Spring is a time of year many of us look forward to—the days are getting longer, temperatures are warming, and cyclists throughout the northern hemisphere begin the migration from the basement to the road, eager to build upon their aerobic bases with everyone’s best friend: threshold intervals!
Intervals—especially longer intervals, or ones done at threshold intensity or above—are hard, and they are supposed to be. One of the hidden aspects of completing something like a threshold interval, and completing it well, is honing the focus to get through the entire interval without any mental lapses or breaks in concentration. Today’s data and technology-centric riding universe leaves us no shortage of potential distractions: Whether it is becoming overly focused on the display on your cycling computer, or becoming too reliant on music to distract you from the difficulty of the effort. More than anything else, these distraction are serving to disconnect us from ourselves—losing that connection with our own bodies in those moments of prolonged effort. Learning the sensations of what “hard” feels like is just as important the physiological adaptations of completing the intervals—after all, you are unlikely to gauge your effort in a race by what your head unit is telling you.
Maybe this sounds familiar: you have a set of 20-minute intervals on the agenda. You warm up, hit the lap button on your cycling computer, and start drilling it on the bike. You look down at the computer and, bingo, power is right at in the threshold range. You keep on, and a minute or two later you look down to check back in, only to see power has dipped a little bit, so you surge a little bit, get your power back on track. A couple minutes later, the same sequence plays itself out: power is lagging a little bit, and you surge to get back into the range, and maybe to help drag the interval’s average back up a little bit. A few minutes later, same thing. And this pattern repeats itself until you get to the end of the interval at which point you push through the last few minutes after what felt like one of the longest 20-minute periods of your life.
This is a great example of riding with our heads instead of our bodies. Riding with that kind of anxiety and judgement about “Am I doing this well?” or “Am I strong enough?” only serves to distract you from your effort and take you out of the moment. Instead of letting yourself get distracted or worried during your interval, try focusing on riding in the moment, starting with focusing on your breathing. Long efforts at threshold or just sub-threshold—like Sweet Spot or High Tempo—should still allow for steady breathing. Next time you are starting such an interval, try focusing on the rhythm of your breath, make sure you’re inhaling and exhaling as deeply as the effort will allow, and try counting exhalations, seeing how high you can count—starting over if you get off track during your count at all. As thoughts enter your mind, observe them and let them pass without engaging them and without judgement, as if they were a car that just passed you during the ride, then return to the focus on your effort. You can let yourself check in on your progress to make sure your effort is within the right ranges, but try to limit yourself to at most every 5-minutes or so. As you gain feel for that consistent, focused effort, you’ll find yourself needing to check your Garmin less and less often. And without your power ebbing and flowing through those lapses and surges as before, the more consistent effort will easily produce higher overall power numbers, and more effective overall intervals.
By practicing this kind of focused attention to your effort, you should gain a better sense of what “hard” feels like, and you’ll be better able to gauge your efforts in future races, knowing where your limit is and how long you can push yourself before you actually run out of gas. You will gain valuable insight into you own riding, and hopefully make those long efforts seem a little bit more manageable next time your Bell Lap Coach writes them into your schedule.