Anxiety, depression and structured training

Hi everyone,

To begin, cycling is not my first sport. I have a background of running but have never actually been interested in competing in any races (I have ran marathons, but not competitively). I still have no desire to race, and I believe one of the reasons for this is the crippling anxiety I get from racing.

Over the years, I have read too much about how to structure training. Hard sessions, intensity distribution etc and have been following self made training plans for running. After all of this time, I have experienced bad anxiety before any harder training session but pushed on anyway.

Now I am injured, and have been since the start of the year. Physical activity is an essential part of my life for my mental and physical health, and ended up getting a turbo trainer earlier this year to cross train using the bike instead.

I began following TR programs to maintain as much muscular and cardiovascular fitness as possible, and still have the anxiety issue before each harder session. Even just sweetspot or tempo sessions give me this feeling and I’ve finally burned out and can no longer bring myself to do these sessions, leading to feelings of guilt and more anxiety.

I feel I need structure and know how to structure a good week of training. Every now and again, I get motivated to follow the structure, but the structure also seems to give me anxiety, burn me out and I end up giving up because of my mental issues.

Again, I am not interested in racing. I would like to be fit enough to ride long distances and take part in gran fondos etc without getting dropped. I feel I need structure, but in an unstructured way that doesn’t lead to these anxious feelings or burnout. I want to be able to train day after day without too much stress and fatigue.

I have tried just riding 2 hours a day for example, but end up feeling guilty that I could / should be pushing myself harder, doing intervals etc because of everything I’ve read and know about structured training, and how terrible it supposedly is to ride / train ‘kind of hard’ every day.

I’ve tried to do what I enjoy. I like long, steady riding and climbing (longer climbs, not eye popping short vo2 efforts) , but I’m not sure how to plan my rides for the week. Would it be bad to climb every day for example? I feel like interval training won’t be sustainable for me in the long term, especially since I just want to be able to stay as fit as possible and ride daily and enjoy it. Increasing ftp further would be nice, but only to make my daily riding and riding with groups easier.

Have any of you had similar experiences to mine or have any advice? I’m afraid to let go of such rigid, structured plans but at the same time feel they aren’t good for my mental health. Would I lose much fitness or be too fatigued riding for example 2-3 hours in zone 2 (with some z3) , 6 days a week? I know I’m likely over complicating things here.

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  1. You might want to consider speaking with a therapist, assuming you aren’t already.

  2. If you’re getting into your head too much before hard workouts, then spend some time only doing hard workouts spontaneously. Ex: you feel like going for a KOM on Strava, you do a group ride or chill race on Zwift. Then look back at your power output, see what you did, then find a workout in TR that has a similar power/time for the interval and do that, knowing that you’ve already successfully done it. Also, consider doing workouts that are multiple zones, not just a set of difficult intervals. Something like z2 for a while, ramp up into threshold for a few minutes, back to z2, etc. Basically, anything you can do to expose your brain to hard efforts in a way that won’t trigger your anxiety immediately.

  3. Personally, I’ve found weightlifting to be helpful with anxiety around hard intervals.

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Two hours per day is a fair amount of training even if it was pure zone 2 training.

I’ve had similar experiences of having dealt with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. How that affects intervals varies depending on a few things. The two that come to mind are when my fitness is high it’s less of an issue b/c the numbers can be motivating (but the opposite can happen, too, unfortunately). The second is that I find certain types of workouts annoying; the ones which come to mind are workouts with sloping intervals, if I can I’ll change those to something with on/off intervals (ie, something like McAdie instead of carpathian peak or eclipse instead of geiger).

Also I’ve gravitated towards more Z2 training over time as it requires less mental effort (usually) and saving harder training for when I’m more motivated.

Hey @Isobel_Thomas,

You are definitely not alone in these feelings. Sometimes these feelings can originate from perfectionistic thoughts or ideas. When we do hard things, we encounter the possibility of “failure”; the perfectionists’ worst nightmare. Since these feelings seem to be impacting your day-to-day life, it might help to find a professional to talk to, as @cnidos helpfully mentioned.

As many athletes have, I have struggled with self-limiting perfectionistic thoughts. I came to learn that changing my self-talk and perception of what success and failure are, was helpful ( although not an easy thing to do). Truly understanding our “why” for training can help guide you toward more productive thought patterns.

For example, “training gives me the opportunity to learn about myself and my body”, will cultivate different emotions than “training tells me how fit I am”.

Adjusting our approach to training from a place of judgment to a place of curiosity can alleviate some of those perfectionistic thoughts and, thus anxiety.

It may be that previous Training Plans were too intense and not customised to your unique abilities, leaving you feeling defeated/ burned out. It also sounds like you need flexibility at the moment.

A structured Training Plan could help prevent you from second-guessing yourself. Adaptive Training acknowledges that life happens! If you skip a workout or reduce the intensity of any given workout (for whatever reason), your Training Plan will adapt to ensure that your training is at an appropriate level to keep you progressing at a rate that suits your individual needs. If you don’t feel like pushing hard one day, you can simply move the Workout to a different day or skip it altogether.

You may wish to start with just a Base phase Plan to re-familiarise yourself with following a Plan without the added physical stress of “eye-popping” threshold workouts.

My DM’s are also always open if you want to bounce some ideas around. Take care of yourself :hugs:

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I fully get the anxiety before harder sessions. It made me stop structured training before. I also think that a lot of what you read from other people about having to push yourself all the time is wrong and not sustainable. For me, it’s much better to finish a session with the feeling of having something left, so I feel motivated of doing it again the next day.

I also think you don’t need tl follow a structured program with defined intervals, but can build your intervals into your outside rides. For example, do a day with 2-3 15 min climbs at threshold. Another day find a short 1min climb, and do it over and over again. Or ride a long climb as fartlek - power to the next corner, then easy spinning etc.

If you train yourself, and don’t have fixed goals, you can just do your progression without planning. Just do a little bit more than you did in the last similar ride (a 20min threshold climb instead of 15min, for example). Not having something planned out long term helps with anxiety for me, and if you don’t need to communicate with a coach, just having a vague idea of what to do is fine I think (obviously you need to be honest with yourself).

Also regarding races - for me, entering a race early gives me anxiety and absolutely kills my motivation. I’d much rather train first, amd if I feel good, then enter a race. The whole “set a goal” thing really doesn’t work for me. It’s much more motivating to focus on the small steps and the general progress.

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Thank you for being vulnerable - I think people sharing their struggles helps others of us know that we are not alone or unique when dealing with our own challenges.
Due to various life challenges I haven’t had the mental or emotional energy to commit to a training plan for the past year or two. That was difficult for me - I was concerned about losing the fitness that I had worked hard in the previous years for, and that I would be ‘slow’, even though I was never that fast to begin with.
I have managed to stay consistent, and mainly do lots of zone 2 workouts, trying to be a little below my aerobic threshold. I mix in some sweetspot workouts when I feel like it, and a very occasional threshold or VO2 max workout. My fitness has not really declined that much, and I can still do the long rides I enjoy doing. I plan to return to more structured training, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have come to be at peace with that.
For me I think my desire to ‘maximize the effectiveness’ of the time on my bike has led me to choose trainer rides over outdoor rides, at the cost of missing out on the joy of riding outdoors. I’m working on adjusting my priorities and getting outside more, even if the rides are ‘less productive’.
I would encourage you to take the risk of losing a small amount of fitness, and do the type of riding that you enjoy. If you are doing 12+ hours of Z2 riding a week you will still be quite fit. Try not to worry about the type of riding you “should be” doing, and enjoy the type of riding you want to do.

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Thank you, I really appreciate this response. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I plan to do this, it’s just so difficult to do what almost everyone else advises against. Do you worry about things like time in zone or interval length when you do your sweetspot days? I do worry about accumulating too much fatigue and am notoriously bad at listening to my body. Thanks :slight_smile:

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I try not too worry too much about that. I’m getting ‘older’ (50), and I’m finding that I really need 2 days to recover from a hard SS day, and I’m reminded of this when I think I don’t need it :slight_smile:
The tricky thing for me in regard to the SS days is that it’s hard for me to know what is an appropriate SS workout. When I’m feeling motivated to do a SS, I do try to do one with longer intervals. I sometimes bite off more than I am prepared for based on remembering what I have done in the past. I’ll sometimes pick one from ‘train now’, or also the “more sweetspot” team has great SS progressions to choose from.
I do the SS infrequently enough that the train now decay seems to under-estimate what is appropriate.
My workout mix is quite limited, but it’s a routine that works for me.
I’ve really had to let go of my cycling performance goals and focus on other aspects of my life. I still really like to ride and sometimes ride hard, but I’m mostly at peace about maintaining fitness rather than improving it.

Thanks, I would also be perfectly happy to just maintain my fitness. My self estimated ftp based on Xert and rpe during threshold and sweetspot workouts is around 4w/kg, which I’m happy with and would be more than happy to maintain if I could do so using an unstructured and fun approach. I do tend, when I do a SS workout, to go for longer intervals as I feel that’s where the main endurance benifits come and actually kind of enjoy sweetspot when doing it, if I’m feeling fresh. But the fatigue seems to hit me not one, but 2 days later usually. I will try to listen to my body more in this regard.

Also running out of sweetspot workouts to do on those days I feel like doing some kind of session so thanks for suggesting the sweetspot team!

Some caveats on my experience:

  • I never had much top end/sprint/snap, so I didn’t have much to lose here. I think this type of fitness would suffer most from doing mostly zone 2.
  • I’m at about 3.25 W/kg, so much lower than your fitness level, which likely made it easier for me to maintain my fitness than it may be for yours. I do think however than maintaining fitness generally takes less stimulus than gaining it.

I hope your cycling brings you more joy and less anxiety in the future, however fast you ride.

This is not medical or professional advice just something interesting I’ve read about while dealing with my own depressive state recently.

There’s some research out there that suggest some people, prior to an anxiety inducing activity, benefit from getting “excited” instead of anxious by trying to “calm down”.

Your body is excited to perform! Think of yourself as a fighter about to enter the ring bouncing from foot to foot. Your body is saying “let’s effing goooo!!!”. You’re not anxious, you’re excited. Don’t fight it, lean in.

Getting Excited Helps with Performance Anxiety More Than Trying to Calm Down, Study Finds

“When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.”

That all being said you might want to see a counselor. I’ve had some serious issues with depression this year effecting personal relationships as well as work. And while I’m still struggling but getting help I’ve stopped cycling all together. The last few times I rode (no training just trying to ride “for fun”) earlier in the Summer resulted in me basically being in tears. Tears of frustration and anger and despair. It’s embarrassing to be a grown man who can’t get out of his own way.

This is to say please take care of yourself, please don’t be afraid to ask for help seek professional assistance don’t wait too long. Better to get out in front of it. Maybe just go talk to someone and get it out in the open you know? There’s that saying “monsters live in dark” and it’s very true.

I hope you can get some healing and peace and really enjoy your activities again!

Take care!

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Really great responses here so far, all of which I’d echo.

An extra +1 for seeing a counsellor/therapist, even if you think it’s just for a few sessions to make sure you’re on the right track.

It might not be a bad idea to make sure you choose someone who also has experience with endurance sport, or even someone who works as a sports psychologist or similar. 2hrs x 6 days a week is an awful lot for an awful lot of people, and while endurance sports are really effective at helping to treat anxiety and depression, the early symptoms of overtraining/overreaching can also be very similar to those of anxiety and depression. Depending on how recently (and potentially how often) you’ve had a proper reset / rest and recovery period, that might be something to factor into a conversation with a qualified professional who will be able to assess your individual history and current needs.

Good on you for confronting it, recognising the problem is half the battle. In periods of anxiety I find trying to complete multiple harder sessions per week just compounds the problem. My nervous system is jacked up enough already, without activating it further with more intensity.

If you’re doing 10-14 hours a week already you’ll get plenty fast with just a little intensity, you don’t need to be crushing yourself three times a week. At this time of the year especially, there’s not a whole lot of need for much intensity. Even once a week, or once every couple of weeks, is plenty. Dropping the intensity might let you unload some anxiety and put you in a better place to take on more intensity in the spring, so you could be in good form for the summer.

I’ve found the Traditional base plans useful, they’re pretty relaxing, many of the workouts have sprints in them that you can take or leave. You could follow that up with the polarised plans, some of the workouts are difficult but you only have 2 hard workouts a week, compared to 3 for most of the other plans. You could even drop one of the hard workouts if you liked.

I train similar hours to you 10-14 hours (though multi sport). I plan on doing a couple of months of little to no intensity. When I get later into the plans I always drop one hard workout a week. I find I get no benefit for the third session, and get skittish after a few weeks, and then get burned out if I try to keep pushing.

As some have mentioned above, it would be worth talking to someone about it if you can. Investigate if your work or college provide supports. Best of luck with the training.

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Thanks! This makes me wonder if raised cortisol or some other physiological response to a lot of intensity might exacerbate anxiety / jittery feelings further. For now, I’ll try to just focus on easy endurance paced training and only add a bit of intensity in the form of intervals once or twice a week, and only if I’m feeling up to it. I’ll see how this goes, but it’s always difficult for me to stick to my own plans and to trust myself. Thanks for the advice. I’ll look to base my weeks similar to TB and polarised plans when / if I feel able to follow a more structured approach :slight_smile:

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