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Mental Strength – Overcoming Pain in the Mountains

I had a great email from Etapper and TDF Tips reader Jessica the other day:

Fitness wise we’re in pretty good shape, and will continue to train hard until the week before. Mentally, I wondered if you had any motivational tips or mind games you play when the legs are hurting?
I sure do Jessica; read on below for how I handle it.

The question about mind games is a good one. Read my 2010 Etape du Tour report; it was a painful day and a good example of what Jessica is describing and what many are likely to experience.

Oft-times, I find it becomes a purely mental exercise. The body is capable of incredible feats and in many situations when the chips are down and Dr Pain is knocking at the door, it is a case of battening down the hatches and telling your subconscious sending you messages from your legs that you are in charge and they need to harden up and keep going – seriously.

You could ask yourself “What Would Jens Do?”.

I find the following things useful when under pressure. For those readers accustomed to racing or really intense levels of exercise where you push your boundaries, you’ll already have your own methods to overcome physical barriers with mental strength. Obviously, much has been written about this subject and there are lots of people who know a lot more about it than me. I just speak from the experience of having been deep in the Hurt Locker before – refer, Tim’s Most Awesome and Totally Painless With No Cramps at All 2010 Etape.

  • Music; not sure what type of music your tastes run to, but I have a SMASHHILLS mix that starts off with Daft Punk, then hits some hard, fast punk and rock (think: Rage Against the Machine, Propagandi, Lagwagon, Pennywise, Clutch, Refused, Tool, Soundgarden, Rise Against). Unfortunately, I seem to end up listening to music after I’ve gone into the red so it’s more survival mode at that stage.
  • In a race, it’s a lot easier to stay in the red because there is more at stake and it’s very easy to enter a zone and just focus on the wheel in front. We can transfer this intense focus mindset to Etape. If you’re really struggling, wait for someone to come past, and grab a wheel. Hold it as long as you can. When it hurts, tell you legs, “two more pedal rotations”. Then two more. And two more. It’s a case of pushing through your comfort zones, which most of us hardly really push into, and getting into that red zone, and adjusting to it. Then pushing a bit more. It takes a lot of practise, but, as I said, you need to be able to focus intensely on one thing: be it holding a wheel, or looking for posts at the side of the road and getting to the next one, then the next one (I often use this technique too).
  • I wrote about setting small targets in this post (“Owning the Mental Process”). This is a process whereby you target an object just up the road – say a sign post or something – and aim to reach it. You quickly look for the next target and bit by bit you make your way up the road. Often, I find the process of intensely concentrating on a small, reachable target distracts me from any discomfort I am feeling. I usually then regain strength and can tap out a good rhythm again.
  • [Ed: thanks to Will Buchan for this one!] Counting the number of riders you’ve passed.

If you’re hurting, you can put music on and concentrate on the music and spinning a nice fast tempo.

Having the correct gearing will remove your bike as a source of pain. I wrote a post about gearing for Etape, and another one about improving your climbing for Etape.

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by Tim Marsh

Tim is an ex Melbournite now living near Byron Bay on 10 acres, happily growing mangos, avocados and lots of other stuff, with his wife Kate, son Arthur and adorable Golden Retriever, Whiskey (RIP our 1YO G/R Poppins :( ).

1 comment… add one

  1. An article very interesting and well structured. I often untapped in several articles rather deep and clear, but never like this. Strange not to have found your article in portal that is becoming a real giant in topics like that.
    Another site I recommend is, more marked on the psychology, but it’s amazing how heavenmind.


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