We think about it, we talk about it, we admonish others for not doing it, but it’s so hard to make ourselves do it. I’m speaking, of course, about digging deeper. It’s what wins races, gets you up steep climbs, and ultimately makes you a better cyclist, but it’s also so darn hard.
Unfortunately, without digging deeper—also known as putting yourself in the hurt locker, going in the pain cave, or inhaling wasps—you’ll never get to the essence of cycling—let alone grasp the personal rewards of finding your maximum fitness level. Trouble is, no one really wants to put themselves through the suffering our sport demands. Our evolutionary instinct guides us to conserve energy for growth and reproduction, not to waste resources in the worthless pursuit of KOM’s. Therefore, you must put that big cerebral cortex to work and override your natural inclination to save energy for when something big, toothy and hungry drops out of a tree in front of you.
Since the famous Hardman’s adage of “Shut up, Legs!” never worked for me (they just keep talking back), I have developed several habits over the years that help me to coax more out of my body than it wants to give, which I present below. These may or may not work for you, and if you don’t feel confident in pushing your body past it’s comfort zone, then don’t.
1. Earn That Recovery Drink—My go-to motivator is thinking about the reward I get for punishing myself: a nice, cold glass of Fluid Chocolate Recovery drink, with a little almond milk added to really send it over the top. Seriously, find a recovery drink that you love, and make room for it. That means working your muscles hard enough so that they need protein to rebuild and carbs to restock their glycogen stores. If you don’t give it your all, you don’t get the reward. Breathe hard, sweat a lot, feel the burn in your legs, and enjoy what you have coming to you.
2. Keep Track of PR’s—Even if you haven’t been infected by the Strava virus, you can still care about KOM’s and Gold Medals, and it’s a lot easier to capture them when you are your only competition. Pick a couple challenging climbs you regularly ride, and keep track of your times on them. If you are a Strava competitor, then you can keep track of all the climbs you ride with the click of a mouse or the tap of a touch screen. If you are halfway up a climb and notice that a PR might be possible, that will give you extra incentive to push through and suffer. After all, there’s a little personal glory and some Chocolate Fluid waiting for you if you do.
3. Lie to Yourself—This can take many forms, and becomes more effective the farther into your workout you are, as your brain is starved of oxygen and can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. On a ride with multiple climbs, I’ll always tell myself that the climb I’m on is the last one—get it over with quickly and then the hard work is done. It seems to help if you can announce to your riding partners that the steep part is finished and it’s all downhill now at the end of every climb. Surprisingly I never seem to figure it out, and keep slogging it out over and over again until I can barely pedal. Another one I use is the Ego Boost: telling myself, out loud sometimes, how great I’m doing and how strong I’m feeling. “Keep it up, you’re doing great, you’re charging, you’ve got this.” The Ego Boost is usually reserved until the end of the ride, when I tend to be mumbling incoherently anyway.
4. Concentrate on Breathing and Cadence—Simple and effective, this not only takes your mind off the pain but results in more efficient pedaling. With experience, you’ll be able to gauge your performance and better allocate your energy resources by keeping track of your breathing. Depending on how steep the terrain and how fast you want to go, try to coordinate your inhalations and exhalations with pedal strokes. Two pedals per inhale/three pedals per exhale is a good moderate pace. Two pedals per inhale/two pedals per exhale is a sustainable high effort for me. One pedal per inhale/two pedals per exhale will get me up some steep pitches but is not sustainable for very long. One and one? I’ll probably need to lie down at the top of whatever climb is about to slap me down if I’m breathing that hard.
5. Get it in Your Mind/Decide Before you Ride—If you want to go hard, or knock out a longer ride, tell yourself that’s the goal well before you actually get on the bike, maybe even the night before. If your mind has heard and accepted your intention, you’ll be letting yourself down if you don’t follow through on the plan. Then, once on the bike, you really have no choice but to do the longer loop, or the steeper climb, or the extra set of intervals.
Bonus: Remember, This is What Humans are Made For!—Well, not exactly. The cycling position is actually very unnatural for humans, causing back, knee, and ligament problems without adequate off-the-bike supplemental training. However, humans are designed for long-distance, sustained-effort, cardiovascular exertion activities, meaning running. While running and cycling are very different sports, they both require commitment to suffering, taxing the body in similar ways. So in the midst of my most painful, anaerobic endeavors on the bike, after scrambling up a climb that leaves me seeing stars, I console my self with the knowledge that this is what I was put on Earth to do. We are built for exertion! Now go get after it!