Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coach's Tip: Mental Milestones

I wanted to write a piece on mental preparation and toughness, so I went to the toughest guy on the bike that I know. His name is Chris Ragsdale, and he holds the United States 24 hour endurance cycling record and won the Furnace Creek 508 endurance race in 2009:

Check out this video to see how Chris looked after the almost 32 hours of riding it took to set the World 1000 kilometer record last August 1st:

Chris looks happy, but I think he might have been too tired to smile!

This evening (01/22/2011) at 7 PM Chris Ragsdale is meeting a small group for a little night ride…of 150 miles. Yes indeed, I do think most of us could learn something from Chris. Perhaps not in terms of scientific training theory, as Chris doesn’t use any device (not even a basic bike computer) when he trains. This is a guy who listens to his body, and ignores pretty much all other stimuli.

Chris has absolutely convinced himself that every single thing he does makes him stronger. The day before we talked he had completed some physiological testing at Dr. Emily Cooper’s Seattle practice. Chris of course went at the testing 100%, and he told me that on that following evening he was going to be a couch potato. Chris declared, “I’m going to sit on the couch tonight and eat pizza. I know that this will make me stronger.”

When preparing for a big race, Chris uses a series of what he calls “Mental Milestones.” Mental Milestones are a series of increasingly more difficult tests on the bike. These tests are designed to provide Chris with positive feedback. According to Chris, “These milestones need to be difficult but achievable. There must be success at all cost and I have to feel really good about it.” And here is maybe the key, “I only use what serves me psychologically.”

Chris wants his Mental Milestones to be very physically challenging, yet he feels like he must be 100% successful in completing these tests. So it seems like Chris must walk a fine line. He has to really do something that is going to be punishing, but at the same time he knows he absolutely must finish the trial. To quote Chris, “I have to do these. I must be successful.”

Several of the early milestones may simply involve comparing himself to a strong cyclist he often rides with, but as time goes on the milestones become more specific.

Weeks 3-12 preceding a goal event are critical in terms of fitness conditioning. This period of time is often called the “Specialization Period.” Chris likes to complete his last and most difficult Mental Milestone three weeks before his big race. At this point in the game, failure is not an option. I asked Chris if he had ever failed the last test, and he simply said, “No,” and changed the subject. It’s easy to see just how confident Chris must be going into his races after sequentially polishing off his tests. It would kind of be like if Tiger Woods had won The Masters, as well as the U.S and British Opens before teeing it up in the PGA. I’d like his chances in the PGA.

Chris likes his last hurdle to be 50% of race distance at race pace. So if he is preparing for a 24 hour race where he expects to ride over 500 miles, then he’s gonna do 250 solo miles in less than 12 hours. Yes, solo, as in no drafting. And yes, 12 hours including any stops. I didn’t ask, but I’m betting that many of these little jaunts on the bike start in the evening and finish in the morning.

If your goal is to ride a century event by yourself in 10 hours, then maybe doing fifty miles in five hours is something you need to get done as your own last milestone. Two or three weeks before the event is almost too late to add any significant additional fitness, but it is a perfect time to pack in the mental toughness and confidence required. Before you get to the final test, perhaps you could have as a goal to beat your own personal record up a climb you regularly do. Or maybe beat someone who normally beats you up that climb! Don’t forget that a good training plan is obviously going to be necessary to give you the fitness to achieve a goal. If Chris is any indication, focusing on specific mental prep is just as important.

Champions are made of the kind of stuff that Chris so obviously possesses. I would imagine that many elite athletes at the top of his or her sport have a similar psychological strategy. What works for Chris must work for others, because Chris is definitely a champion. I wonder which piece of what puzzle tonight’s ride is designed to fit?

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