Enjoying the sunshine, off the bike.
"Okay ladies, I'm turning back here. Three hours is it for me today- coach's orders," I said, as I once again felt myself pulled between my friends and my training plan. And I parted ways with my three riding partners and spun slowly back home as they headed for the hills to do a final hour of climbing.
There is nothing harder for an athlete, or for any ambitious person, than "dialing it back." The most difficult, and most important, lesson I have learned in training for bike racing is that harder is not always better. Sometimes, less can really be more.
I am lost in thought on my solo spin back to Boulder. My mind turns back to late July of 2010, when I was in my second full year as a road racer. I had just won the state criterium championships, and I was floating. My ambitions were at an all-time high, and my ability to make rational decisions about training was at an all-time low. I felt strong, I had tasted victory, and I wanted more, more, more. The more I ride, and the harder I push, the stronger I'll be; was the theme stuck in my head.
Then I cracked. I was training for my last race, the Steamboat Stage Race. Four days of tough racing in the mountains around Steamboat Springs. It would be my first race with the elite women, and I was excited. But on that particular Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting on the side of Flagstaff road above Boulder, having some form of nervous breakdown and on the verge of hurling my beloved Pinarello off a cliff. I was exhausted, burnt out, and overtrained. I raced at Steamboat, but I hated every second of it. I puked, cried, mentally beat the crap out of myself, and got dropped. During the criterium, all I could think was "please let this be over soon." I drove home, put my bike away, and didn't look at it for close to three months.
The next season I hired a coach. Alison was the best thing to ever happen to my cycling, and the lessons I have learned from her have been invaluable in the rest of my life as well. I had no problem training as hard as she asked me to- but again, the hardest thing for me has not been motivating myself to work hard; it has always been reining myself in and not doing too much. It is SO hard to be out on a ride, be feeling super strong, and still head home when all I want is to keep going. It is SO hard to skip riding on a beautiful spring day because my training plan says "off."
But in the long run, I am learning that it pays off to be smart. Ending up sick, burnt out, and hating my bike and life in general isn't much fun. Getting dropped in every race isn't much fun, either. Feeling consistently healthy and strong is pretty fun. So is racing well.
Last season, I made the commitment to stick to my training plan and train hard on my hard days, easy on my easy days, and really rest on my rest days. I learned that instead of feeling bummed about missing a beautiful riding day, I could enjoy taking my dog to play fetch in the park or laying in the grass and enjoying the sunshine while reading a book or visiting with a friend. I made the commitment to make eating well and getting enough sleep a priority.
My discipline paid off as I felt increasingly stronger week after week, race after race, from April through September. My race results showed it as well. I didn't get sick once during the season, and there were no breakdowns on the side of the road. I felt unstoppable. I learned firsthand the value of slowing down and sticking to the plan. I gained invaluable trust in my coach and in myself. This has been a long, hard, slow lesson for me; sometimes I still fail at it, and I feel that just now, after four years of training and racing, I am really beginning to fully understand. It has taken a lot of self-restraint, but it has been worth it.
And now, while I still feel the pangs of my desire to keep pushing when my friends are continuing on and I am turning back, I do it with a sense of comfort in knowing that I am doing what is right for me and for my own goals. I know that when it comes time for me to roll up to the starting line in April, I will be ready, I will be rested, and I will be strong.
Inspiration for this story: my coach, Alison Powers. Thank you.