66(1):p 3-8, July 1996. | DOI: 10.1016/0304-3959(96)02994-6
Zenko, Zachary & Ekkekakis, Panteleimon & Ariely, Dan. (2016). Can You Have Your Vigorous Exercise and Enjoy It Too? Ramping Intensity Down Increases Postexercise, Remembered, and Forecasted Pleasure. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 38. 149-159. 10.1123/jsep.2015-0286.
This Peak-End Rule is such a powerful concept! I will work that idea into my riding plans. Thank you again for such valuable coaching!
To me, a hard effort is a high note, so I like to end my rides with high intensity efforts of under a minute.
The pumpkin chocolate chip bread at Granmas after the 5 mile winery climb in Maui is always a treat and gets me up the road.
That was a great article, Jim! I’ve always known it, but never knew there was an actual psychological term for it. My immediate thoughts went to Loveland Pass, my go-to morning ride when I’m up there… one hour climb from the front door with 20 minute descent right back to the door. My high note actually begins at the end of the climb when I come around that last hairpin and see the pass off in the distance.
I can’t tell you how much this article reminded me of how I should use this tool more often! Great great tips! Thank you!