Mental chips: spending some in training but keeping enough in the bank for race day.
I know that Sam from Cycling Express would be expecting my latest blog to be all about my “big week” of training (and racing) over Christmas and New Year. Yes, both the Azzurri bikes got a great hit out, as did the wetsuit and race shoes, and I banked a lot of endurance, and picked up a couple of medals along the way.
The start of the Hors Categorie climb near Melbourne, Mt Donna Buang
Racing at Phillip Island last week, Jo finished third in her category!
But many of the cyclists (and triathletes) reading this will have logged many more hours in the saddle than I did, and a conversation I had with Sam while climbing up Mt Donna Buang on New Year’s Eve got me thinking about a different kind of blog article.
It started when we were talking about the pros and cons of giving every training session all you’ve got. Now the exercise physiology experts will be able to discuss all of the different energy systems we train, and why we need to train at different intensities to optimise our progression.
Riding a difficult climb with your peers at 'non race pace' can be hard to do...
I understand all these principles, but I believe there is another really important aspect to dramatically changing the effort you put into your sessions. I call it “the mental chip theory”. Imagine that when it comes to race day, you have a bank of mental chips (like casino chips!) to draw on. You have built them up, through consistent training, seeing improvements, getting through tough sessions.
A bank of 'mental and physical chips:'
Now if you have one of those training days, say where you have to ride into headwind for hours and hours. Or maybe you get half way through an interval session and have to really dig deep to push to the end of it. Or even one of those days where you’ve had loads of stress at work, and don’t even feel like training, yet you still drag yourself out onto the bike and do the session.
I’m sure everyone has many examples of all of those kinds of days. I know I have over the years, and 90% of the time, I told myself it was THOSE mentally tough sessions which would stand me in good stead for my races.
The summit of Mt Donna Buang
To some degree, I still believe that philosophy. There are some sessions I believe that you might call ‘banker’ sessions, which may really test your limits, physically and especially mentally and once ticked off give you that positive reinforcement that you will be ready to race. But I now also believe that you can overdo these kinds of sessions and turn up on race day overcooked mentally.
I had my first (and I really hope only) DNF in an Ironman in March 2014 in South Africa. I had completed what I considered to be an ideal build up to the race.
Back then, my definition of ideal was to do every single session on my program. To take the longest option with every distance or time, to do the maximum number of reps in every interval set. When I felt like I had nothing to give, physically or mentally, I embraced that, and thought that would only make me stronger on race day.
What actually happened was that I stood on the start line, after 6 months of preparation, and thought “at least this will all be over in 10 or 11 hours”. What happened then was that I went out on the bike in that race, as if I was racing 40km, not a hilly 180km. I totally fell apart, and was forced to withdraw, dehydrated, ending up in the medical tent.
It took me a long time to work out what had really happened out there. And I realised, with time and hindsight that it wasn’t so much what happened in the race, but rather in the build-up that caused the problems. I had spent every mental chip I had in training. I had nothing left by race day, but my way of dealing with that was to push harder than I ever could in an ironman, with devastating consequences.
I decided to enter Ironman Malaysia, which was only 5 months later. Not to gain retribution, or prove I could perform, but instead to find my love of racing again. I vowed to skip any sessions I didn’t feel like doing (these were very few and far between in the end) and when I felt enough was enough, I didn’t force myself to spend every mental chip I had in training.
By race day, my bank of chips was overflowing! I was jumping out of my skin and raring to go. I had vowed to enjoy the race and had no attachment to a result. But I am a racer, so when it came down to it, and I knew the win was on the line, I actually dug deeper than I ever have in a race. And I was able to, because I hadn’t left it all on the road in training.