IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD: A LOOK AT MENTAL TOUGHNESS
This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of Mountain Bike for Her.
It’s something I’d never really thought about personally until I was halfway up the fourth climb during Crankzilla (2014 Crankworx EWS stage). I was pushing myself so hard on this last climb I could taste the vomit in the back of my throat, and I knew that if I slowed down I wouldn’t reach my stage starts on time. So I did the only thing I know how to do: keep going. The other option available to me, give up, just never really entered my mind.
2014 was the year that half the amateur women didn’t complete the race, and in all honesty many of them at that point in time had way better fitness bases going into the race than I had. After a year of injuries leading up to the race my biggest day of riding had topped out at 26km, and that was two weeks prior. So why, at kilometre 40-something was I still pushing on, even though my whole body told me it was done around 10 kilometres beforehand? Pure stubbornness or something else?
I found out again that my body can go well beyond my mental perception of fatigue and tiredness. This is basically your brain telling you to stop so you don’t kill yourself, though physically you are still capable of continuing on long after that mental fatigue kicks in. You know that moment I’m talking about, it’s that massive hill that feels like it’s never going to end. It’s day 4 in a 7 day stage race, it’s turning up to race day and it’s pouring rain and freezing out. It’s that moment where you mentally just give up.
So how do we build this mental toughness?
Stop procrastinating. You don’t need to take a water break 20 minutes into your gym workout. You also don’t need to stop every other kilometer on a climb to “catch your breath”. Firstly, if you spend an hour at the gym you aren’t going to dehydrate yourself in that time. Have your water before and after your workout, I promise you’ll survive. As for the climbing, rather than stopping just slow down for a moment if you need to grab some air. You need to teach your body that it can go extended periods of time with an elevated heart rate.
It’s great to have training buddies for those long slow distance rides, it’s nice to have someone to chat to and suffer alongside you as you put in those boring monotonous kilometers. It also does nothing to help build that mental toughness. Try riding alone on some of those rides, it better emulates racing than riding and chatting with friends. While you are at it, ditch your music. All these distractions do is just that, they slow you down and make you unfocused, they take away from the “tough” aspect of what you are actually doing.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
I’m talking long duration sessions of a single exercise or single exercise sets. 3 sets of ten squats doesn’t sound too bad. Now imagine I told you we are about to spend the next hour doing squats, (yes I heard the groan). About 20 minutes in you will begin to learn a valuable lesson. Pain doesn’t mean you are injured. It’s all in your mind. 40 minutes in you are going to learn another valuable lesson, you won’t die from the pain. As the hour comes to an end (and thankfully also the whining and moaning) you will have learnt on a small scale that your mind has a great ability to cope under duress.
So how long will this take?
Developing the sort of mental toughness I’m talking about doesn’t happen overnight, it takes it’s own special sort of training and it takes time. You don’t hop on a mountain bike for the first time ever and go hit a 40 foot gap jump, so don’t expect this to be any different. Think of Mental Toughness as just another aspect of your training schedule, just like gym sessions and interval training.
For good measure and when all else fails always remember rule number 5.