After spending a week in the Alps this summer on the kind of backcountry singletrack that takes you far away from the beautiful convenience of chairlifts, so that you really and truly earn your descents, I learnt a thing or two about self-trickery. Every day I would be beyond amazed at how far past my own perceived limitations I had pushed myself. Often you hear about how much of a rider’s descending prowess comes down to mental strength. I believe this applies just as much to climbing. If you see a huge hill coming up and immediately start throwing your toys out the pram, you’re probably already beaten. I know this to be true because I was this person!
While I don’t pretend to be able to make hills an entirely enjoyable process, I do believe approaching them with a more positive attitude and a whole arsenal of techniques to combat negativity certainly helps. Here are my suggestions for how to keep going when your body is screaming “No!”
1. Bike Setup
Firstly, remove any undue cause of physical pain that your mind could use as an excuse. Ensure the saddle is set to the correct height and the reach to the bars is comfortable. If either of these is incorrect, you won’t enjoy maximum power output and pedaling may cause back or hip pain.
Also, invest in a saddle that’s right for you–everyone has their own personal preference. A good quality pair of padded shorts can also make a huge difference.
2. Mini Goals
Break the climb down into smaller, more manageable goals. Particularly on a long climb, this can make the task seem less daunting. Allow yourself breaks to stop and admire the view, take pictures, have a drink and a snack, and just generally recoup. If it’s a climb I haven’t done before I often find I can cajole myself along with promises of a chocolate bar or energy gel if I complete three more switchbacks. After even just a small break, the whole situation will seem less dire.
3. Set Your Own Pace
All this positivity and attacking talk can make it far too tempting to set off at a storming speed, really giving it your all. This is a bad idea. Battling in vain to keep up with the front runners in a group is an equally bad mistake. Depressing as it can be to see them pulling away, it is far better to play the long game. Set a steady pace that you can comfortably maintain for the long haul. Choose an easy gear that keeps your legs spinning evenly. If you are having to really push down with maximum strength, rocking from side to side with each pedal stroke, you will tire yourself out far quicker.
4. The Power of Music
Energising upbeat music works both as a motivator and a great distraction. Music is proven to lift our spirits and improve the mood, so harness that scientific evidence and plug yourself in. Consider saving your breath, though–avoid singing along on this occasion.
5. It’s All Fun and Games
That said, if the gradient allows and you have some company, engaging in silly, humorous games to lighten the mood can be fun and can keep the mind off the pain/distance that you still need to overcome. My personal favourite stolen from Sam Morris of Bike Village is, “If you could be any animal for a day, what would it be?” Other suggestions include the classic “I Spy” or “How would you spend your lottery winnings?”
6. Be a Daydreamer
For those lone warriors out there, I am a big advocate of mind displacement. Send your mind off on a lovely daydream, reflect on pleasant childhood memories, contemplate life on Mars, imagine your perfect holiday. If this nonsensical rubbish is not for you, set your brain to more practical tasks. Plan the week’s diary, decide what to have for dinner, contemplate any big decisions that you need to make at work. The idea is to keep your mind busy thinking of anything other than climbing that hill.
Easier said than done when you’re puffing and panting with muscles screaming. Obviously, some muscles need to be tensed and working, but letting go of any anger at the situation and trying not to grimace or frown allows the body to put this energy to better use. Often when straining hard we will unconsciously tense our shoulders and hunch our backs, when what we need to do is sit up and open our chests, making it much easier for the lungs to expand.
Crazy as it may sound, try to smile. Scientists have proven that even just forcing our faces into the smiling shape can trick our minds into feeling happier… even if we do look like idiots.
Remember why you are doing this! Instead of getting fixated on the ground crawling by beneath you, take a look around and enjoy just being outdoors–this is a big part of why we all ride, right? Take in the views as you snake up the mountain, enjoy the peacefulness of the forest, listen to the birds, and keep a lookout for wildlife. Spend some time looking forward to the view from the top and imagining how good you will feel about yourself when you make it there. Run through the awesome descent on the other side–just thinking of that gives me a lift as I know how excited and joyful I will feel once I’m descending!
9. Use Strava
Strava can be used in many ways–either to hold yourself accountable if you give up or don’t keep up your desired pace, or to race friends, strangers, or yourself to the top. Use the thought of winning or beating previous records as motivation. Alternatively, try the softer approach and use Strava to boost your confidence by tracking improvements and seeing how many people you are doing better than. Having evidence of how high you climbed, the distance you covered, and working to slowly increase those metrics, can be really rewarding. Keep the settings on private and make this a personal challenge if you’d prefer.
10. Invest in a Training Partner
I don’t necessarily mean that you need to hire an expensive personal trainer! Personally, my best-ever training partner who never fails to drag me out of an aching, dark hole with her smiley, enthusiastic face is my trail dog Mawli.
Second to her, of course, are human riding buddies. Choose these wisely. Someone who likes to play the one-upmanship game, or just shoots off and leaves you eating their dust, is simply demoralizing. However, a fit riding partner can help by providing endless amusing chatter as a distraction, providing encouragement, and setting the pace. Alternatively, finding another rider of similar fitness and embarking on a get fit regime together makes the process more fun. Having someone who you can relate to, sharing the highs and lows of the experience with, makes the challenge seem less daunting.
All this said, mental strength can only keep us going for so long. A proper understanding of the correct way to fuel the body vastly increases your ability to keep going. Regularly hydrating and the use of electrolytes when necessary keeps the engine ticking over much more smoothly. Though I truly believe and have proven to myself that we should regularly push beyond our comfort levels to improve, we also need to be realistic with this. Set achievable goals, build fitness slowly, and remember to look back and see how far you have come, both literally and metaphorically!
The very essence of mountain biking is adventure. I hope that by applying some of these pointers you can find yourself a pedal stroke closer to enjoying the whole journey.