When you reach your limits during a workout, pushing through the mental discomfort can be as challenging as pushing through the physical discomfort. But just as your fitness can improve with training, so can your mental stamina. You can sustainably challenge and expand your limits with a growth mindset and incremental steps forward.
For more information on structured training check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 262.
Everyone Has Mental Limits
From the seasoned athlete to the beginner cyclist, everyone has mental limits. In training a mental limit is the sense of doubt you feel in your abilities when confronted with a challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone. When you reach your limit during a workout it can feel like your abilities are being challenged beyond what feels physically possible. But if you haven’t reached a point of failure, you might actually be up against a mental limit and not a physical limit.
Mental limits are challenging to work through but the good news is that you can improve your ability to confront and surmount them. By challenging your limitations in small and incremental ways you can steadily expand your abilities.
Strategies for Pushing and Finding Limits
Knowing how to sustainably challenge your limits is key to your long-term training. You don’t want to push yourself so hard that you dread every workout on your Calendar, but you also don’t want to play it safe to the point where you’re inhibiting your progress or downplaying your abilities. There should be a balance between pushing limits and knowing when your body needs a break.
Some of this comes with experience, but if you’re new to pushing your ceiling it’s best to start small and work on this process incrementally. Here are a few things you can start doing during your next challenging workout to sustainably push your limits.
Break Up the Interval
Sometimes looking ahead at all the work you have left can be intimidating. Instead of looking at the clock and seeing that you have minutes left, focus on taking the workout five seconds at a time or one interval at a time. Try counting down from five in your head, and repeating that over and over. Focus on taking the intervals one second at time and getting through as much as you can.
Repeat a Mantra
If counting doesn’t do the trick try repeating a mantra while you pedal through the remainder of the interval. The repetition of a mantra can ground you in a different thought process and bring you out of that place of doubt. Repeating a positive phrase is extra helpful.
If it helps to be more process oriented, cadence is a good place to turn your attention. Instead of focusing on how much time you have left or how much power you need to exert, focus on maintaining a smooth and quick cadence.
The mindset with which you approach your intervals is as important as the mindset you have during your intervals. Approaching challenging intervals with curiosity and enthusiasm as opposed to dread or fear goes much further than we give it credit for. It’s okay if not every interval is perfect, and it’s okay if you have to end a workout early. Being process-oriented with the expectation and understanding that you will improve with practice can make all the difference.
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Failed Workouts Happen
Pushing your limits doesn’t necessarily mean you should push through every single workout. In fact, an occasional failed workout is a normal part of training! When your fitness is assessed correctly and your workouts are adjusted proportionately, it’s okay if you can’t get through every challenging workout. There should be a healthy balance between testing your limits and listening to your body.
With that said, failed workouts also shouldn’t be a frequent part of your training. If you find yourself constantly needing to cut your workout short and bail out of intervals, your FTP may be set too high or you may be in the wrong training phase. These are easy fixes. If you ever find yourself in this situation take an FTP test or reassess your training plan with Plan Builder. Reassessing your training and your fitness keeps your workouts appropriately and productively challenging.
Listen to Your Body
None of this is to say that you can’t over do it during your workouts. If you find yourself consistently pushing too hard without sufficient rest, you could be overreaching. Overreaching isn’t something that happens in a single workout, but something that happens over a prolonged period of time. The key to avoiding overreaching or pushing too hard is listening to your body and giving it the rest it needs, when it needs it.
There’s an important difference between pushing your mental limitations and training too hard. When you’re fatigued and doing a workout that feels just too hard because you’re tired, it’s okay to hop off the bike and call it a day. Rest is as important as training, and pushing your limits doesn’t mean digging yourself into a hole.
Limits are Always Changing
Limits may never go away, but your ability to challenge them will improve. Every time you push through an interval after feeling as if you needed to stop, you’re bumping up against that limitation and pushing it a little further. Before you know it, the limit you had yesterday will be something you can tackle regularly without thinking twice. Your ability to challenge your limits will improve with practice, just like your fitness will improve with training.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.