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How to Pick a Challenge that Makes You Better

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Mindset, Training

Challenges have been a hot topic over the last year: Without races many athletes have used all types of hard, if not epic, ‘Do-It-Yourself-Events’ to push their limits, to motivate training or to put their training to use. We love a good challenge for athletes, especially when there’s no goal race on the horizon, but picking a challenge that fits into your life and motivates you to get better, not burned out, can be tricky.

A Story of How Challenges Can Go Sideways

One of the big endurance races that was cancelled last year offered a virtual challenge. They challenged would-be participants to climb a huge (arbitrary) round number of meters in the month before the typical race day. Understandably, many of the racers were disappointed about the cancellation of their goal race so this seemed like a great thing to take on. More climbing is good, right? The dilemma is that while climbing is important for this race, many racers don’t live in a great place to climb a lot on a daily basis (e.g. small hills) and were not near the specific terrain that the race happens on (e.g. off-road). With lock-downs in place, this ‘chronic’ goal of climbing a lot became stressful and led to slow climbing repeats in subdivisions to try and inch towards the goal. Off-days became slow climbing days and intensity days became … well, slow climbing days. There were some fun days sprinkled in off-road, with friends, with lots of climbing and more race specific terrain but even those became stressful if shortened by weather or if they got “too social.” The challenge became a stressful concern that nudged daily training decisions away from getting better at mountain biking and having fun to chasing this arbitrary number. In this case, the challenge didn’t lead to better fitness or a feeling of motivation and fun, it led to burnout and a summer spent skipping out on most of the rides that would actually serve as solid race prep.

When we talk to Consummate Athlete Coaching clients about challenges, we consider a few things when deciding on the challenge:

a) WHY do you want to do it? Is it fun? Is it social? Make sure it is checking a few boxes around why you train and race. A weekly group ride can accomplish a lot of these why’s without much risk or preparation. (REMINDER: Yes, a challenge can actually be fun. It doesn’t have to feel huge or scary or like it’s providing badass motivation, it can be a thing that makes you feel excited and not scared. See: hotel-bikepacking trips.)

b) WHAT is the purpose or goal of the challenge? Is it to get fitter or better at your main sport/goal? Or is it to ‘use’ your fitness in lieu of an ‘official’ event? It’s important to understand your purpose/goal here so you know what ‘winning’ will mean for you. And it’s important to know because, as things open back up, you may have more official events put back on the schedule, so knowing how the challenge fits into your life will help you make decisions as you go.

c) HOW long is this going to take? Challenges can be a few hours, days, weeks, months or even a whole year (e.g. ride a certain distance in a year).  Be wary of chronic/long-term challenges if they will make you do things like skip off days, only ride moderately, avoid riding with people or in your normal/favorite/goal discipline. Distance goals over  the year tend to make people only ride road bikes on flat terrain and avoid off-road, hilly or social rides that might stop or start.

d) CAN it help you improve? Not everything has to be in service of your ‘goal discipline,’ but if you do have a future goal, then having the challenges look sort of like that event is sure a great argument towards ‘WHY.’ For example, if your goal is Leadville 100-mile MTB race, a road riding distance-based challenge may actually keep you from getting out on your mountain bike on trails or doing any serious climbs (both of which you’ll need to do to get ready for Leadville). Look for a challenge that matches your eventual goals… but if you notice that you keep being drawn to those road-based challenges, you may want to do some deep reflection on if Leadville is actually the best eventual goal for you. Sometimes, the challenges we choose for fun are good signs pointing us towards goals that align with what we love to do.

e) HOW far out of your normal is this? We all have hear the ‘too-much-too-soon’ concept in terms of injury or perhaps in regards to your Functional Threshold Power. In any case your challenge should be hard but not so far beyond you that it derails your usual routines, habits and certainly shouldn’t leave you injured. There is risk in everything we do, but going from Couch-to-Everesting in a week strikes me as a good way to get knee pain, or at the very least, end up not riding (or riding well) for an extended period after.

That said… We believe you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to, as awesome Consummate Athletes. We LOVE the idea of using a challenge like Everesting or a 200-mile ride as the season target and motivating several blocks of training in that direction. The idea of doing big climbing days or long gravel rides all summer with a late summer /early fall ‘challenge’ sounds like an awesome way to spend a summer doing what you love with friends! (With a big challenge, though, you may want to consider a training plan if you don’t have one already. And we have custom 3-month plans that can be built to accommodate any challenge!)

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