How to Survive the Toughest Workouts and Races

Connect your mind to your body to turn survival into enhanced performance

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • You can’t listen to an entire song at once…
  • Bike fit and good form on the bike is important for a reason
  • Fuel and Intelligence (or, “Get Fed and Get Smart”)
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]“Don’t gimme the soft stuff.”[/dropcap]

I was trained in the fine arts. When I was a kid, my construction worker dad was doing his best to save me from a “lifetime of having to work out in the cold” by encouraging my seemingly natural talent for drawing and painting — and occasionally acting.

While I hated the endless hours faithfully reproducing a scene on my front porch as if I was a Xerox machine for the natural world, I eventually came to love learning about the powerful connection between the mind, a person’s clearly defined intentions, and the ultimate outcome. It’s the stuff of magic, and we can readily see it in great movies, music, and other forms of the arts.

But in other areas, most notably the business world and athletic endeavors, people who are more keen on hand-to-the-plow reality have a pretty strong aversion to the “hocus pocus” of the mind-body connection. In my experience, it’s been pretty sharply derided.

“Thanks, but I can do without the Shirley MacClaine treatment.”

“Did you hear that consultant’s presentation, today? Whatta waste of time. Don’t gimme all that soft stuff. I need news I can use.”

The Practicality of Focus

Don’t think the mental aspect of cycling is a powerful thing to develop in your training regimen? Consider the simple fact that muscle contractions — every single one of them — comes from an impulse in your brain. There will be some that protest, “Yeah, but, that’s unconscious stuff; like breathing. You don’t think about it.”

I’m glad you brought up breathing.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]When the going pushes you to your limit, that’s where you don’t surrender your outcome to what “comes naturally,” but because you’ve been monitoring your body all along up to this point, you have some techniques you can employ to stay on top of things a bit better.[/callout]

Breathing is a natural process that you can allow to run on autopilot — which is fine until you get into a hyperventilating mess — or you can control, leading to superior performance.


Simple book. Lots of very old school thinking. But it’s methodical, and easy to adopt.

In Graeme Obree’s book, (that’s former Hour Record holder, Graeme) The Obree Way, A Training Manual for Cyclists, breathing is so instrumental to his success that he studied it, and developed a specific technique for it while on the bike at threshold. Some of his quotes from the book:

“The day I broke The World Hour Record…what people did not see was the pedaling technique that maximized efficiency as well as the breathing control as best as I knew it at that time. Also…the belief in my own ability that did not come naturally from my own personality but from the realization that without using the power of the mind then it is not possible to achieve optimal performance.”

“Further study allowed me to enhance my breathing technique and pedaling style and I have a body of knowledge that I wish I had possessed much earlier in my cycling career.”
Regarding gasping as a natural way to breathe under stress — “an evolutionary response is not necessarily the most efficient solution to our needs in response to environmental conditions.”

The point is that your mind-body connection needs to be one you’re aware of. You need to be in control of all your faculties under the stress of a hard interval workout, or during tough situations in a hard group ride or race. And when the going pushes you to your limit, that’s where you don’t surrender your outcome to what “comes naturally,” but because you’ve been monitoring your body all along up to this point, you have some techniques you can employ to stay on top of things a bit better.

Break it Down

You can’t listen to a song all at once. It’s a collection of individual notes and beats and chords played over time. And even the notion of “time “ is broken down into what we call “pace.” And a band, when they’re playing, can’t just play whatever they want, at whatever pace they want, in whatever key they want. It takes an agreement among all the participating members to adhere to a certain structure, or else we can’t call what they’re doing a “song.”

When you’re struggling to stay with a group, for example, it’s very easy for the song to become a tangled mish-mass of infernal noise. Just as with our band analogy, we can find a corollary by examining the pain points, here:

  • your breathing becomes uncontrolled
  • you begin to tighten up:
  • your lower back
  • your jaw
  • your shoulders hunch
  • you begin to shift hand positions every 10 seconds as a result, and you become much less aero, adding to more resistance


So how do we stop this house of cards from tumbling? By focusing on one thing at a time. What follows is a list of suggestions, in no particular order. It’s just a sampling of techniques to get your mind out of a fog and into the situation at hand, so that you can start to regain control.


Graeme Obree developed a very specific technique to insure that his lungs were able to have the most ready supply of fresh oxygen, rather than recycling spent co2 (which is why you start gasping wildly under extreme effort.) No matter if you’re working on a planned breathing pattern like him, or simply being highly aware of your breathing while you’re doing it, you’ll be able to isolate one of the key aspects of your physiology under stress.


As I’ve mentioned before, when you’re working on high-cadence drills using a very light gear, it’s important to completely relax your toes down in your shoes. Relaxing the toes will insure that your ankles, calves, knees, etc., upwards to your hips, will be more supple. Since there will be less muscular resistance, your brain can send those contract and release signals at a much faster rate. And don’t we all want to go faster?

Relaxation, meaning mindful, specific, brain-controlled relaxation — is, like breathing, one of the master keys to efficiency. The idea is, if every muscle involved in cycling were doing only what they needed to do and no more then imagine how much faster and how much further you’d be able to go, with everything humming along in concert.

Run a mental checklist

Deathgrip on the bar? Cut that out. This is the hands-version of clenching the toes during high cadence spinning; it sets off a chain of resistance through your upper body and core. So stop it.

Hunching your shoulders? We hunch or “shrug” our shoulders when our lower back starts to go. Our lower back starts to go when our core is weak. Our core is weak because of a multitude of things (poor posture during the day, lack of core strengthening exercises, poor bike fit, lack of base miles — despite the current popular notions that “base riding is dead”)

When you find yourself with your shoulders up near your ears, slacken your jaw, wiggle your fingers, and tighten up your belly button muscles. You should then be able to lower your shoulders. All this assumes you’re properly fitted to your bike. When you get off the bike, start working on core exercises, then write me a thank you letter in about 6 months.

Pedaling squares? The art of smooth pedaling can’t be overstated. But when you’re in do-or-die mode, even the best of us can start turning the cranks in a way that resembles Elaine’s dancing on Seinfeld. Here’s a few ways to start rounding out those sharp edges.

  • Did I mention relaxing your toes?
  • Focus on one of the four quadrants of the stroke other than just pushing down:
  • Pushing your foot over the top
  • Scraping mud off the bottom of the shoe
  • Relaxing the calf as you pull up on the back of the stroke


Imagine: you’re struggling at a high pace, you realize you’re pedaling angles, and you put your mind on simply pushing over the top of each and every stroke. That’s it. One simple focus. You just made the effort a smidgen easier.

ONE two three, TWO two three, THREE two three, FOUR two three

The famous Polish cycling coach that is widely credited with being the “father of American cycling,” Eddie Borysewicz (pronounced, bor-i-SAY-vich) taught cadence metering in his book, Bicycle Road Racing: The Complete Program for Training and Competition. I remember checking that book out of my local library, over and over, when I was new to cycling in the ‘80s.


This book was “old school” before there was an American “school” of cycling. I shoulda bought a copy back in the day when it was cheaper. It’s a bit of a collector’s item, now.

The mental technique is very simple: you emphasize every other stroke, every third stroke, even every fifth stroke, etc., until you find a rhythm that works for you. Odd stroke counts will alternate leg emphasis. Even strokes bring the emphasis back to the same leg each time.

The reason why this works is so elegant — it allows you to “rest” on the non-emphasized strokes. Rest equals an opportunity for increased efficiency. It also means you can divert your mind from other pain points attempting to muddle and overwhelm your brain while you’re trying to stick to the business at hand. I’ve used this technique many, many times to catch back on to a train, put in solid pulls at the front of a rotating paceline, and once in a training race that had me out front for 80% of the race. (Yes, full disclosure, I was caught less than 100 meters from the line. The fact that he was a Cat 3 doesn’t make that memory sting less.)

Set a short-distance goal

You’re pretty sure you’re not going to be able to make it through this lap. You’re dog-tired, and although you’re watching your breathing and smoothing out that stroke, you’re coming to the end of the tank.

It’s time to break that lap up into segments.

See that right hander coming up at the end of this straightaway? Give it all you got ’til you make that right hander.

Congratulations. You made it through the turn. Now — look ahead. What’s your next milestone? Ah…see the flag-waver in the intersection way down there? He’s blocking traffic just for you. Show him that stiff upper lip as you roll through that intersection with pristine form. Hip-hip. Onward…

All this is for nothing if you ain’t “fit”

And by “fit,” I mean excellent bike fit.

If your reach is too long (one or a combo of stem length, top-tube length, even handlebar selection) then there’s no way you can relax on the bike, since you’re going to be working so hard to support your excess upper body weight. If your bike is too big for you (or at the least, your saddle too far back on the rails), then your top tube will be too long, most likely putting your hip-knee-ankle relationship to the pedal in a power-robbing position.

If your reach is too short, your back will be unduly arched, your neck constantly straining to look down the road, and a good chance your knees will be too far forward of the pedals, robbing you of power and probably adding discomfort to the top of the shin.

Great bike fit means you’re going to be able to relax, and relaxing means you are most likely to be more efficient. Remember, efficiency in this context is being able to allow each muscle to work less hard in concert with more companion muscles to accomplish the same level of work as if you were straining and grinding away.

I’ll pick door number one, every time, thank you.

Super-practical: Food and Finding Out (where you’re going)

If you’re going to successfully complete, much less finish quite well in a tough event, there are two other areas where you’d do well to do a little study. Both are areas of pre-preparation.


Don’t bog down: Start your morning with easily digestible, long-burning carbs. Sweet potatoes and steel-cut oatmeal are my standby, go-to sources. Stay away from protein and dairy.

Onboard fuel

You’ll want to have what works for you well sorted out prior to any races — especially any races where you really have aspirations for good performance. What I mean by “works for you” is wrapped up in the notion of tolerability. Some riders can, and need, a little bit of protein in their water bottles or jersey pockets. (I’m one of those riders. I have a very low body fat percentage, around 7.5% during race season, and I burn through carbs like the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters burned fuel.) A heavier rider would wind up having my bottle mixture sloshing around in their gut, and that ain’t pretty, especially on hot days.

60 grams of carbs per hour is the max most athletes can tolerate. Check out the nutrition labels on whatever sources you prefer, and don’t exceed that. If you have a high metabolism and a low body fat percentage, consider adding a little mix of protein. My fuel weapon of choice for that is from Hammer Nutrition. I mix primarily HEED carbohydrate with a little Sustained Energy on every effort that goes beyond 75 minutes. If it’s shorter, I’ll rely on plain water or HEED alone, usually without any breakfast.

Course familiarity

I remember in 7th grade, learning about the American Revolutionary War. One of the standout facts for me was that the colonists had been living in the New World for several generations prior to the British coming to claim what they felt was theirs by extension. The native’s familiarity with the backroads, woods, rivers, and general typography gave them a tremendous advantage in many pivotal battles.

The same holds true in bike racing.

Recon the course. At the very least, do your research using Strava, or And check the weather report prior to the event. Keep reading…

  • If you know a key climb features in the race, and you’re not a strong climber, fight to get to the front of the pack when the pack hits the base of the climb. Then, climb just below YOUR threshold pace, using your heart rate monitor or power meter as a guide. You’ll slip back as the peloton advances, but you should be able to be in a position to hang on to the back by the time the pack crests. Then you can recover on the climbs and pick your way back on the flats.
  • Know where the headwinds are blowing on that day. Get familiar with the weather report as well as the topography of the course. If you’re heading into the wind at a certain upcoming turn, be prepared to find shelter in the pack before you make the turn, otherwise, you could be caught out in the wind, begging for a safe spot that no one will want to give you.
  • As a climb approaches, if you do have good climbing legs, don’t allow yourself to be pinned against the gutter. Better to start a climb on the outside or inside the pack then pressed to the right. If you’re able to climb, but find yourself behind those who are falling behind or struggling to find the right gear, you’ll not only lose many places to the better-positioned riders, you’ll end up wasting energy by having your pace upset, followed by the need to chase.


Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 4.40.34 PMWant to take the mind-body connection even a step further? The stories we tell ourselves create the stage for the actions we take. So tell yourself good stories. One great tool for this is Athletes Audio. Relaxation techniques and game-day specific visualizations you can put on your iPod or smartphone to help get you in the right zone, no matter what tough action you’ve got to complete.

See you out there on the road…

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: We all have our mental tricks we’ve developed to make the hard stuff more bearable. Share yours with us, below! [/icon_box]

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Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

  • pedalingsquares

    Hey Sam, thanks for featuring Athletes Audio on the page! I appreciate the support.

    • Absolutely, Bob. Athlete’s Audio is a weekly tool for me. I enjoy pairing it with recovery after technique-specific workouts to “lock in” all that effort. And I always use it the evening before and day of an event. Highly recommended.

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