Cleere’s Corner: Mental Plan + Physical Plan = Race Strategy

By Dr. Michelle Cleere

Are you the one that goes all out? Of course, you are. Are you the one that shatters a challenge? Yes, you sure have. Are you the one that strives to be better and better and better? Absolutely, you are!

I used to race. Friends who trained with me called me Lance Armstrong. Ha, I laughed. It was mainly because I’d climb hills with a vengeance. I remember the first time I climbed Mt. Diablo. I had no clue where the top was. I kept my head down, kept my cadence consistent, focused on my breath and kept saying, keep going. I just kept hammering my way up until I reached it. This was not an uncommon experience. I remember when I did the Donner Lake Triathlon for the first time. The elevation and climbing during that tri was crazy but I kept going even though my heart was beating out of my chest. When I lived in LA I would ride during the hottest part of the day, riding in my big gear regardless of the hills. Is that what I should do? Was I superhuman?

I wasn’t superhuman. I needed to develop my physical strategy for training and racing and a mental strategy… to make it work at its best and reach that peak.

Physical strategy

You may be thinking, of course I need a physical strategy, but you’d be surprised at how many cyclists don’t have one. A physical race strategy should be something you and the coach put together that guides you through the process of a race – start off moderate, hang toward the back of the lead pack, second lap pick up your cadence and the last lap is an all-out sprint. You can see this doesn’t include anything about the outcome of the race – times, numbers or places. If you stay present and follow your process, the outcome will be what you want it to be as long as you’ve trained and are being realistic.

A physical race strategy is one important piece of racing. Why? It helps to break down the race and gives your brain something to focus on but not too much to think about. Ensure you include 1-2 of your own realistic expectations in your race plan.

In my tri races, I’d have a race strategy much like the above example. Before a race, I would think about how I wanted to move through the race. For example, I will start my swim toward the middle outside of the pack, to make sure I start at a moderate pace and don’t go out too fast. Once I get a feel for the swells and where people are positioning themselves I will draft off someone who is just slightly faster then the pace I started…etc. I would do this for the swim, bike and run. It broke my race into pieces and gave my brain something to focus on in each segment.

Mental strategy

The other important piece of your race strategy is developing a mental race strategy. It’s great to lay out physical strategies because it gives your brain a job to do but what happens when you start feeling tired, someone passes you or your heart rate feels like it’s gone through the roof. Your brain will move away from it’s original job toward these other thoughts and feelings. This thinking is human nature, but you have to know how to deal with these moments otherwise the chance of them overtaking you, is pretty good.

For example, if today I plan for tomorrow’s workout, but I wake with a stiff back, it’s probably going to be difficult to think about anything else other than my stiff back. When you learn to train the brain to think better, to think differently, it will and it does.

Develop your mental race strategy

Once you have your physical race strategy planned out with 1-2 of your own expectations, it is time to tie in the mental pieces you want to work on during the race. This combination allows you to perform your best.

  • Ensure your MENTAL race strategy includes 1-2 of your own expectations; things you want to work on during the race. For example, when someone passes me I am going to keep pace (versus feeling defeated). When I see that first hill, I am going to say to myself, I can’t wait to climb it (versus oh, s&^% that’s a big one).

  • Think about the areas of a race where you struggle the most and develop a mental strategy to deal with those moments. For example, 10 minutes into any race my back would feel like it was going to break but I couldn’t focus on that particularly if I was doing an Ironman. I would focus on my breathing and on passing the person in front of me. I played a lot of leapfrog while I was racing.

  • Recognize the times during a race when do you need to energize. For example, I’d usually feel pretty good until mile 50 of a century ride but in mile 51, something would change, and I’d need energy. To gain energy, I’d use my mantra ‘this is mine for the taking’ and sometimes I’d do some speed intervals.

  • Consider the key moments in your ace when something doesn’t go your way and how you want to respond. You need to decide ahead of time. You need to have a plan, so you can react properly.

  • Know your weaknesses. Take them on and get excited about them!

  • Incorporate your mental and physical expectations into your race plan so that it’s all one.

  • When the physical and the mental come together, your best comes out

    Create your race strategy to include the mental and physical aspects of racing. You should include how you want to move through the race and 1-3 of your own expectations, physically and mentally. All of this gives you a way to organize and stay in the process of the race but also gives your brain something to focus on rather than focusing on the negative or difficult aspects of your race. Having this kind of a race strategy also helps you feel confident, like you know what you are doing. At the end of the race, if your time goal was realistic, you now have the best chance of meeting it. If you don’t quite meet it, but you’ve worked on what you set forth to work on during the race, you have those things to feel good about and to continue to practice and develop.

    1. On a personal note…Cycling wasn’t my full time athletic gig, but I did a lot of it while training for the numerous triathlons (sprint to Ironman distance) and centuries. Originally running was my strength out of the three triathlon disciplines but I grew to love cycling even more. Running was tough, but cycling was a different kind of tough but learning how to develop the right physical and mental strategies for me, seemed to bring with it much more satisfaction.

    Unfortunately, I don’t get much of a chance to cycle outdoors anymore. I miss it, but I still crank out quite a few miles every week on my Peloton. It’s not the same but I am still working as hard as I did when I was on the road and I still need my physical and mental strategies. This morning was a great example. I woke up feeling tired and heard a faint – maybe I won’t ride today – but quickly turned that into you’ve got this. As soon as I hop on, the music starts, my legs start moving and I see the leaderboard, I shift into another mode and off I go. It’s in these moments that I turn being tired into motivation and excitement for being able to do it.


    Dr. Michelle

    Elite Performance Expert

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