What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Overcoming A Bad Race

It started last year, or the year before. You’ve spent months preparing mentally, endless hours physically, all building towards THIS EVENT, this focus. Or maybe it’s just a Saturday and you went racing. Either way the let down and psychological weight of a sub-par performance can be a slippery slope, so what can you do to move forward?

By Matt McNamara

I saw an interview with a rider recently who claimed he’d never had a bad performance. This young talent has shown promise for “big things” in the future and seems on a steady path towards reaching the pro ranks, but it gave me pause that he’d say that. While it may be true, I think it is also true that eventually he WILL have a bad race. We all have bad races, and I wonder how that might affect him.

This past couple of weekends are perfect great examples. Several of my clients had important events on their respective schedules and had prepared as such. One was a National Championship, one was a State Championship, and one was a personal goal. Three different riders, three different disciplines, all with a high priority on the race outcome, yet each had a sub-par race in the end, albeit for very different reasons.

Impromptu Life Events
One of my long-term clients had put a ton of time and effort into his preparations for National Championships a few weeks ago and promptly went out and had the worst performance since we’ve been working together, and immediately the doubt creeped in for both of us. Had I pushed him too hard? Not hard enough? Did we taper too much? Not enough? Why, why, why…

We had a couple of long conversations about it, mulling over different scenarios that might have contributed to the let down. In the end we had a few insights that mattered. He probably should have put off the major rebuild on the pier at his cabin for a few weeks. Eight hours of heavy lifting and hard labor the week before one of the season’s biggest events probably wasn’t very smart. Of course had I known that was his plan (I think it was pretty impromptu actually), I’d have advised against it, but c’est la vie.

Similarly, earlier in the year I’d seen a couple of red flags on his training that caused me to dial down the focus on long steady state efforts that are essential for his discipline in favor of a more varied program that would keep him “mentally fresher” – in retrospect it was somewhat illogical since he’s shown tremendous resiliency and fortitude. We probably won’t do that again.

Multiple Mechanicals
Another athlete was primed for a mountain bike race. He’d finished well the year before, but really wanted to take the win this time – heck, it was why he asked me to coach him in the 8 weeks before the race! It was a stage race format and he sat in first place after the opening stage, so things were looking good. Unfortunately a series of mechanicals on the next two stages robbed him of the coveted victory and again we are left to wonder why.

This one is a bit easier, if slightly more esoteric…in my opinion repeated mechanicals are simply a sign of incorrect preparation and lack of mental focus. Taking nothing away from the athlete – he’s a busy guy with a TON of day-to-day responsibilities – if you suffer mechanicals, especially multiple mechanicals, in a race it’s pretty much your fault! The slipped seat post cost him a few seconds in the time trial, not terrible, certainly something that can be overcome…but he followed that up with a small cadre of similar issues (bar/stem/valve stem/etc) that derailed his confidence and performance. Hoping that doesn’t come up again, betting it won’t!

Weathering the Weather
The last athlete suffered through weather conditions that were sub-optimal for her body type. It was World-class windy and she’s about 120 pounds! Not too much you can do about the weather, but the wind was compounded by her choice to use a disk wheel, a subtle derailment of her warm up protocol thanks to an impromptu interruption, and sub-optimal nutrition before the race. All told it cost her the chance to set a new PR on a course she’s very experienced on, and that’s too bad.

Fortunately, all of the athletes above are pretty good at keeping things in perspective so we’re not anticipating a huge blowback psychologically from the missed opportunities, but it does give one pause for sure. I think there are a couple of take-aways from these examples:

Pre Race Protocol
I’ve written before, as have other Toolbox contributors, about the importance of your pre-race ritual. I’d like to expand on that one-day model here by emphasizing the importance of your pre-event preparation from a macro perspective. The little things matter on race day, but they also matter two weeks before the race too!

Dramatically altering your training plan, or even your day-to-day plan, can have a substantive impact on your preparation. The example of working on the pier is as clear as can be. For someone who does this type of work day in and day out it is far less of an upset than the athlete who does a day or two of this per year. It seems obvious now, but still the choice was made and that may have contributed to the race result achieved.

Similarly, the athlete who didn’t examine her equipment in the two weeks before her big race suddenly found that she needed the set of aero-wheels sitting in her garage with old cracked rubber on them. Yet here is a confound…she had a spare set of wheels that were lower profile than a disc with her at the race, but chose not to switch them out as it was outside her comfort zone. Successful athletes have to be both a little bit obsessive about their process, but at the same time extremely malleable to the ever changing situation on the road. A more experienced or resilient athlete might simply swap the wheels at the first sign of wind and not fret the potential impact. Would it have made a difference in her performance? We don’t know, but based on her experience in the wind – having to ride higher and slower to maintain control of the disc – it might have.

Immediate Impact
OK, let’s presume you’ve managed your pre-race well, arrived at the line seemingly well prepared – and you still had a terrible race! The first impact is immediate; most athletes can tell pretty quickly if they are on an off day. The body may not feel right as small aches and pains creep into your consciousness. Quickly recognizing that you are a bit off is tough, but can make a huge difference in re-framing the race in a positive light a little faster.

Of course the immediate impact from events seemingly outside your control is a much harder to take in the moment. I’ve certainly had those races where things are going GREAT and suddenly you flat, or crash, or have a mechanical…in my younger days I was known to throw a bike or two in upset at the situations! Looking back that seems a silly response borne largely of pent up adrenaline than well placed anger. I am often reminded by a couple my pro friends just what composure looks like. They have suffered any number of interruptions during a typical season, yet they never get angry or flummoxed, they simply take it in stride. I like to think of this as being calm in the mind, and it is an essential skill that you have to work to develop!

A calm, matter-of-fact demeanor might have led my mountain biker to spend a few extra minutes checking the various components on his bike to make sure everything was perfect. As he’s a pretty low key guy to begin with I don’t know that it would have, but my guess is he was a bit put out by the first mechanical and simply lost track of his ‘to do’ list a little bit.

Residual Impact
More troubling than the immediate impact is the potential residual impact of a bad performance. The un-disciplined rider will let the result fester, will constantly ask “what if” or lament their “luck.” This is a long-term no win for them. You must be able to put the race and performance in an appropriate context. To do that I will often spend a few minutes, or a few hours, looking at both the training leading up to the race, and at the race itself for answers.

Often these are easy to see, but just as often the true reason for the failure is not readily apparent. Still, it is a worthwhile way to qualify the efforts put in and those in-and-of themselves are as valid a feedback loop as the performance itself. If you can learn one or two little things that will help next time that’s great. If you can look at the training as a process – and the value in a process versus outcome based approach – then you are truly on your way to appropriately managing the little let downs that come with competing. Whatever comes next, have a great race!

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. You can find him on Facebook.

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