Competing as an athlete in any sport can often be a daunting challenge. Mountain biking can be particularly challenging, requiring potentially hours of travel to reach the race and limited time to learn and optimize performance on trails that may be completely unknown. How can we help our athletes optimize their race preparation? Here are five recommendations to get started:
#1 - Don’t Guess When It Comes To Nutrition, Be Certain!
There are many athletes who don’t prepare and plan for the food they are going to eat throughout the race weekend, which can quickly lead to suboptimal results. Early during the week of the race take an hour to plan out what you will eat, including snacks, from the moment you leave to the moment you get back home. If you will eat with the team, find out what is being offered and incorporate it into your plan; if the food is new and you don’t know how it may impact your performance (and GI tract!) it might be best to plan to bring your own food. Nothing is worse then finding out a food that does not work for you early into a race. Remember, a race is not the place to try new foods, only take things you are certain should work for you. If you would like some guidelines to follow use the following as you plan your foods:
#2 Pre-ride The Right Way
Pre-rides tend to be viewed as just another ride or, worse yet, a competition between teammates. The purpose of a pre-ride is to learn the course to the best of your ability without causing undue stress on the body. This means you should be looking for:
Where to eat AND drink…then practice it! Pick out distinct markers on course that indicate a good place for both and have athletes actually eat and/or drink a bit of what they will actually consume during the race. This helps solidify the habits before they have to go hard in the race.
Different line choices - We teach that there are three lines, the fun line, the safe line, and the race line. It is worth it to stop and discuss where these lines are on any sections that are difficult or where line choice may be important. Students should have an idea about the different line choices because they may need to utilize any of them. For example, a student who forgets to eat and is bonking should be taking the safe line (vs the race line) because they are mentally impaired and more likely to crash.
Selection points - these are features or points in the loop that will cause a pack to break up and where being in the right place will be important. For example, there is an Idaho course where early on the uphill there is a lower and upper single track line; the lower is loose dirt and grass making it substantially slower and something to avoid being on in the race.
Finally, remember to keep things easy for most of the ride. It is not a bad idea to have a couple, short but harder (not maximal) efforts but the rest of the ride should be easy enough to have consistent conversation.
#3 Recover Well
One of the hardest parts of NICA races is the tons of fun that happen while camping. This means it is very easy for athletes to pre-ride, forget to eat, then run around for a couple of hours and get to sleep much later than normal. All of this is setting them up for a difficult race because they are under-recovered. We can correct this by encouraging eating something directly after the pre-ride and discussing the importance of sleep to performance. Don’t squash all of the fun out of the experience (that is part of what makes NICA events so awesome!) but some education plus reminders can go a long way. If you have athletes who want to take race performance more seriously you could gather them as a group before the race weekend and discuss what needs they have for their weekend. Perhaps this means making sure that there is camping space for them to put up their spots on one side of your team area so that they can go to sleep earlier with less disturbance. Having these discussions early can help make the weekend a success on more than just the race performance front.
#4 Talk With Your Athletes
Not all athletes want an in-your-face amp-up speech from a coach, some just want to be left alone the day of the race. Make it a point to talk with the athletes you work the most with about what they feel that they need from you, and the team, to be prepared and have a good race. During the race weekend make sure to check in on athletes and see how they are doing. This can be highly impactful for athletes as some might be feeling anxious or fearful. Simply talking with them about their emotions and reminding them of the preparation they have done up to that point can do wonders to boost self-esteem and confidence.
#5 Keep It Fun And Focus On Intrinsic Goals
Many athletes show up at a race with a performance-oriented, extrinsic goal such as “I want to place top 5”. The issue with an extrinsic goal is that it inherently puts some aspects of success out of their control; random chance could strike with a broken chain or a sudden flat tire and remove all possibility of achieving the goal. Work to switch this to an intrinsic goal that they have control over that is in line with their overall objective. Perhaps part of what is holding them back from achieving better performance is their nutrition habits. Instead of the original goal, we could set goals such as “I will consume at least one full bottle of sports drink per hour” and “I will eat __[food product]__ at ___[trail points]__ each lap”. These are goals that the athlete can succeed at regardless of race outcome and they are a core component of setting up the habits needed for better race performance. Remember that the ultimate goal is to have fun. If you have an athlete that is just racing to be with their friends and could care less about race results then don’t push a need to focus on race results. We can still help them identify areas to improve on that align with their overall goal in cycling but keep in mind why they are in the sport. Finally, remember to check in with your athletes before and after the race about their goals. Regardless of the success or failure of the goal you should be able to pull out lessons to learn and use to improve future goals and objectives. I always prefer to have these discussions as a “goal succeeded and I learned ____” or “I learned ____ for the future”; there is no failure, just an opportunity to learn but you have to take the time to identify the lesson.
These five points are a great place to start with any athlete to help them find more success and enjoyment in their race weekends.
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