Your First Race: Building up to the Starting Line

This post was inspired by ShredWorthy contributor, Leah D.K. To read her story, which inspired this article, please follow this link.

Diving into something new is intimidating, no matter what you’re trying out. Being a newbie at the start line of a bicycle race where everyone is wearing spandex, fast glasses and sitting atop a multi-thousand dollar trail slaying machine can be absolutely terrifying. I’ve been there. But please trust me when I say that it gets better.

This guide is intended to be a resource for your first race. It’s not an instruction list of what to do, because ultimately racing is an individual thing and there is no concrete formula for getting to the finish line. Instead, please pick and choose the pieces of advice that serve or speak to you and leave the rest behind. Race day is just like any other day: anything can happen. What determines whether or not you complete the course is if you’re mentally strong enough to roll with all the punches.

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Despite the fact that I just made racing sound like you’ll be going into battle, it’s actually quite fun. Maybe your first few won’t be. And they certainly won’t all be joyous occasions where you’re smiling and laughing and singing to the forest animals while you pedal. Definitely not. There will be times when you feel like you’re teetering on the brink of falling over or that your legs are going to give out. Maybe you’ll cramp at the start of a long climb. Maybe you’ll struggle to find a flow-state the entire duration of the race. These things are more common than I’d like to admit, but honestly, the struggle is worth it. Maybe you’ll find new friends who ride at the same pace as you. Maybe you’ll find yourself smiling, perhaps hooting and hollering from the exhilaration of wind on your face during a fun, extended downhill. You’ll definitely pass some people, you’ll certainly be passed. You’ll wage a war against your mind that’s reminding you how easy it would be to just pull over and take a nap under some trees. But when you cross the finish line, the triumph and beer and celebration with hundreds of people who are just as stoked on the shared experience as you, might just convert you into a regular old race machine.

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Racing is a unique experience. You either perform the way you wanted to, or, more commonly, you don’t. Regardless of your finish, you use the results as fuel. You set big goals and anticipate race day miracles, because it’s amazing what you’ll find your body is capable of when there are hundreds of people cheering you on.

Race Entry is the Best Training Coach Money Can Buy

Personal trainers can be phenomenal. They can provide advice and support to help you conquer certain skills and build strength in ways we likely wouldn’t think of on our own. But when it comes to cycling, no one knows how to work you better than you! I bet there’s a race you’ve been thinking of for a while, or maybe one that you saw a poster for and thought, “Wow, that looks fun!” Maybe you assumed it would be too difficult for you to complete. SIGN UP ANYWAY! There’s nothing like having your name on a roster to motivate you to ride further and harder in preparation.

Find a Riding Buddy (Maybe Someone Who is Also Signed Up)

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Riding by yourself can be really beneficial for getting big mileage in, or sneaking in rides at odd hours. But, I truly believe that a lot of our growth as cyclists comes from riding with another person. Watching someone else’s lines or simply having someone else there to motivate you to keep a faster pace is such a great subliminal way to train. As you absentmindedly try to keep pace and follow lines, you’ll hop over a log or clear a rock garden that you’ve never ridden before—all while chatting away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve followed better riders through challenging sections without thinking twice about whether I could make it. Riding with a partner is fun because you’ll find yourself in good company and you’ll likely be talking and trading stories the whole time. It’s rewarding because you’re challenged to ride harder, try risky moves, and ultimately push a little further with your partner at your side. It’s safer because, should you get hurt, someone is there looking out for you.

Train Your Brain to Enjoy Climbing

For me, the climbs are always the hardest part of a race. When I first started racing, I would attack the climbs, knowing they were my weak point. In hindsight, I went too hard and would blow out all of my energy early in the race, letting lots of more conservative energy spenders blow past me in the last half of the race. In more recent times, I tried to learn from my mistakes by taking it easy on the climbs and saving energy.  Using this method, I felt like I still had candles to burn once I crossed the finish line. This method would leave me feeling disappointed, like I hadn’t left it all out on the field and like my race effort wasn’t really 100%.

I’ve found that many riders feel very differently—their comfort zones are on the climbs. These riders spend the majority of the downhill sections nervous that they’ll crash if they push it too hard.

I’ve found that both of these types of feelings only ever distract you from the task at hand: riding efficiently. The only way that these feelings of nervousness ever go away is by becoming familiar and comfortable with the course and feeling confident on your bike. This makes pre-riding the course essential. Knowing what to anticipate so that you know when the technical sections are coming up, or when you can really push it and make up time helps your mind to stay focused and zoned into riding your best possible lines. Knowing the course gives you the benefit of mentally “check-marking” sections as you ride, which helps to break the race up into segments rather than viewing it as one long sprint. Mentally, this is less exhausting and allows your body to have “second winds” (or third, fourth, and fifth winds).

I started loving races when I learned to pace myself on the climbs. Finding a steady pace that you can relax into really helps--knowing what pace you can hold is critical to having a good time racing.

Properly Plan for Nutrition and Hydration

Food is fuel, as you know. When you start to really take performance seriously as an athlete, it follows that you start paying more attention to what you are eating. Ideally, cycling will turn into such a passion for you that you will want to incorporate a balanced diet into your everyday life. But for some, this may never happen. When training for an event, it is a good idea to focus in on a whole foods based diet 3 to 4 weeks out from your event. One simple trick that works for me is portioning my plate into thirds. One third protein, one third carbs and one third green, non starchy veggies. Avoiding overly processed foods has also drastically increased my energy levels. Everyone has individual needs, so find what works for you. Try to identify your “power foods” (the foods that make you feel energized and super capable). For me, those foods are salmon, cashews, beets, spinach and cauliflower. Before any big race day, I fuel up with the foods that always make me feel super powerful.

One thing learned during my endurance training is that you can ride for as long as you can eat. Seriously, you can! With a bit of practice, you’ll get to a point where, as long as you find a balance between calories expended and calories ingested, you’ll want to ride all day.

A major key to completing your intended race course is carrying enough calories and electrolytes to get you to the finish line. Staying ahead of your body’s needs means less chance of bonking. So for me, this means continually eating throughout each race. I will usually carry a feedbag that’s accessible while riding. It’s usually stuffed to the brim with Clif Blox and BCAA pills.

I also always carry a water bottle full of ScratchLabs electrolyte mix. When it’s hot out, electrolyte replenishing is extra important. Simply put, as we’re sweating and working hard, our body loses essential salts. Electrolytes get the essential nutrients back to our body in a super efficient way and allows us to keep working at capacity for longer. Other sports drinks like Gatorade can be great in a pinch, but are potentially less beneficial than an electrolyte mix, since they contain brominated vegetable oil amongst other unnatural ingredients. I highly recommend Scratch Labs, but if you would prefer to find your own, look for a healthy, organic, all natural electrolyte powders or drinks.

Like everything else, when it comes to hydration everyone is different. Ultra-endurance athletes will often have a timer set to ding every 15 minutes, reminding them to drink and/or eat if they need to. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to drink a 16 oz bottle every hour. On hot days you might double that amount, depending on your needs.

Michelle: On really hot days,  I save a water bottle to pour over my head. The potential for heat exhaustion is exacerbated by internal body temperature and dehydration, so when it’s 90 degrees or more, it's a good idea to be prepared to cool off your skin. Alternatively, choose not to race when it's 90 degrees + because it can be incredibly dangerous and stupid….she says from experience.

Slowly Start Boosting Your Mileage

My first endurance race was the Dakota Five-O. I had never done anything near a 50 mile singletrack ride before so I figured finishing would be near impossible for me. I knew it was going to take some serious work to ramp myself up to that sort of feat. But I also figured it would be extra encouraging to have so many people watching me during my attempt.

At the time of sign up (early Spring), my longest singletrack ride was 15 miles. Over the next few months I slowly increased my base mileage. I decided to decrease the number of days a week that I would ride, but ramp up the mileage of those rides. I went from being a 6-day a week cyclist (roughly 10 mile rides), to a 4-days a week cyclist, going on 15 mile rides. Then the following week,  20 mile rides, then 25, working up to a 35 mile ride. By the end of the summer, race day was close and it was time to taper and start resting.

Something interesting happened on my first 35 mile ride. At the end of it, riding another 15 miles didn’t seem so impossible. Actually, it seemed totally reasonable. Suddenly, a 50 mile MTB ride seemed within my grasp.

Prepare Your Mind

No matter how hard you train, training miles always seem to lack the intensity brought on race day. While there are a lot of truly valuable things you can do to prepare your body for the big event, there is very little you can do to prepare your mind for the mental warfare that you will likely go through on race day. One of the biggest things that has helped me get through the absolute toughest moments out on the field is by having a reserve of riding mantras to help me keep my spirits high.

The ideal mantra is a short phrase that can be repeated over and over again until you get out of “the weeds.” A good mantra contains only positive words and speaks directly to your experience. You know yourself better than anyone, so I encourage you to come up with your own mantras. Use them frivolously when the going gets tough. Many times, for me, having a good mantra in my head has gotten me to the finish line on days when I was sure I wouldn’t make it there.

Incorporate Rest Days into Your Schedule

When I signed up for my first race, I was so nervous that I was in too bad of shape to finish. I started training hardcore. The exercise felt great and it was practically no time before I was seeing major improvements on the bike. I became addicted to the rapid fire progression. It was fun riding 7 days a week at first, but very quickly I found that my riding was becoming sketchy and I was burning myself out on cycling. My body was exhausted, and my riding became more dangerous because of the fatigue of constant riding. My experience in “overtraining” taught me that recovery is key to proper muscle function. It was a hard lesson to learn, because despite the intense race stoke that made me want to be on my bike constantly, I had to allow my body time to heal.

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I would recommend taking a minimum of 2 days off the bike each week (the exception being if you bike commute into work. Then heck, ride every day!). Incorporate some cross training during your days off. Yoga is great at stretching out the muscles that get over worked on the regular. Strength training can be great for building the upper body, which is commonly treated as an after-thought for cyclists.

Having other activities like hiking, swimming or running is a really nice reprieve for the brain as well as the body. The same set of muscles typically gets used when cycling, so having another activity can turn your weekly activities into a full-body experience. This way, you likely won’t get burnt out on cycling since you have other activities to engage during the week! Major plus!

Be Gracious to Yourself

While working up to your first race, embrace the fact that some days you will be too exhausted to go out for a training ride, indulge your food cravings every once in a while and remember, most importantly, that all of this is supposed to be fun! I am super guilty of expecting peak performance out of myself on a day to day basis, despite the fact that I know it’s terribly unrealistic. Work just as hard as you train to give yourself grace. Listen to your body. Take rest days when you need them. Talk to your loved ones about your training regimen, they will likely let you know when and if you’re going overboard.

On your first race, it’s unreasonable to expect a podium finish or to get a faster time than your friend who has been racing for years. The best mindset for your first race is “I’m racing to finish the course.” Use your time as a baseline and aim to improve it next year. Progress is not linear, but is way more fun to track at racing events where there’s no shortage of ride stoke to cheer you on.

If we missed something that you feel was key to your first race experience success, please share in the comments and we will add it to the article.