By Sarah Kaufmann — A bad ride or race can really cut us to our core. If you have been working hard, preparing and training consistently, it can be pretty demoralizing to feel like the energy and time you have put in is not paying off. Sometimes it feels like a bad ride or race is a deeper reflection of your identity as a person or athlete. Try to separate those feelings of inadequacy and view this as a singular outcome and an opportunity to gain experience. (If you are interested in learning more about how to modify your psychology around this, look up Brené Brown’s work on guilt versus shame).
There are some days that are hard to explain and we don’t have a clear way to identify what went wrong. But usually there are one or more reasons things didn’t go as we would like or expect and here are some questions to help identify what might be the cause. I write these considerations to be relevant for both a key workout and for a race/event. When an athlete I coach writes in their notes that the workout or event didn’t go well, here are the items we address generally in order;
If they are training with power and we have a clear idea of where their fitness is, we need to first assess their expectations. Was it as bad as they think? If it’s a race result, is their expectation in line with their current fitness? Are they simply being too hard on themself?
If it was a race and below the athlete’s current ability, we dig and find what specifically caused the outcome. In a gravel, MTB, or CX race, was the athlete losing time in pedaling sections or technical sections? In the above or a road race, were there tactical errors made?
If there is both heart rate and power data, I look at both and compare whether heart rate is abnormally high or low for the power output. Abnormally high HR, especially with poor recovery, could be related to heat, dehydration, central nervous system dysregulation (some kind of outside stress), lack of sleep, sub optimal taper, altitude, the athlete may be on the verge of getting sick, there may have been a fueling issue, or many other things and it does indicate that something is off. A clue to dig in further. Unusually low heart rate for the power output could indicate general fatigue or overtraining, also a fueling issue, cold temperatures, and, again, many other things but, also again, a sign that something is off. If there is no power but we do have heart rate data, we can still get an idea of whether HR was high or low compared to how this person’s HR typically behaves at those intensities. If this is the case for you, assess whether you felt like you were pushing as hard as you could and at your physical max, but you weren’t going as fast as you could reasonably expect OR did it feel like you could not access deeper intensities and you felt governed.
What did you eat and drink during the event? If you are confident that your endurance fitness is solid, but you faded late in the race, there is a good chance you did not fuel or hydrate appropriately. If your in-race fueling and hydration seems adequate and appropriate, go through what you ate and drank in the 24-36 hours prior to the race, with extra consideration to the 4-6 hours leading up to the race. Was that balanced and adequate? Were those foods and drinks you have used before with success?
Did you get enough sleep in the leadup to the event? We worry less about the night immediately before but pay more attention to the general trend over the several nights prior.
If the rider is a woman, is she about to start her menstrual cycle? Women experience ups and downs with training as related to the timing of their cycle. We typically see a decrease at some training intensities (largely max and neuromuscular power production) in the week or so prior to menstruation and/or around ovulation. Although this is often mitigated in a race situation, a poor race could be attributed to the timing of her cycle. A poor training session could more likely be attributed to such. Tracking your cycle is a great tool for this purpose and can help pinpoint the likelihood. The Notes app on your phone or a dedicated app for this purpose can be really useful. Although sprint and neuromuscular power production are the intensities most likely to be affected, PMS can affect overall energy levels and increase the requirement for exogenous carbohydrate. So, the need to stay on top of fueling becomes a higher priority and what you might normally think is adequate could be leaving you under fueled. Likewise, core temperature is elevated in the days prior to menstruation, so the likelihood of being under hydrated increases as well.
Finally, were there outside factors that may have contributed to a poor outcome? Was it excessively hot or cold and/or were you not acclimatized for those conditions or was your clothing not appropriate for the temperatures? Was the start time earlier or later than your normal ride time and could that have thrown off your rhythm? Were you at high altitude compared to where you normally live/train? Each of these different factors could be their own column and each of them can be mitigated with some planning and different protocols.
A “bad” ride or race is an opportunity to learn. A win or a great ride feels good, but it doesn’t provide us with those same opportunities. Try to shift your perspective so disappointment is not a reflection of yourself but an opportunity for growth. Ask yourself these questions and see if you can avoid the same mistakes going forward.
Sarah Kaufmann is the owner of K Cycling Coaching. She is an elite level XC and CX racer for DNA Pro Cycling Team. She is based in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached at [email protected] or 413.522.3180.