Managing Pre-Race Anxiety and Overcoming Adversity
The physical side of training gets the lion’s share of attention, but when athletes are evenly matched in power output, technical skill, and VO2 max, mental skills can make all the difference. Whether you are racing to win, pursuing a personal best, or riding at party pace, a mountain bike stage race like the Pikes Peak APEX presents unique mental challenges. Just as you train your body to prepare for the miles and technical challenges, it is wise to use time during training and tune-up races to hone your mental skills.
One-Day vs. Stage Races
Stage racing and one-day racing create different mental skills challenges (we are lucky with the APEX as we have both options). One-day racing can be stressful because there is only one opportunity to be successful. On the other hand, athletes may feel also feel less pressure because, for better or worse, the race is only one day. Stage races can increase feelings of intimidation and anxiety because of the heightened and novel challenge. However, athletes can also see multiple stages as multiple opportunities to overcome adversity.
By creating novel scenarios, multi-day events often present unprecedented mental challenges – even for experienced competitors. For example, riders who are fiercely competitive in one day races can struggle to find focus by Day 3. Conversely, riders who are nervous on Day 1 may find themselves calm and focused by Day 3. One thing is certain: you will know more about yourself – as an athlete and a person – at the end of the Pikes Peak APEX.
Mental skills training for endurance sports is a massive topic, so we can only scratch the surface here. Therefore, let’s talk about two areas athletes ask about most frequently: pre-race jitters (anxiety) and dealing with adversity.
Dealing with pre-race jitters
The hours and minutes before the starting gun fires can be thrilling or nerve-wracking, or some combination of both. Pre-race anxiety is common among competitors in all sports. Your goal should not be to eliminate it entirely. You can’t stop the anxiety-producing thoughts from occurring in the first place. However, you can learn to recognize and redirect those thoughts to something more productive. Here are a few ways to deal with pre-race anxiety:
Take confidence from your preparation
Review your training and the previous rides and races you used to prepare for the race. Look beyond the statistics of how many hours or miles or feet of elevation you racked up. You trained in the cold and the heat, in the wind and maybe even the rain. You learned to fuel yourself for the long haul, ride technical trails when you’re tired, and get up to do it again the next day. Even if you feel you could have done more, acknowledge how much you accomplished. You are more ready than you think you are.
Have a pre-race routine
The benefit of a routine is that it removes the need to actively think about each step. Repetition makes actions automatic. Think about how you learned to bunny hop a log. At first you had to think through every step, but now you clear the log with perfect technique without thinking about it. Your pre-race routine should be the same way.
Everything from how your pack your bag and when you have breakfast, to the sequence of getting dressed, checking your equipment, warming up, and getting to the start line should be incorporated into your routine. You don’t want to be so dogmatic that a hiccup in your routine leads to panic. Rather, the routine should free up mental capacity to deal with unexpected changes without panicking.
Focus on what you can control
You can’t control the weather or the other competitors joining you on the start line. You can control your strategy and the tools you choose to use for the situation. Don’t talk yourself out of winning or accomplishing your goal by giving the conditions or competitors more power than they deserve. Everyone on the start line faces the same weather conditions; you have the training, equipment, and support to handle it. As for the competition, recognize that past results are no guarantee of future performance. If they were, we’d just compare race resumés and power files to declare winners. Every race – and every stage – is a fresh start, and an opportunity for you to exceed your expectations.
Reframe your outlook
Particularly before ultraendurance events and stage races, athletes can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what lays before them. Despite months of preparation and a genuine desire to get started, this may lead to feelings of fear, doubt, or dread: “I don’t know if I can do this for four days.” “I just have to get this over with.” “This is going to be so hard.”
The key here is to acknowledge the thoughts of fear, doubt, or dread. Don’t try to stop them from coming. Don’t ignore them. Rather, accept that you are having those thoughts. Hold them at arm’s length and decide what you’re going to do with them. Are you going to internalize them, let them flow past you, or redirect them? “I don’t know if I can do this for four days” can be redirected to, “I get to do this for four days.” “I just have to get this over with” can be redirected to, “I finally have the opportunity to do this.” And “this is going be so hard” can be redirected to, “It’s going to feel great to rise to this challenge.”
Dealing with Adversity
Due to the prolonged elapsed time from the start to the final finish line in ultradistance and multi-stage endurance events, the probability of something going wrong increases to a near certainty.
In a two-hour cross-country race, you can make serious mistakes with hydration, nutrition, and equipment choices and reach the finish line before the consequences catch up to you. During ultradistance and stage races, you will be forced to deal with them. And even if you don’t make mistakes, you’ll be out on course long enough for your luck to run out.
During my career I have been fortunate to work with some great coaches. Along the way, I co-authored a book with ultramarathon coach Jason Koop, called “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”. He coined the A.D.A.P.T. concept for dealing with adversity, and it is particularly relevant for mountain bike stage racing.
A.D.A.P.T. stands for: Accept, Diagnose, Analyze, Plan, Take Action.
- Accept: When everything goes sideways, emotions run high and can often make problems seem worse than they are. Take a moment to feel frustrated, sad, whatever. T Then pause, take a breath. Whatever happened (missed a turn, crashed, bonked) has happened and you can’t undo it. Accept the situation you are in so you can move forward.
- Diagnose: Take an inventory of the problems, but don’t try to solve them yet. Jumping ahead to solutions often leads you to miss less obvious problems. You missed a turn – you’re lost. You’re out of food – you’re going to be hungry. Something broke – you’re stuck. Don’t get tunnel-vision on one issue. The goal at this stage is to get the full picture of what you have and don’t have, what’s working and what’s not.
- Analyze: Now that you know the problems, what can you do about them? What tools, literally and figuratively, do you have to work with? If you’re lost, do you have a GPS device with the course on it? If you’re out of food, how far is it to the next aid station? Are there other riders around who can assist you? If something broke, is it fixable with the tools and knowledge you have?
- Plan: Now it’s time to sequence the steps you’re going to take to improve your situation. If you’re out of food or fluids, you might plan to continue in the direction of the next aid station and ask riders you encounter if they have any extra. If your stomach is upset, you might plan to slow down, slowly sip plain water, and keep moving forward to reach an aid station and reassess there. If something broke, you might plan to fix it temporarily so you can get to an aid station and then determine if you can fix it more completely.
- Take Action: Problems do not magically fix themselves. Waiting can be part of a plan – like waiting out a passing thunderstorm or waiting for a friend you know is coming up from behind you – but don’t waste time to indecision. The action you choose may not be perfect but make a decision and take action to solve a problem. Then make another one, and another one. Keep working the problem and you will work through the problem.
This Too Shall Pass
One of the most important adages to remember as an endurance athlete is: This too shall pass. There will be times when you feel great, powerful, and confident. Other times you will feel weak, nauseas, and defeated. None of them will last long. When you feel great, enjoy it, and take advantage of it and do what you can to keep feeling that way. But know and accept that it will end. Similarly, when you feel awful, nothing is going your way and you want to quit, keep working the problem and be kind to yourself. And know that this too shall pass. We learn from our triumphs and our challenges, and the Pikes Peak APEX was designed to deliver both.