Monday, 23 March 2015

It's all about the process . . .

. . . process goals, that is!  This is going to be a race report with a slightly different slant: a slant on goal setting and how it has totally changed the way I think!

The 2015 XC race season has just kicked off for me with yesterday's SXC Series Round 1 at Cathkin Braes on the 2014 Commonwealth Games course.  This is my local trail, so I know it well, and I won the Masters category there last year.  But this race was set to be a whole new challenge for three reasons:

  1. I missed a month of training in January and so I'm 4 weeks behind in my training (plus another 4 weeks behind where I was for that race last year as Cathkin was in April last year)
  2. I'm still a bit overweight from being off the bike and the usual winter "warmer" coat us cyclists put on so my climbing has not been as fast recently
  3. I've moved up to the Expert/Elite category for the SXC this year, so would be racing against the really fast guys!
So, as the gun fired for the start of the 2015 season yesterday, you would expect I might not have been in the best frame of mind . . . 

But I don't think I've ever been so focused . . . not on a potential result, not on the outcome, not on everyone else around me, but on the small process goals I'd set myself for this race.

Wind back a few days and I was down at Henley Business School attending a one day seminar on "Mastering World Class Performance" by Charlie Unwin.  Charlie was Lizzie Yarnold's sports psychologist when she won her Gold medal in the Sochi Winter Olympics.  As you can guess by the location and the title, this was a seminar aimed at the corporate world of business in which I spend my 9 to 5 Monday to Friday life, but given Charlie's background and many sporting analogies throughout the day, I took so much from it for my mountain bike racing.

Sparing you the corporate stuff that I'm sure you're definitely not interested in, let me explain how I've applied his advice to my racing, and perhaps it'll help you too.  I took many things away from that seminar that I can apply to my racing but the two key things were: focusing on what I can control (rather than all the external factors) and setting process goals (not outcome goals).

The first may sound obvious, but it's amazing how much time us racers spend thinking about everyone else around us, or the weather, or the line someone else takes, or the many other things we can't control.  

The second, on goal setting, has enabled me to re-plan my goals for the entire season and that goes for each race too.  I've always tried to break down my outcome goals (e.g. "get on the podium") into training objectives and smaller steps but this has really helped me focus on this more, by using 3 steps (whether for the season or an individual race):
  1. What is the outcome I hope to achieve (e.g. overall ranking, race position, etc)?  While this may be in the back of my mind it's not what I should focus on in day to day training or racing
  2. Break this outcome into the performance goals that I can actually measure, enabling me to achieve the outcome.  These have to be measurable.  For example, lactate threshold heart rate, personal best time round a course I know well, power, weight, strength, and many more.  You can even break this into "descend X section of your local trail in Y mins".
  3. Finally, the most important step: process goals.  These are the small steps you take in your training and racing to ultimately improve the things you are measuring in the performance goals.  This could be as simple as a training process goal of practice starts once every week.
So, enough of all this theory and planning . . . what on earth did all this mean for my first race of the season on Sunday?  

Well, first and foremost, I arrived at that seminar on Tuesday not feeling too motivated about the first race due to those initial points above, but I left it feeling more focused and motivated than I ever have in my short mountain bike racing career.

Secondly, and more importantly, it helped me block out all the factors out with my control, quite frankly not give a thought to where I finished in the results, and focus only and completely on the process goals I set myself for Sunday's race.  These were:

  1. Pacing - more consistent lap times than usual (I have a tendency to tail off towards the end of races, sometimes by over a minute in a lap)
  2. Recover at speed on the transitions between climbs/descents (something Rab Wardell from Dirt School helped me with at the XC Race Craft session I attended the previous week)
  3. Remain smooth and controlled on technical sections (which I could measure afterwards using a tool like Strava)
What did this mean in the race?  Well, I don't think I've ever been so relaxed and focused on a start line.  I didn't get clipped in straight away but I did not let it put me off.  I didn't get caught up in what evereyone else was doing and just raced my own race, pacing myself as best as I could to make sure I didn't burn out, especially as I'm now having to do an extra lap in the Elite/Expert category of the SXC races.

Here I am recovering at speed in the start/finish straight transition, instead of taking it easy along there as is the temptation following the final climb in the lap up to this section:

And here I am in one of the rock gardens, ensuring I stayed smooth and controlled rather than frantically trying to catch other riders, which in turn actually leads to faster times even though it may not feel as fast:

Afterwards, when analysing my GPS data, I got several PBs on some of the more technical sections and was really consistent on those sections.  I lost a bit of time on some of the climbs as the laps progressed, but was way more consistent than last year, even with my last lap being faster than my penultimate lap (and after 6 laps!).

I raced alongside Wayne Barr for some of the race and we swapped places once or twice.  He sat on my wheel for the last lap and took me on the final sprint finish.  Although this cost me a place, I gave it my all and again didn't let this phase me.  I can't do any better than my best so why beat myself up just because he got past me in the last 50m?

When I crossed the line to be met by my wife, parents and friends, I couldn't have been happier when I saw my lap times that my wife had been recording in the feed zone (alongside doing my bottle hand-ups while getting cold!  Thanks!).  My lap times were all faster than last year . . . despite the extra lap, month of training, month behind last year's peak for Cathkin and bit of extra weight I'm currently carrying!  Plus, to refer to one of my process goals, they were far more consistent, only tailing off slightly.  Another thing I changed is that I no longer ask my wife to tell me my position when I pass through the feed zone; instead she now tells me how much I'm up or down on my previous lap to help me with my pacing and consistency.

I didn't even care where I'd finished.  I had achieved every single goal I set myself and I focused on my own race.

We had a bit of wind behind us on a couple of sections, plus there was a slight change to the course that made it a few seconds faster, but I don't think this accounted for the improved lap times in their entirety - maybe just a minor factor.  So, given where I am in the season, things will only continue to improve.  I don't think I've ever felt so positive after a race, even after my win or podiums in some races last year.  That sounds crazy, but it's the truth!

Later on that evening, when the SXC posted the race results (in record time as always, don't know how they do it!), I discovered that I came 9th out of the 16 Elite/Expert racers who started.  While there were 2 DNFs, that's just part of racing, and so it's still 9th out of 16.  While the outcome was not my focus, this obviously added to my happiness and I'm over the moon to not only have achieved my process goals, but to have done better than I expected in this higher category and when I'm not in peak condition.  You can't ask for much more than that!

I had a long hard think about going "down" to the Sport category this year when they scrapped Masters, but I'm so glad I didn't.  I've taken on the challenge, and I know it's going to be even tougher next week in my first Expert race in the British XC Series, but I'm learning so much and thinking about things in a completely different light thanks to the insight and advice from Charlie Unwin.  Thanks Charlie!

Thanks as usual to my wife for her great support before and during the race, for my family and friends for coming along to cheer me on, to my dad and Kat Simpson for the photos above, and last but not least, to Richard at Alpine Bikes St.George's Cross store in Glasgow, for getting my bike race ready for the season!

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