A Woman’s Guide to Racing – Part 5
Are you ready to race?
So, you’ve done the training, entered the races, got your licence (if required) and your first race is fast approaching. But how do you prepare for your first event? Here is my survival guide to getting ready for racing…
1) “No Licence, No Helmet, NO RIDE!”
Those words never fail to fill me with fear – I go into a massive panic and start searching through my bag about five times to check I’ve got both of them. It’s a bit like going on holiday when you’re rushing around at the last minute looking for your passport and tickets. Take it from me – do as I say, not as I do – and get a list together (see below).
Obviously, if you’re riding a time trial you won’t need your British Cycling licence (unless it’s the National Championships), but I keep everything together so that they go everywhere with me – I get too confused otherwise!
2) Packing your bag
So, we’ve got two essential items for your list already – helmet and licence – but what else should you take? Here’s a few more items that you should always have with you when turning up for a race:
- Cycling kit for racing (if you’re going to get changed when you arrive)
- Long sleeve jersey to warm up in (sometimes called “track tops”)yc
- Leg warmers
- Arm warmers
- Rain cape (or jacket) – these three items are to help you in inclement weather – I’ve seen far too many people turn up to races in short sleeves and shorts when it is freezing – look after yourself and invest in some arm warmers – you’re worth it!
- “Start sheet” – if there is one available – print it out off the internet if the organiser doesn’t send you one in the post so that you know where the headquarters are (it does help!)
- Cycling shoes and socks
- Track mitts or full gloves (depending on the weather) – you want to ensure your hands are protected in case you come off
- Safety pins – for the race number that you will be given (trust me, you can never have enough safety pins!)
- Food for during the race – whether this be energy gels, energy bars or sweets!
- Drink for during the race
- Drink and food for AFTER the race – remember you will need to rehydrate and refuel before starting the journey home
- Hair bobble and a brush (if you have long hair)
- Towel and toiletries for getting changed post-event
- Plastic bag for your used kit
- Clothes for post-race (can be forgotten if you’ve travelled in your cycling kit!)
- Change for donation box for post-race cake and tea
Whilst I am at it, you may want to have a think about the bag you’re going to use for your kit. I spent 18 months lugging a 90 litre cargo bag to races with me, but I could never find anything as it was all dumped in the one compartment and it was also pretty heavy. In the end, I swapped it for a holdall with wheels (I couldn’t afford a posh one) but it has loads of pockets and now I can find everything!
3) Check out the Race Headquarters in advance
The beauty of living in the 21st century is that you can look at where the race HQ is in advance, using the internet. Some headquarters are better than others and unfortunately, some can be somewhat lacking in space to get changed. So, it can sometimes be worth being at least half ready before you set off to the event, depending on how far you have to travel. Otherwise, be prepared mentally for the concept of having to get changed in a toilet cubicle, or in the car under a towel. Luckily, some places have really good facilities nowadays where that isn’t a problem, but there are still some village halls that are a bit worse for wear.
In addition, if you plan your trip in advance, so that you know where you’re going and how long it will take, that will take a lot of anxiety away so that you can concentrate on getting totally psyched up for the event in question instead.
Finally on this point, and this is especially important if you are riding a time trial – check out how far the HQ is from the circuit! The general rule of thumb is that you must sign on at least an hour before you are due to ride, but if there is a 20 to 30 minute ride from the HQ to the circuit (which can happen a lot in time trials), make sure you factor in that time in addition to the time it will take you to get ready – the last thing you want to do is set off too late and miss your start time (yes, I learn from my mistakes)!
4) Check your equipment in advance
The last thing you want to do is travel all the way to a race, only to find that your gears don’t work/you’ve got a flat tyre, etc. So check your bike works properly in advance. Either pump your tyres up in advance (one of the last jobs before putting the bike in/on the car) or take the track pump with you if you have room in the car and pump them up when you arrive (make sure you have enough time to do this). If you’re using a computer or heart rate monitor which needs to be charged, make sure you charge it in advance and don’t forget your heart rate monitor belt if you are going to use one. Make sure all the lids are on your bottles properly (you do not want half a litre of energy drink spilling over the back of your car, trust me).
5) Are you mentally prepared?
Good question. You may think that you are, or you may be absolutely bricking it. In any case, I have drafted in Huw Williams of lafuga.cc to give you some advice on how to prepare yourself mentally for the race:
Where’s your head at?
“Psychology has long been known to be a key factor in athletic performance but recent successes by our cyclists at elite level in the Olympics has fired it into the forefront of our thinking. High profile wins by riders like Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton have highlighted personal mental issues overcome on the way to hitherto unconquerable targets and British Cycling’s chief sports psychiatrist Steve Peters has received almost celebrity author status for his work with metaphorically mental chimpanzees that all too readily pop out of their cages when you least need them too and scupper your best laid plans.
“At more modest grass-roots racing level, psychology is more often overlooked, but along with the other key demands of racing, physiological, technical and tactical conditioning, Developing riders’ confidence so that they can manage performance states successfully is an important objective.
“When it comes to a race you can be the most skilled tactician, best bike handler and the fittest rider on the grid, but if you’re a quivering, nervous wreck when the gun goes, and can’t implement any of your skills in the race, you aren’t going to perform. So whatever level you race at, psychology should play an important part of your training. In the same way that your climbing technique or your power or your tactical awareness needs to be trained, so does your mental state. Think of it as developing ‘mental toughness.’
To help you do this here are a few basic truths:
1) Sports Psychology is not Witchcraft or some new-age magic
2) Mental skills, like physical skills have to be mastered over time
3) Mental skills, like physical skills need to practiced in training before being implemented into competition
4) Mental skills, like technical skills are an integral part of training and preparation
“As stated at the start of this article, there is a much greater awareness of the role that sports psychology plays in sporting achievement these days but success is not exclusively the preserve of riders with a strong mindset. Many other factors, some listed above, might contribute to the fact that even the most mentally tough rider might not win a race on a given day. What we concern ourselves with when looking at mental toughness is our own ability to perform at the highest level we are capable of and to do it consistently. Much else is beyond our control and not worth worrying about (and that in itself is a concept that many riders find it hard to get their heads around). For this reason, developing control of the emotional state in order to be able to perform optimally is often of more value than setting specific event goals. “I am going to win this race” is a positive mindset but any number of factors beyond your control might make this unachievable, whereas “I am going to perform the best I can” is completely within your control.
“Sports psychology is a vast area of study. As an example, pride of place on my bookshelf at home are two excellent industry standard textbooks published by Human Kinetics. The first is ‘The Physiology of Sport and Exercise’ and the second is ‘Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology.’ The psychology text is three times the thickness of the physiology text and also has an extensive online ‘further study guide’. I mention this as an example of how understanding the human mind and how to train it is a vastly more complex issue than understanding the human body and how to train it. There are no quick fixes here and given the individual character traits that differ widely from rider to rider, you’ll understand the complexity and scale of trying to cover the subject in great depth here is next to impossible. Instead we’ll look at a couple of areas most likely to be of benefit to the novice racer and how you can improve your mental state. The first is preparation and the second is performance.
“Observing the pre-race ritual of a road race is a coaches’ dream. You get to witness a myriad of different responses to what is about to take place indicating the different emotional states of the riders. At a recent race in Kent there were girls staring fixedly down the track lost in their thoughts while others were laughing and chattering away at high speed to anyone who would listen. One girl was nervously sipping form a bottle every 5 seconds barely returning it to the cage long enough before taking it out again for another drink. Some were even doing last minute stretches while straddling the bike, waiting for the off. Clearly the emotional states of these riders was hugely varied, each had their own ways of preparing and coping with the anxiety of what was about to come. So what’s right?
“The key to consistently performing well is preparation. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ a number of times and although it’s something of a cliché its certainly a reasonable mantra for a novice racer. And although we’re talking primarily about mental development in this feature, ‘mental toughness’ isn’t just mental. It’s also being physically prepared and emotionally in control. If you’re on the line knowing that you are in peak physical condition and you’ve practiced all your technical skills then you know you are in a position to perform at your highest level. You can use this knowledge to control your emotional state in a number of ways.
“Firstly is the use of imagery or ‘visualization’. Imagery is a highly powerful tool in developing confidence and you can use it boost your performance. Let’s say you’re working on your bike handling by doing cornering drills. You work at it by repeatedly cornering at increasing speeds until you develop the ability to do it well over and over again. Before each pass, stop and take a few moments to ‘see’ yourself doing it properly. What’s your perfect road positioning and line through the bend? What’s your ideal bodyweight distribution like through the corner? Where are your optimal braking and acceleration points? Are you looking ahead through the bend. Ingrain this image of what you, doing the perfect corner looks like, and visualize yourself doing it perfectly before each time you practice a corner.
“Let’s face it if you see somebody on the start line of a race staring fixedly down the track and talking to themselves you’re probably thinking they’re a bit nuts and one to avoid when the gun goes. But far from being the first sign of madness, whether you do it out loud, under your breath or in your head, talking to yourself can be a great way to focus the mind. Negative thoughts, distractions and Steve Peter’s chimps invariably start to infiltrate your thoughts at times of high stress like before a race, but self talk can be a great way to turn your thoughts back to positives. So you might look apprehensively at the rider with full aero-wheelset and tanned legs next to you and instead of the negative thought that “she looks a bit good” tell yourself “I’m looking forward to the challenge of competing against this rider as I have prepared well and if I concentrate on doing what I need to do I will be fine.” Or another example, we all have a particular section of road (usually a hill) or element of a training session that we struggle with, so instead of saying to yourself “I’m coming up to the part of the ride that always defeats me” say to yourself “I look forward to another chance of beating that hill/interval whatever.” Self talk is a highly valuable method of turning negative thoughts that can undermine your emotional state into a very positive mindset.
“Both Imagery and self talk are great techniques to get into a positive mindset pre-race, but even if you are the best rider at controlling your emotional state and getting your mind attuned to what is about to take place, if everything falls apart when the action starts all those pre-race coping strategies count for nothing. Racing, especially in the grass-roots categories is a very chaotic affair. To the inexperienced rider, the constantly changing shape of the peleton due to random attacks, riders getting dropped and high intensity surges, is highly confusing. The lack of any recognisable pattern often leaves those unprepared for it unable to make any conscious decision as to how to react to any given situation until its too late – they’ve missed a break or are in totally the wrong position and unable to contest the final sprint. It’s option paralysis, a state where when faced with so many choices you are so confused that you make none.
“There is a lot of very fast decision-making to be done in road racing so remaining calm amidst this chaos is essential if you are going to be able to make the correct calls and this is something that needs to be learned. Force yourself to look at yourself when you are racing and examine your emotional state. Are you so tense that you’re bending the handlebars in a white-knuckle death grip in anticipation of the next attack – or are you so laid back rolling along in the middle of the pack that you wouldn’t even notice if a break went let alone be able to respond to it. Your mental state is key to how well you perform and the decisions you make during the race and if you’re overwhelmed by the chaos around you, you won’t perform at your best.
“One coping strategy is implementing the classic “if, then” strategy, a simple but effective means of pre-identifying certain scenarios (the problem) which you then react to in a pre-determined way (the solution). So you might have identified a strong rider in the early laps of a race or from previous events and your strategy would be “if that rider attacks, then I will go with her” decision made, no confusion. Likewise if you know you are going well on a certain day your strategy might be “If I am in the lead group with 5 laps to go, then I will launch a solo attack at the top of the climb.” Again, all confusion about if and when you should attack removed. Having a few of these pre-ingrained strategies in place can greatly reduce your state of anxiety during the race. The chances are that some completely unexpected scenario will occur to scupper your intention and make you revise the plan but that in itself could be part of your “if, then” coping strategy; “If something happens that I am not prepared for, then I will not panic but remain calm and quickly re-evaluate my race plan.”
“Practice the above techniques in the areas of preparation and performance and instead of worrying about what the race might hold and underperforming you now have a preparation strategy whereby you visualise yourself doing the right things and can talk your mind into the correct place, as well a good basic race-plan that anticipates certain scenarios and how you will react to them, your first small steps to improving your mental toughness.”
Thanks to Huw Williams for the above, it is useful for every racer – male or female.
Finally, my thanks to Ed Rollason of Ed Rollason Photography www.edrollasonphotography.co.uk for the photos.
Next week will be my final article in the series – Race Day! In the meantime, enjoy riding your bike and stay safe.
Click below to read:
Part One – Where Do I Start?
Part Two – What Do I Enter?
Part Three – What training should I do?
Part Four – Practice! Practice! Practice!
Part Six – Race Day
Part Seven – Circuit Racing