6 Mental Tricks for Surviving the Toughest Parts of the Ride

Mountain biking can be tough, both physically and mentally. Experts and research suggest there are tricks for improving our mental state during the most difficult times.
The author in 2022. Photo: Chris Bullock.

Something’s been bothering me over the past year.

In February, 2022 I made a decision I’ve regretted ever since: I dropped out of a mountain bike race. After riding 300 miles over two and a half days I had reached my breaking point, mentally unable to ride the last 60 miles of sandy roads and singletrack along the course to the finish. Physically, I’m sure I could have finished. Mentally, there was no way.

Back home I stewed over my decision to pull the plug. I was disappointed in myself and desperately wanted a do-over. In a Singletracks article a couple weeks after the race I wrote, “I thought about how I would convince myself to keep pedaling, to look around instead of focusing on my front wheel and the thin black line on my GPS screen.”

I spent the past year mentally preparing for another shot, to find ways to keep going, even when the going got tough. (And it would get tough.)

I’m stoked to report that this year’s race went much better, despite even less physical preparation and training. This time, I was prepared with a few new mental tricks, which research and the experts agree, can make a huge difference.

This loose sand can’t possibly go on forever. Photo: Paul Foster.

Set incremental goals

Years ago while preparing for my first 100-mile mountain bike ride I found that the toughest part of every training ride seemed to come at around the one-third mark. It didn’t seem to matter if I was going 40 miles that day, or 70. Just knowing that I had already ridden pretty far but had twice as far to go was a tough pill to swallow. My solution was to avoid checking the distance on my GPS for as long as possible, but it turns out there’s a better way: incremental goals.

Anyone who has ever worked toward a big goal in school or at work knows the power of setting small goals that feed into a much bigger one. Breaking the ride down into bite-sized chunks makes it manageable instead of overwhelming.

My friend Nick says when he’s experiencing a tough part of the ride he asks himself how much farther he can ride without too much effort. Sometimes the answer is a few miles, sometimes it’s less than that, and when he gets to his goal, he asks himself the question again. Through accomplishing even such a tiny goal we gain confidence in our ability to persevere, even if it’s just bit by bit. That we’re able to keep going is a pleasant surprise.

Ultra-endurance athlete Lael Wilcox told me she reminds herself that the toughest parts of the ride are only temporary. “It won’t last forever. Things will change, whether that’s the wind conditions or your feet hurt or whatever it is. That will change and I’ll come out on the other side of it feeling better.”

Incremental goals work well in the early stages of a long or difficult ride, though research suggests the utility of this approach fades as we get closer to the finish line. Fortunately there are more tools in our mental toolbox.

Stay in the moment

Along the lines of setting incremental goals, it’s helpful to stay in the moment during a challenging ride, especially when you’re feeling anxious or upset. In a recent podcast interview, sports psychologist Dr. Kristin E. Keim told me that the idea of mindfulness is really about being in the moment.

“You aren’t worried about what it’s going to feel like in the future, and you’re just focusing on where you’re at right now with very clear objectives.”

When I’m feeling crummy and spent during a ride, I start to get anxious about the future. I think, “If I feel this bad now, how much worse will I feel in an hour!? And if I feel worse in an hour, there’s no way I can finish!” In reality, the current moment could be the toughest part of the ride and everything will get easier from here on out. Or maybe I’ll be able to finish strong if I just hydrate or stretch now.

In hindsight I realize that during my first Huracan attempt in 2022 I spent way too much time looking at the map on my GPS screen and following the thin black line of pixels instead of looking around and engaging with my surroundings. This year, as soon as I caught myself staring at the screen and feeling anxious, I looked up and turned my head up, left, and right to refocus my thoughts on my present environment.

Dr. Keim noted that sometimes we “get so wrapped up on numbers that we forget about the bigger picture.” This year, when I did look at my GPS, I focused on my current speed rather than how far I had traveled or how far I had to go. Given my top-level goal of averaging 10mph for the day, going 12mph right now feels like a win.

It can also be helpful to imagine your future self looking back in the past at your present self. If you can get past that mind bender you can potentially avoid things like regret for not finishing, or recognize the good things about your current situation that aren’t as obvious in the moment. More on that later.

We can’t get rid of the mud, but we can try to find a way around it. Photo: Paul Foster.

Focus on what you can control

In the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the authors describe what they call gravity problems as problems, like earth’s gravity, that aren’t actionable. “When you get stuck in a gravity problem, you’re stuck permanently, because there’s nothing you can do,” they write. We generally can’t change the effects of gravity after all, just like we can’t change some of the conditions we face during a difficult ride.

“Shouting at the wind” is an aphorism that couldn’t be more apt for biking. Karlos Bernart, off-road route designer and creator of the Huracan 300, said “If I’m riding I will never talk about the wind. It just makes it worse.”

While we can’t change the wind or the weather, we can choose how we react to it, and avoiding negative statements, especially in a group setting, is within our control. “If you’re feeling bad there’s no sense verbalizing it. It’s like you’re speaking some sort of magic spell [that makes things] get worse from there,” said Bernart.

When you think about it, there are a few things we can’t control, and many more that we can. The sun is going to set no matter what but we get to choose whether to slow down, to listen to music, or to chew a piece of gum. “If you’re feeling despair, the first thing you should do is think about what would fix it,” Bernhart said. “Would you enjoy taking a break? Would you enjoy having a cold drink? What would you enjoy?”

Smile (or sing)

When we’re happy we smile, and some research studies suggest that smiling might also make us happy. I’m not sure when or where I first latched onto this concept, but I decided that this year I would force myself to smile whenever I was at a low point during the ride. To be honest, it felt a little psychotic at first. My brain was feeling despair and fatigue, bordering on anger, and I was… smiling. Who was I kidding, if not myself?

Worse, I worried that those around me might catch on. What if someone asked me why I was smiling? I quickly formulated a lie in my head: I’m smiling because the sky is so beautiful. Or, this trail is just so flowy, ha! The smile turned into a chuckle, and before I knew it, I was actually feeling — well, decent. I wouldn’t say that smiling during the worst moments made me happy, but it certainly diverted my attention from the frustration and despair, at least for a little while.

Like smiling, singing can lift our spirits as well.

Rebecca Rusch has been called the Queen of Pain, though as she told me in a 2020 podcast interview she prefers to think of herself as the queen of perseverance. With multiple World Champion titles and major expeditions to her name, she knows a thing or two about getting through difficult rides. She told me, “I sing to myself a lot. Last year I was literally howling with the wolves because I was alone for days. These wolves were howling and so I joined in there.”

Lately I’ve found myself randomly whistling when I’m uncomfortable during mountain bike rides, and it seems to help. I guess maybe Snow White was onto something.

Photo: Paul Foster.

Look on the bright side

This is perhaps one of the trickier mental tips for getting through the toughest parts of the ride, and it won’t work for everyone, nor will it work every time. All of us have, at one time or another, had someone say to us, “look on the bright side,” which rarely makes things better. In fact, depending on who says it, the phrase can makes things worse.

But if you’re able, and in a mental space where you can do it, focusing on what’s going well can turn your mood around. For me, this meant being thankful that it wasn’t raining, and that my gear was holding up without any mechanical issues.

Rusch told me, “There isn’t space in your head for more than one voice at a time. We all have voices but we can choose a positive one or a negative one.” She continued, “I try to say nice things to myself instead of bad things to myself.”

Bernart agrees. “Despair is born out of negativity so I try to avoid focusing on the bad stuff,” he said.

Photo: Jeff Barber

Maybe you’re just hangry

It’s important to acknowledge that our physical state has a huge impact on our mental state. After all, the toughest parts of the ride — like a long climb or a seemingly endless transfer stage — are generally tough mentally because we’re suffering physically. Sometimes addressing a physical need, like hunger or an overheated body, is all we need to turn our mental outlook around. Those who have spent any amount of time with a toddler know that being hangry is a real thing.

Some of the folks I talked to mentioned rewarding themselves using food or cold beverages, especially in conjunction with incremental goals. Personally I have gotten myself into trouble here, postponing a delicious or salty snack until I reached a certain point, only to find I actually needed it to get to that point. For example, I had to stop a couple hundred yards short of my intended rest stop on a recent ride due to debilitating leg cramps, which I could have avoided if I’d just eaten sooner.

During last year’s Huracan attempt I promised myself I would enjoy a beer at the end of the day, only to find that I was too exhausted to drink one when I finally made it to the camp site. There’s a good chance I might have enjoyed myself more and suffered less if I just had that beer when I was craving it.

Pack your tool kit ahead of time

Just like a multi-tool or a flat repair kit, it’s important to arm yourself with a few mental tools to get you through any challenges you might face along the trail. Sometimes that tire plug doesn’t work and you need a tube; the same goes for these tips. Keep them in your mind’s back pocket just in case and if one doesn’t work, try another.

As Bernart said, “If your mind game is strong, you’ll find a way to get through it.”