This past weekend I competed in my first race of the 2015-16 season and I took a very valuable lesson home. To keep this post short, I'll cut right to the learning moment. I was in a break of 5 riders, down from 7 earlier, and we were about 15 or so miles from the end of the race. Legs were beginning to get tired, and as you'll see here in a bit, minds were too. Up to this point my legs had been feeling fantastic. The race was run on a 2.5 mile loop that contained a short but steep hill. When going up this hill and looking around at my break mates, I felt confident that I was capable of winning. Then the moment arrived when my fate changed. I had just came off of a pull into the headwind section of the course and the rider who came through after me decided to pick up the pace and go pretty hard. I had a feeling he had been marking me for a few laps and thought maybe this is what motivated his behavior. As I drifted to tuck back in and get out of the wind I was faced with a decision. I noticed that the increase in pace had hurt the last rider in the line pretty badly. I had been watching him previously and he had not looked particularly good for some time now. In a split second I told myself that I should slide in front of that rider because I felt that the pressure was going to pop him off of our group. I didn't go with my instinct and decided to tuck in behind him. He got popped. A gap opened up and I was never able to close it. Just like that the race that I felt I could've won was gone up the road.
So, what attributed to my mental lapse? It's a phenomena called decision fatigue. Essentially what happens is that the more tired you get, the more likely you are to give in to making decisions that would not seem wise at an earlier time. The timing of my mental mishap occurred late in the race when I had been part of a break away for a while. Even as tired as I was, I still thought to myself for a split second that it was going to be a poor choice to tuck in behind the rider that had already been showing signs of falling off the break. None the less, I allowed my body to make my decision for me instead of my mind and ultimately I was dropped as well.
Now that we know what decision fatigue is and how it can affect our performance, how can we prevent it from happening? Your nutrition during competition has something to do with this although it might not seem visibly apparent. When your body begins to lack calories and suffer from dehydration decision making suffers because the body will begin trying to persuade the mind to preserve itself. In addition to eating an drinking properly, keeping the mind sharp by constantly analyzing the race situation will also keep the mind firing and ready to go when a critical decision needs to be made.
Both of the guidelines above are excellent things you can do during the competition, but what about before the competition? This is where mental training comes into play. Doing visualization is a wonderful way to help keep you ahead of a particular scenario that might play out during a competition so that when the time comes for the mind to make the right decision, it is not taken by surprise. Keeping positive self-talk during the days leading up to your competition would also be helpful so in those moments in competition where your mind might begin to doubt the abilities of your body, that self talk can re focus you to a positive place.