Thursday, 13 November 2014

Giving up

A provocative title, but warranted!  My last four long-distance races had DNF (did not finish) rates ranging from a third to a half.  Two were 50%!  Any long-distance cyclist needs to take this very seriously.

Efforts to reduce your chances of a DNF are not all mental.  You need to have good training, good race plans, good equipment including spares, good support, and ideally a bit of experience.  However, my focus here is on that mental side.

I want to discuss this in three parts.

1.       Be honest in your expectations

The range of reasons for a DNF is no doubt wide, but there are some factors that will be more common than others.  My observation is that DNFs are a lot higher for people new to the sport.  This is understandable, as they are experiencing a lot for the first time and are still learning.  Interestingly, I’ve also come across more than a few others who seem to collect DNFs. 

In the end, your likelihood of a DNF depends upon two key factors.  First, it depends on how acceptable a DNF is to you.  If you’re okay with it, then the chances of it happening are that much higher.  Second, it depends on just how honest you are in your ability to win the mental battles that are so much a part of long-distance racing.  If you haven’t been honest, again your chances of a DNF are high.

There’s not much that can be done about the first factor.  It’s a given.  I’ve been fine on this front, as the attraction of long-distance racing to me has been the immensity of the challenge.  Success is gained by completing the distance, so a DNF is failure. 

However, you can do something about the second factor.  How conscientious have you been in your training and preparation?  This will give you clues because, if you’ve lagged with this, chances are that you’ll not be that staunch while racing.  One way of testing just how realistic your expectations are is to simulate a race.  Do a long-distance training ride that really pushes your limits.  See how you feel during it and whether you can continue on without finding an excuse to stop.  If you struggle on the latter front, you’ll also struggle making it to the end of the race.

I’ve always believed that once you’ve had a DNF from failing on the mental front, the chances of another DNF are that much greater.  Try not to get yourself into the position of a DNF in the first place!

2.      Train for pain

A trite heading, but that’s exactly what I mean.  Those at the top levels of any sort of racing are not only superbly trained, they are prepared to take a lot more pain than those at lower levels.  What makes long-distance racing different is that the level of pain is great even for those down the field.  Cycling for a day or more cannot but involve discomfort and mental anguish.

Training for pain gives you familiarity with it.  This helps you to tolerate it more, even if only because you know that you can handle it.  More importantly, it allows you to develop and test various strategies for dealing with pain (and I mean pain in its broadest sense).  These will be vital when you eventually do race.

So what has “training for pain” involved for me?  Included in my training are rides that will be very hard for me.  Be careful with doing this too often though, as the need for time to recover will delay further training.  Regular training also throws up the odd ride where things are just not going well, such as you running out of food or having underestimated how tired you are from a previous training session.  These are great opportunities to test your mental resolve.  And of course, any training session provides an opportunity for short-term pain, such as when doing interval training.

I’ve also used visualisation.   For example, when sitting in the train, I try and remember the worst parts of a race where I was really struggling.  This reminds me of what it’s like.  Once I’ve got myself immersed in that feeling, I start working on it.  I might imagine myself turning those pedals exhaustedly, working my way up a long hill in the middle of the race.  Slowly I’ll strengthen my resolve, put my mind in a happier place, blank out the negative images, and so on.  These sessions in the train can leave me quite exhausted, but I’m sure they’re effective.

3.      Win the mental race

I would love to know people’s views on what is the percentage of a long-distance race that relies on mental effort rather than physical effort.  One of my crew at the Graperide reckoned it was more than half and I have to agree with him.  Indeed, what prompted this blog was me considering just how physically unready I am for the 640 km race I’ve got planned at the end of this month.  I’m going to have to really rely on the mental side.

I haven’t spoken much with other riders about how they deal with the mental side.  I suspect we all have different approaches.  My own approach is to work on keeping my spirits high and be very positive.  A lot of it’s about just accepting the discomfort and not fretting about the miles to come.  Focus on the business side of racing, such as efficient pedalling, good posture, holding a straight and safe line, and so on.  Also look for things to keep your spirits up, welcome any distraction, and rejoice any time you find yourself “in the zone”.  Believing in yourself is important and this is also one of the aims of your mental games.  At the Graperide, I also found how your mind can unknowingly play tricks to take the easy way out, especially when the brain is addled, so support from others is also important.

So, in summary, the following are the broad things that will lessen chances of a DNF.  First, make sure that your expectations of a finish are realistic.  If they are not, then perhaps don’t enter the race (although we all like a challenge!).  Second, train the mental side to cope and deal with pain and fatigue for a long stretch of time, including learning strategies to help.  And third, make dealing with the mental side a key part of your race strategy. 


  1. as always Andrew, so considered thoughts. I have as you know similar goals, and more DNF's. Some mental failures, but most physical. What I have learnt lately is that the more mental pressure I let in, the greater the chance of failure. In my 4 at the lake my DNF was down to my Knee blowing out, the reality was how ever a niggle played on my mind and let me quit when in reality physically and endurance wise I could have finished. The other factor was that I made a big deal about it, as I did other events, talked it up, celebrated before the event and then DNFed. Yet 2 weeks ago I did my longest ever non-stop ride of just shy of 500km. Limited support, kept it quiet and only told a very few people. I completed it simply because I put no extra performance pressures on myself to do so. To add to it all it was shocking weather, howling wind for 3 out of the 4 laps, rain around 3am, hot foot and bad cramps when at the furthest point from safety, on my own in the pitch black, and yet at no point did "quit" and go home pass my mind, and yet the nature of the course , The TDM, passed my front door twice on each lap.

    1. Thanks for your comments Tim. Yes, we definitely share the same goals and I've enjoyed racing and riding with you. It's great having friends out there. Well done on the TdM! See you on the road sometime! :-) Andrew