Increase Your Endurance on the Bike: 6 Steps to Improve Mental Toughness

Dec 06, 2023
Road cyclist mental toughness

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Long-distance cycling is a uniquely challenging endeavor. Aside from the obvious physical demands, you are pitted against everything from inclement weather to impossible gradesresolve tested in a wildly uncontrolled environment where obstacles arrive in the form of monotonous roads, bone-deep fatigue, and gastro-intenstinal distress. 

However, it is the very act of persevering despite adversity that makes endurance cycling so rewarding: the greater the effort, the sweeter the fruit. If you can overcome the roadblocks to push through, the rewards are bountiful: bar-tale worthy adventures, incredible vistas, and the unique and powerful type of confidence that comes from reaching distant places on your own steam and stamina—just to name a few!

If you aim to ride farther, look beyond preparing your body and equipment for the challenge: a key factor in sustained efforts is the ability to effectively engage one’s mind. Read on for six tips to help you find enjoyment and stay in the saddle for longer.

Embrace the Challenge 

One of the biggest mistakes in my early days was underestimating how difficult a long ride could be.

Bad weather in the forecast? “It’s only a 50% chance of thunderstorms.” 

Difficult route to navigate? “I’ll figure it out as I go along.” 

Burnt out from work in the lead up? “I’ll feel better once I get moving.”

But of course, a best-case-scenario is rarely the case, and it certainly isn’t a game plan. In failing to sufficiently address potential hurdles, I only made things more difficult for myself because I wasn’t prepared to cope. Worse, even, than being stuck without a rain jacket or making endless lost loops in the forest because I didn’t put more effort into drafting a clear route, was the surge of frustration I felt every time things went wrong. 

Why me? Why now? Why this stupid broken shifter cable?

Somewhere along the line, I realized that what I needed was a mindset overhaul. Instead of hoping for a positive outcome—only to feel like I was gut-punched when things didn’t pan out—I opted to prepare and embrace. Once I learned to accept the challenge, my mind settled as I got to work in formulating the next steps in dealing with the issue. By replacing wishful thinking with critical assessment, I’ve stopped fighting myself, and am more willing to act at the first sign of things going south.

Next time you head out on the open road, try embracing the challenge. Remember that hardships aren’t failures, and every obstacle offers an opportunity to grow. 

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Push the Reset Button 

How do you mentally switch gears when things aren’t going according to plan? One technique I’ve found useful is to push the reset button. I do this whenever I realize my thoughts are no longer serving me. For instance, if I’m pedaling along and all I can think about is how I’m a miserable failure because I’ve fallen off my target pace, or I’m obsessing on the unpleasantness of riding through the rain with no end in sight, I know it’s time to hit the reset button.

A hard reset reins in caustic or catastrophizing thoughts before they get wildly out of control. I visualize myself letting go: Self-doubt, judgment, and bad attitude—You can all stay right here, I say to myself. Heaping these unhelpful thoughts into the ditch as I pedal onward with a clearer head.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the final farewell. When circumstances are trying, negative thought patterns will undoubtedly creep back in—even for the most strong-willed among us. When this occurs, simply repeat and hit the reset button again.

And again.

As many times as it takes to keep your mind focused on the road ahead, and not chasing its own tail.

The Power of Affirmations 

Alone on the pavement, you are tasked with being your own coach and cheerleader. This includes holding yourself accountable as you work toward certain power or speed targets, but it also encompasses all of the language you use when talking to yourself.

“You talk to yourself—like, out loud?” 

Yes, all the time. And with no one else for company, it’s important that your self-talk is positive: think of that inspiring spin class instructor who pushes you beyond preconceived limits. Affirmations can ground us in the moment and recommit us to the task at hand. They break the negative cycle of “This hurts,” “I can’t do this,” “I’d rather be anywhere else but here here.”

You can brainstorm your own affirmations, or use a web search to find ones that resonate. Over the past year or two of competing in ultra-distance races, these became my favourites:

  • You’ve got this.
  • You are stronger than you think.
  • The perfect moment is this one.
  • Legs, lungs, heart—let’s go!
  • Consistently consistent.

Next time you’re on a ride, pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Do you use language that boosts you, or do you berate yourself? If your words fall into the latter, try switching things up and see what happens.

Use your “Why” for Motivation 

I went into the Silver State 508—a 508-mile road ultra across Nevada known for its epic mountain climbs and stark desert scenery—with the goal of establishing a new women’s course record. My low point arrived twenty hours in, when my legs were weak with fatigue and nighttime temperatures fell below freezing. As I stopped yet again to layer on more clothing, I began to contemplate what it would feel like to just stay put a little longer: curl up into a tight little ball and relax into dreamland. Instead, I recommitted to my “Why” of going after the course record.

Though I felt awful and utterly depleted, I hopped back on the bike. I knew that in order to achieve my goal of being the fastest woman in the race’s forty-year history, I could not remain idle for long.

Everyone has different motivations. When the going gets tough—and believe me, it will—reflecting on what brought us to the start line in the first place can be precisely the motivation we need to keep moving. 

If you don’t have a clearly articulated “Why”, I recommend you brainstorm on it before setting out on your next big ride. You could focus on an event-specific goal, or your big picture motivation. The next time you begin to doubt your ability or feel yourself falling off-track, remind yourself of your “Why”. Hopefully, it’s powerful enough to tip the scales in your favor, and help you preserve despite challenging circumstances.

Trust Your Training

Whether it’s a race or an out-of-your-comfort-zone ride that you’ve been looking forward to for months, chances are, you have worked hard to get to the start line. But now that it’s finally here, you turn into a ball of nerves: your mind playing out all the scenarios of what could go wrong. Heart racing, palms sweaty. How do you break the cycle, refocus, and actually enjoy the ride?

This was me at the beginning of the Silver State 508. I was almost late to the start line because I had decided, just before the whistle, that I needed to make another trip to the toilet (my third in the last half hour). Overcome by nervous energy, I couldn’t think clearly. I rode off into the 5:00 am darkness without my bike lights switched on, my hands freezing because I’d buried my gloves beneath my cell phone and charging device in a jersey pocket.

So how did I get my head back into the race? I reminded myself of all the training it took to get there: I wasn’t just showing up on event day—I had shown up day after day in my training to earn myself that spot on the roster.

“The hay is in the barn,” as they say. 

With that in mind, I refocused my energy into the moment to make wiser strategic decisions. And hey, I even had fun!

Note that your training doesn’t stop on the bike, but encompasses everything that contributes to event preparedness. For instance, Dynamic Cyclist stretching and mobility workouts to maintain a healthy range of motion, and combat overuse injuries. 

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Have Fun!

I know what some are thinking: ultra-cycling is a serious endeavor and not supposed to be fun. But why not? Unless you’re a professional athlete, no one is paying you to ride your bike. Do you really want to commit your time and energy only to be miserable when it comes time to undertake the big challenge? 

The answer for me is a resounding no.

Plus, when you’re having a good time, your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is likely to feel lower, even if you’re putting in the same amount of physical energy. For endurance athletes, this means that you can go farther without feeling as fatigued—Yes, please!

Of course, there are times when having fun is simply not an option. During the middle of the night in the Silver State 508, for instance, every ounce of my physical and mental energy was dedicated to staying upright. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, and I was definitely not having fun. But as the sun peaked above the distant hills and I started to warm up, I began to reflect on everything I was grateful for, from my powerful muscles, to the expansive landscape, to the support of my crew in this particular event. Little by little, my mood improved—and with it my pace. 

In Ultra Cycling & Bikepacking: All You Need To Know, author and coach Stefan Barth shares one tip to flipping the script on a bad day: Smile. Perhaps I knew this instinctively, because a quick glance through event photos reveals my face plastered with a big goofy grin in every image. Barth remarks that “Smiling secretes chemical messages that in turn lift our mood. It is difficult to smile when you don’t feel like it at first. It will also feel a little bit weird. The effect, however, is convincing and your mood will improve noticeably.”

In Conclusion

You’ve made it this far. Now, armed with some insights into mindset, you are ready to go farther! Next time you find yourself struggling in the saddle, try one of these six tips and see what happens. Don’t forget that mental strength begins off the bike in your daily life and training. 

For further reading, check out How Bad Do You Want It: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle by Matthew Fitzgerald, which examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways in which endurance athletes strengthen their mental toughness.

 

Bio: Meaghan Hackinen is a Kelowna-based writer and ultra-cyclist whose two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. Meaghan loves to compete and doesn’t shy away from pushing her limits. In 2023, she placed first overall in the Silver State 508, the Buckshot and Lost Elephant bikepacking races, and set a new overall course record on the Log Driver’s Waltz as an Individual Time Trial. Meaghan’s new book, Shifting Gears: Coast to Coast on the Trans Am Bike Race (NeWest Press, 2023) documents her entry into self-supported endurance racing. 

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