Mental Preparation for Race Day

Race season is here! It could be next weekend, or it could have already started for some of us. The first race of the season always brings a special kind of anxiety and uncertainty. 

"How is my fitness?" "Do I have race fitness?" "How has the competition's winter been?"

A lot of thoughts rattle around in your head. It's been a while since you lined up, and that adds to the pre-race jitters. I've been racing now for what seems to be 8 years (I'm starting to forget so I guess it's been a long time). Last year I sat on a start line over 60 times in events ranging from multi-day stage races, marathon mountain bike races, crits, road races, cyclocross races, etc. I won't say that I have the absolute best practice on race day, but I like to think that I've got my routine pretty dialed. It's important to find what works for you though, how you manage your stress and energy and channel that into the race. Through my years of training and competing at a high level and taking tips from successful individuals in the sport, I have been able to come up with some key points that I think are important to remember when coming into race day. 

  • Setting goals and objectives- Goal setting helps you work towards what you want to achieve, and check your progress as you go along. When setting goals I also like to set objectives that coincide. The objectives are the sub-steps that lead up to your goal. For example if your goal is to win a local crit, you've got to establish the plan of how to do that. Break it down and set objectives to help you stay on track and meet your goal. 
    • SMART goals- Your goal setting needs to be SMART. Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Setting smart goals helps you to be detailed and thorough about what you'd like to accomplish. Specificity is important- "I want to increase my power this season." What power? Your FTP, 20min power, 5min power, 15sec power? A specific goal would be "I want to increase my 5min power". The goal needs to be measurable. "I want to increase my 5min power", by how much? Do you want to see a percentage increase or this there a certain number you would like to hit? "I want to increase my 5min power by 5%". Attainable and realistic aspects are similar and you must take into account your situation. A 5% increase in 5min power is pretty attainable and realistic with the proper training. A 50w increase in 5min power might be a stretch. Timely is the final aspect. When do you want to increase you 5min power by? Be specific. Do you want to see an increase in your 5min power by 5% in 6-8 weeks? Now that's a SMART goal.
  • Proper taper- What works for one person might not work for someone else regarding race prep. I've found it's probably a good idea to take a rest day two days out (Thursday if you start racing on Saturday) and then on the day before take an easy ride and include a few openers (60 second ramped efforts finishing in a full sprint). You want to come into the race weekend fresh, with no fatigue or tiredness, and "opened up". Try to stay off your feet, make sure you're hydrated and sleeping well going into the event. 
  • Positive Imagery- It's extremely important to come into the race weekend with positive thoughts and images in your head. Picture the race playing out in your head, and think about what you want to accomplish. Picture you making the break, cleaning that technical rock garden, or making the front selection on the final climb. These mental images need to be positive thoughts. If you can see this situation playing out in your head, more likely are you to wind up there.
    • Differentiate between good stress and bad stress- often before a race you might feel nervous or anxious. Don't think of this as bad stress. This is typically eustress (good) from a result of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight or flight) firing up and getting ready to race. Your adrenaline is pumping and you just need to channel that into the race.
    • Control what you can- We have to remember that anything can happen. Things can happen that are out of our control, and they often do. Focus on factors that you can influence, such as your nutrition, your bike etc. Show up with your plan, and execute that. If you can execute your plan and give 100%, no matter the result that is something to be happy of.
    • Be able to adapt- Cycling is a dynamic sport. Now we're racing and anything can happen. You could have a mechanical, you could miss the break, or someone could simply be stronger than you. Be prepared to abandon your initial plan and come up with a new one on the fly. 
  • Establish your pre-race routine or ritual- I like to do the same thing on race day. It takes some uncertainty out of the morning, and makes it seem like a routine day. I like to eat the same breakfast- race day isn't the time to try something new. I get to the venue with plenty of time and get registered or checked in. I'll pin my numbers/race plate, get dressed, do some course recon, relax and then start my appropriate warm-up. I personally like my race mornings calm and quiet.
  • Focus on the process- The race is over. Hopefully it went well, but maybe it didn't. There can only be one winner on the day and sometimes it's not us. That doesn't mean the day was a failure. Maybe you accomplished some of your objectives, but not the goal entirely. Maybe you executed your plan perfectly, somebody else was just stronger. Use that as motivation for your next training session and the next race. It's important to focus on the process instead of the outcome. We often get wrapped up in the result and if it didn't go as planned, that might overshadow all of the positive things from the race or weekend. Focus on nailing all of those objectives, the right positive mindset and executing your plan; the result will soon follow. 

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