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David Hewett Blog – Back to the Drawing Board

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I’m not really sure what to say about the month of May. I haven’t been training very well, I haven’t really performed in most events, kermesses and NAT interclub races (best result has been 20th in a 1.12A kermesse, one of only two races I’ve finished this month), and on the whole I haven’t particularly enjoyed riding my bike all that much.

NAT interclub
Hamont-Achtel 1.12A kermesse.

The more I’ve been into cycling seriously, the more I’ve come to realise it’s not so much a physical sport but a mental one.

Sure, it’s highly demanding physically, perhaps more so than any other sport in the world. You have to flog yourself in all conditions for hours upon hours each day, even when you’re exhausted, and then on top of that you’re only ever one pedal stroke away from sustaining anything from painful road rash which you have to continue riding with, or a career ending injury, or worse.

It’s part of the reason why the sport appealed to me in contrast to my studies at university. Having felt like I’d fulfilled what I’d hoped to achieve academically, I wanted a new challenge doing something I wasn’t necessarily obviously naturally talented at, or that wouldn’t be easy.

In other words, I wanted to try and excel myself and push towards an elite level in two completely different walks of life.

But really, without trying to be dramatic about it, the true battlefield within sport is in your mind. So much of your performance as a cyclist comes from your motivation, mental wellbeing, confidence, expectations and determination to succeed.

I think it’s this aspect of performance, often overlooked, more than anything else which defines ‘form’, feeling good in races and being able to train with quality and productivity. You can look at your fitness/fatigue chart on your training software all you want, but that’s only half the story and having a T.S.B. of +10 doesn’t guarantee you’ll be going well out on the road.

Great – so you just have to want to be good at cycling a lot more than anyone else and also enjoy riding your bike a lot… right?

Well, yes, if you’re a robot. It’s easy to say that you just have to “man up” and suffer more. But for everyone else who is human, there’s a complicated interplay between a whole host of factors that define how you’re feeling, on any given day in the short term and any given month or year in the long term.

Trying to control these factors to yield a beneficial result is something I’m yet to master, with periods of form and lack thereof seemingly developing at random and both potentiating themselves in vicious circles but in opposite directions. I’d say I’m very strong mentally with regards to motivation, drive and self-reflection, but that strength exerts itself both ways and can either lead to exceptionally good or poor performances.

There’s not much that I tend to do half-heartedly in life because I’m a bit obsessive about things. With regards to training, this means spending a lot of time off the bike pouring unnecessarily over Training Peaks like a right bore, looking at all my numbers and worrying that I should be doing something differently or that I’m not good enough in some way.

Being so self-critical and hard on myself perhaps leads to feeling like I’m not going well more often than not. It’s also surely a big mental strain, and I’d be less likely to experience ‘burn out’ like symptoms if I learnt to switch off and do other non-cycling things a bit better. All part of learning to be a full time athlete, I guess.

NAT interclub
Beveren-Waas 1.12B kermesse.

From my studies (bear with me here), I know that the autonomic nervous system (the subconscious regulatory sibling of the somatic nervous system, which we use to consciously control our muscles) can deliver an incredibly powerful influence on our body in response to levels of motivation, desire and fatigue.

In my opinion, the concept of ‘overtraining’ is just a natural protection system jumping into action, whereby when you’ve pushed your body physically and stressed yourself mentally to a sufficient extent, your brain flicks a switch and essentially puts a block (via the autonomic nervous system) on the signals being sent to your muscles (via the somatic nervous system), to prevent further stress.

So in the moment, you may want to push the pedals hard as much as you want, but in the background that’s being prevented by your brain limiting what you can do in response to your mental state.

Many riders seem to ‘burn out’ towards the end of the season or struggle to hold ‘form’. That’s commonly attributed to having a season’s worth of racing fatigue in the legs, but could it not be more to do with the fact that it’s difficult to stay really motivated and driven for month after month?

That’s exactly why riders generally have a few weeks off the bike around October time – the “offseason”. It’s not really because they need a physical break, but more a mental one, a holiday from the mental stress of training and racing. That way, they start the yearly cycle again hungry and motivated to progress.

With regards to this month then and with the above, *ahem*, in mind, I’ve been left wondering whether it’s all just in my head, especially as on paper I know that I should be going really well right now.

Am I struggling in training and racing because there’s something physically wrong with the condition of my body (fatigue, illness, health problem, dietary deficiency or otherwise), or has a switch just been flicked upstairs for the moment?

It’s interesting to note how sometimes I’ll be towards the back suffering, and yet if I make a concerted effort to move up to the front and get involved, suddenly I’m feeling comparatively strong. This is something which has become apparent this year far more than ever before, maybe because I am now riding full time so it has my full attention and there is pressure to perform, whereas previously it’s been an escape from studying more than anything.

Maybe it’s because I gave so much to my winter training that when I started racing and it didn’t go as well as expected, I struggled to push through it. I’d had the perfect winter’s training, so to suddenly encounter problems was difficult to deal with.

Add to that being victim to some severe team management issues which represented an equally severe mental blow and being in a foreign country with things not going to plan, and I was left a bit lost and disappointed.

Things will never go exactly to plan, and that’s something that I need to learn to deal with better and adapt to. Having said that, I’ve never experienced start of season hiccups of this nature before, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’ve had this effect.

Many people will read this (that’s assuming anyone has actually made it this far down) and see it as a moaning depressive list of excuses, but for me it’s a case of evaluating why things aren’t going well and establishing how to move forwards.

I hope it also gives some insight into what’s goes on behind closed doors when, for example, a British rider racing abroad tweets briefly about how they did not finish a race, or about how they’re struggling to find their legs at the moment.

I hope you value my honesty and find it as interesting as it was helpful for me to write.

NAT interclub
Hamont-Achel 1.12A kermesse.

So, after getting the moaning depressive list of excuses seen above out of the way, you may now be wondering after all that, what next? What’s the plan moving forward?

Well, as the blog post title suggests, I’ve gone back to the proverbial drawing board and decided to reset and pursue a different path for the rest of the season.

For a start, I lost my patience with the management issues and left Belgium. I don’t think it’s right to comment much further, but essentially there was one broken promise and let-down too many and it was time for me to move on.

Whilst I have the ability to do reasonably well racing in Belgium, my gut feeling is that the style of racing doesn’t quite suit me as well as it needs to do in order to really excel there.

It demands a fair bit of a fast twitch jump and despite working hard on this over the winter and seeing improvements, I’m still mainly a diesel engine type of rider with predominantly slow twitch muscle fibres.

Whilst I could have continued riding kermesses alone in Belgium, I decided it was better to return home and reassess, and sadly my outlook on Belgium had also been somewhat tarnished by the issues I’d encountered.

What I came to realise was that I’d always done reasonably well on hilly terrain despite carrying around several kilograms of excess weight. I’d never really tried hard to see how light I could get myself, and I’d always wondered whether maybe I was just a slightly overweight semi-climber rather than an pure northern classics style rider.

Certainly, it wouldn’t harm to become more well rounded and versatile. It soon became clear that if I lost a little bit whilst maintaining power, I had the potential to be right up there on hard courses.

The problem was, however, that I’d spent much of the winter in the gym trying to build sprint power and muscle mass for racing in the flatlands of Belgium, and had given little concern to my body fat percentage. As a result I was several kilograms heavier than I’d ever been racing at before.