Good days on a bad ride

Our trusty correspondent from the planet Mxyzptlk recently drafted this most excellent piece of training advice and disseminated it to members of the Flog spam list newsletter. It was so good I thought I’d re-post it here; it’s applicable to every miserably hard regular group ride or training race that you do.

Based on 3+ years’ experience doing the local Flog ride, it’s excellent advice.


To Flog, or not to Flog? Just a few weeks into the 2019  Flog season, and, already, this is the question.

It is 5:00 AM.

Dark.

Cold.

Possibly raining.

You are miles from the start at Malaga Cove.

It will be a long, miserable ride there.

You will arrive to enjoy six fun-filled laps, during which you will be mercilessly flogged, to no apparent purpose.

Pulling a shift on a trireme as a galley slave is starting to sound good right about now. And then, there is your pillow, gently whispering “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!,” and maybe even playing this song in your ear.

I have never claimed to like the Flog. In fact, I would tell anybody who asked that it was my least favorite ride, ever. That I dreaded it. Got pre-Flog anxiety every Wednesday, and was never sure I wouldn’t back out of until I actually arrived at the fountain on Thursday morning at 6:35 AM, pointy-sharp.

For some reason, it isn’t as fun as some other rides. No, that isn’t right. It isn’t fun at all. NPR starts at the same time Thursdays, but because you are going fast, it’s a blast. Oh, and you can hide in the group, and if you get shelled you just catch your breath, cut the course, and hop in with the group when it comes swarming by on the other side of the Parkway. They’re called “hop-in wankers” for a reason.

On those other rides, few know if you are hanging on for dear life. There is anonymity in the back third. And getting sucked along by a 60-strong peloton, if you have the basic fitness you don’t haveto go hard if you decide you don’t want to.

No such luck at the Flog. As Yoda said, “There is no hide.” Your struggles and place in the hierarchy are known, and rarely improve. Where is the reward for all this humiliation, droppage, and pain?

No one loves the Flog

A few people over the course of the  three years I have been doing the Flog have claimed to love the ride. These proclamations amount to a kiss of death. When anyone starts claiming to love the Flog, and begins gushing testimony to the ride’s training effect, it is a guarantee that that person will quit the ride within weeks. No one who is doing this ride and intends to continue doing it can develop feelings of love for it. If you do, you will for sure not be around in a month or two.

But you can learn to embrace it, with all its unlovability, using some Jedi mind tricks. Let me share them with you, though, like the Flog itself, the explanation is long, painful, and hard to endure.

When I first started flogging in 2016 I was new to cycling, had only very recently graduated from tennis shoes to cleats, and had never even heard of “group rides.” To say that I had a hard time on the Flog would be an understatement. I finished each lap as part of the group Michelle Landes called “ The Caboose,” meaning the very last couple of riders to finish the lap. Every lap was an immersion into intense self-flagellation, my single hope being simply not be the last rider in the caboose to arrive at the regroup.

Even pedaling hard as I could, tasting blood in my throat, I still came in last by a fair margin at least half the time.

Doing worse isn’t progress

I went home all that first year extremely defeated, never feeling like I was getting any better, never looking forward to being part of the Flog and facing my lack of cycling fitness gasping for air in the country club parking lot.

I did 2017 much the same way, never feeling like I was making any progress, with little sense of accomplishment week in and week out. I continued to go, however, because taking time away from the Flog never translates into less defeat; you only get further behind with each week that you miss. But when 2018 rolled around and I was facing another year of the Flog, and many mornings of cold dread, I decided to change my relationship with this ride.

I looked at my strengths and weaknesses and decided to focus on only one of them for the whole year. My nemesis on this particular ride had always been the first bump on PV Drive North. I could never even come close to staying with the leaders on that bump and always crested the top with an insurmountable distance between myself and all the other riders.

However, I was always able to make up some ground on the next section, the climb to the golf course. In 2018, I focused only on trying to stay with the lead group up that first hill, and that was it. This meant that I was going to have to abandon any hope of making up ground on the second section, as well as any attachment to where I finished after each interval. I had to give up the racing aspect of the ride, because staying with the lead group on that first hill was going to leave me unable to do anything but blow up once I reached the top.

Instead, I gained small victories each week by staying with the group further and further up the hill, until finally, I was able to stay with them the whole length of the climb just one time.

Let me tell you how that felt, after three years of getting shelled at the start of each lap, then finally hanging: It was amazing.

Eventually, I was able to do it more than once per flogging, as the ride consists of six laps, and then three times, until by the end of the year I was consistently staying with the main group up the climb on almost every lap, and sometimes even having a little energy to push the pace again somewhere near the end of the lap.

Instead of going home from every ride feeling defeated and like I was not making any progress, I went home feeling good about my efforts and improvements, even though staying with the group on that initial climb cost me so much energy that I still sometimes  finished the lap in last place.

Compartmentalizing your gains

By breaking down my goals into small victories I was able to change my feelings towards the ride. I found a way to make each ride a reward. Being able to approach the ride with personal goals instead of as a race to not be last,freed me from the defeat that plagued my commitment to the ride, and allowed me to look forward to going, regardless of how I did within the scheme of the Flog hierarchy each week.

There are real, neurological underpinnings for leveraging motivation in this way, and they are tied to activating reward centers in the brain. One is referred to as Go/No Go learning, which operates on both the Pavlovian and operant levels,  whereby you choose to do or not do something based on the probability of a positive or negative outcome. There are multiple ways in which this works, but the two most favorable conditions to learning and motivation are “Go” outcomes as opposed to “no go” outcomes. In other words, seeking reward in the framework of “Go to win” or “Go to not lose” (both are coded as a reward by your brain), makes you ride better.

Through activation of  specific parts of the brain, people learn better under conditions of reward, so viewing any action as a potential reward as opposed to punishment or failure will ultimately lead to better learning and higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Can you say dopamine?

There are multiple ways this Jedi mind trick can be done:

Create a reward scenario for yourself when things come out better than expected. Often I am exhausted with sore muscles from demands of my job, which impacts my cycling performance. I used to avoid hard rides when I felt that way, because I didn’t want to face a poor performance. Now, I go out and ride anyway and view the outcome through the lens of riding better than expected under the conditions, so I can go to a ride and feel good about what I accomplished, even if it was not as strong as the week before. Why? Because my frame of reference has converted failure into a reward.

Push your reward further out in time. Make your goals based not on this February or March, but as far out as the last week of the ride in August, as I did when I focused on accomplishing just that one aspect of fitness for the whole year.

Make your reward simply the act of showing up in order to maintain the fitness you have. This is reinforcing the “Go to Not Lose” aspect of learning. People continue to strive when they put themselves in an environment where they perceive their actions as efforts to maximize gains and minimize losses. Feeling as if you have been proactive by minimizing loss  will activate your reward centers and motivate you to continue. You win just for showing up.

Break the ride down into small components that address specific training outcomes, and focus on improving in just those areas. Seeing improvement each week, or even on each lap, will activate reward centers and increase motivation. Here are some sub-Jedi tricks to help accomplish this!

  • Improve your 1 minute effort by going hard on the first hill.
  • Improve your 4 minute effort and VO2 max by going all out on just the section between the bottom of the dip on Paseo Del Campo and the Valmonte stop sign.
  • Improve your final sprint by going all out on the last two Via Campesina  bumps, even if there is no one around you or, if you already do that, try starting your sprint at the Valmonte stop sign and carrying it through the bumps.
  • Try to stay with either the lead group or a rider ahead of you as long as you can before getting shelled.
  • Try to do the whole ride as low cadence big ring training.
  • Choose to focus on one of these aspects each lap, and make the ride a comprehensive training day that addresses all aspects of fitness.

In  Pavlovian and operant systems, reward leads to vigor, whereas punishment leads to inhibition and reinforcement of fear pathways. If you want to stay motivated, especially within the context of  a task that is difficult to follow through on, creating a system of small rewards can keep you moving in the right direction. When I disassociated viewing the Flog through the negative filter of a race leading to inevitable defeat, I began to experience new motivation and drive to get up and out the door at 5:50 AM on Thursdays, without the overshadowing dread of previous years. Best of all, I started to see improvements that I had not seen in the past.

In other words, resist making the ride a simple exercise in racing to the finish lap by lap, week by week, year by year. If that happens, you will end up like many others, touting the value of the Flog to enhance fitness, glorifying its worthiness to you personally, and then fading like a distant memory into the Flog history of ex-riders, afraid to return and face the reality of a truly hard ride.


END

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