6 Tips That Will Help You Survive the Toughest Moments of Your Event

Athletes spend countless hours preparing to be at their best, but we learn the most about ourselves when we’re closest to failure. As endurance athletes I believe we actually seek out tough moments. We push ourselves with longer events and harder challenges and more competitive fields so we can reach the point where failure is probable and digging deep is the only path to success. So, while a lot of training focuses on being fit enough to stay ahead of trouble, it’s also important to know how to battle your way through it.

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During my cycling career, Flanders and Roubaix were some of the toughest days I ever had on the bike and used every ounce of perseverance I had to stay in those races. As you may have seen on our site and social media, our bike partner, Ridley, is promoting #BEtough and we are running a contest in conjunction with that campaign. Belgium Tough is a real thing, and during my cycling career and coaching career it took some time to figure out what it is and how to tap into it. Physically, Belgians aren’t any different than anyone else in the peloton, so Belgium Tough is a mindset and an approach to training and competition that provides an edge. From a very early age, Belgian cyclists grow up racing and training when it’s cold and windy and raining. Their junior races and amateur kermesses are extremely competitive. They learn how to deal with the cold and wind, and how to use the conditions to their advantage.

From a mental toughness standpoint, conditions that are unusual or anomalous cause stress and nervousness. This leads to doubt about how you’ll perform and a preoccupation with the conditions instead of your performance. But if you have raced in strong crosswinds over narrow paths and cobblestones since you were a young teenager, those conditions are no longer unusual and you can focus on performance and strategy as opposed to thinking about survival. This is why I think it is so important for athletes to incorporate some uncertainty and discomfort in training, so it is not distracting or a source of consternation when it occurs during an event.

With that as prelude, here’s how to survive the tough times in your events:

1. Know That If You’re Suffering, So Is Everyone Else

When you’re struggling to hold the pace of the group or stay on the wheel, or you’re hot and hungry and just want to be done… so is everyone else. When the going gets hard athletes tend to narrow their thinking and retreat into their own heads. You feel alone, like everyone else is fine and you’re the only one in trouble. That’s not true; it’s hard for them, too. How does that help you? It provides perspective. They can handle it and so can you. And if you can handle it longer than they can then you’re going to finish ahead.

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2. Also Know That the Toughest Times Are Also the Most Fleeting

A corollary to the tip above is that although events may be long, situations within them are constantly changing. Whether you feel great or you feel terrible, it will pass. Even at the elite end of sport, the decisive periods that split the field are short, often just a few minutes, and then the pace settles back down to a more manageable and sustainable level.

During ultra-endurance races you’re out there long enough that you’re pretty much guaranteed to go through a bad patch. But when you’re digging as deep as you can and you’re ready to give up, take it minute by minute. You can do another minute. There will be relief. The pace will slow. You’ll crest the hill. You’ll turn out of the headwind. You’ll reach the finish line.

3. Be Tough, But Also Be Smart

You’re already at your limit; don’t make it any harder on yourself. In cycling, you have to make good decisions about how to ride and where to put yourself. That’s challenging, however, because you’re so consumed with the intensity. But you can’t just shut your brain off and go harder. The people who do always lose out to the people who can both go hard and make good decisions at the same time. I see it all the time in races, Gran Fondos, and even local group rides. The pack is starting to split, gaps are opening up, and yet riders are hanging themselves out to flap in the wind. Find a wheel and get in the draft. If it’s a crosswind, set up an echelon. If you’re stuck in no man’s land between groups, either go forward or back but don’t stay out there alone.

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4. Waste Nothing

You need every bit of energy you have – and every effort you make – to help you move forward. Staying on a wheel is part of that. So is staying off the brakes (within reason, of course) and focusing on maintaining your momentum through corners, descents, and switchbacks (uphill and downhill).

The fatigue from unnecessary accelerations sends riders off the back of groups. In criteriums, the effort to get closer to the front is worthwhile because the pace is steadier there. In group rides and road races you want to find the place in the group where the effort level is the steadiest; often this is about 10-20 riders back from the front of a big group. In gravel races like the Dirty Kanza 200, wasting nothing sometimes means something different: taking the smoothest line on the hardest part of the road so you don’t lose speed in the looser gravel.

5. If You Get Dropped, Don’t Give Up

Time and time again we see cyclists drop from a breakaway, triathletes lose minutes on the bike leg, and runners fall off the pace only to catch back on later. A lot of that comes back to what I said earlier about the hardest parts of events being temporary.

If you’re dropped and you mentally give up you won’t make it back to the group ahead even when they slow down. The key to making it back is to quickly dial your intensity back to what you can sustain, regroup mentally, and start using the tactics above (waste nothing, draft, get with a good group, etc.) to continue forward without losing much time.

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6. Throw the Hail Mary

Dropping out of an event isn’t the worst thing in the world, but dropping out is far less devastating when you know you did everything possible to avoid it. Getting dropped from a group doesn’t typically mean dropping out of an event altogether (unless it’s criterium and you get pulled). Athletes are more likely to completely drop out of an event because they bonk, overheat, cramp, or get sick to their stomachs.

When it’s looking like your event is headed in that direction, throw everything you have at the problem. Slow down (reduces the heat you’re generating), drink, eat, pour water over yourself, jump in a creek, or all of the above. If it doesn’t work you’re going to drop out just like you were before. But if it does work – and sometimes it does – there’s no greater feeling or learning experience than pulling yourself back from the brink of a DNF to reach the finish line.

FYI – if you want to read more about mental toughness, CTS Athlete Alison Tetrick also wrote a great post on the subject on her blog.

Have a great weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 7

  1. My ” mantra” is some of your advice from awhile back….
    ” if you hit a bad patch, just keep moving forward”…
    Can’t tell you how many times this thought has pulled me through a ” bad patch”…both in life and on the bike!
    Thanks

  2. Good article Chris. Yesterday I rode the Tour of Flanders sportive and experienced a lot of these feelings over 5-1/2 hours of riding. It was wet, cold, muddy, and the cobbles were slick and slimy, but when you know there are 16,000 of you out there all persevering in the same conditions it makes it easier to push through to the finish. I was drained after the ride but this morning I woke up knowing I had accomplished something.

  3. After being diagnosed with breast cancer last October, I view all my treatments as MAJOR CLIMBS. Your analogies (Don’t Give Up, Be Smart, Waste Nothing) apply to living through chemo with the goal to get back on the bike too. Life is bike ride!!!

    Thank you for the inspiration on this Saturday morning. The sun is shining and life is good.

    1. That was also my approach when I went through treatment for breast cancer 3 years ago. Each treatment was a switchback and I just told myself to keep moving forward as I ticked them off. Now I am riding better than ever and enjoy the suffering knowing that suffering on a bike is way better than suffering in a chemo chair.

  4. Great insights. I’ve been anxious about my first attempt at the Gran Fondo New York coming up on May 17th. CTS Tracey Drews has been preparing and encouraging me. I know it’s gonna hurt. 🙂 But today’s post really keeps things in perspective.

    Thanks Chris,
    NO COMPROMISE!
    🙂

  5. Good comments. Many times I will hear thee term suffering (OK) and riding through the pain (not OK). No one is paying me to do this and I have to go to work on Monday. Weekend warrior endurance athletes need to be able to recognize the difference between discomfort and pain. You are asking your body to do something foreign to it and discomfort is your body’s way of saying “Enough!” But “pain” usually indicates an injury has occurred or is developing.

    If you are well prepared physically (have been training), you have the proper gear, and keep up with hydration, nutrition and electrolytes, you should be ready for that big event. As a consolation, I usually tell endurance athletes that it does not get any worse after the first six hours.

  6. Thanks for the excellent advice ( just about to race 240km mtb race , only 15 hours ! )
    Your advice seems to work well in Africa too ! 🙂

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