One day you’re flying down the trail, dialled in, flow state, at one with your bike. No one is stopping you as you ascend effortlessly, gracefully returning to ground level with the obligatory “yeeew”’s - the unmistakable sound of bikers’ delight.
The next day, the only flying you do is over the bars.
Yes, indeed. It is the unexplainable, illogical, unpredictable and always frustrating phenomenon that happens to us all - the curse of the bad day on the bike (insert suitably dramatic sound bite here!).
We all have them. If you’re reading this in disagreement, then one can only assume you’re new to biking, in which case, woohoo! And welcome! Go forth with confidence and joy! Attack those berms! Shred in style!... aaaannd take note, for your time will come too young grasshopper.
The curse comes for us all sooner or later. Want to know the best part? You’ll have no idea when! #ohyay
The human body is a marvellously complex thing. There will be days when you’ve had 8 hours uninterrupted sleep; your nutrition is on point, your muscles feel limber, the sun is shining, your mindset is optimism itself, and yet, you eat dirt before you even get to the trailhead. Yup, some days, there’s just no predicting the gods of MTB. We make an effort to honour them, we offer ourselves up with joyful abandon, and they slam us down with retribution because, well, they’re Gods, and they can do what they like.
So, what can you do on those days to ensure you survive - physically and mentally - and don’t run home cursing the fool that introduced you to mountain biking whilst crying out “I’m never riding again!”
Yes. Now. Don’t delay. If you find yourself starting to struggle on a ride, fueling your body is never a bad idea, even if you don’t necessarily feel hungry at the time. Thanks to the modern miracle of food availability, many of us are out of touch with our genuine hunger cues - we eat when we think we should rather than when we need to. Your preferred sustenance on trail will depend much on the type of riding you are into, but having at least one source of energy-giving glucose and easy-to-access carbs, such as gels or cereal bars, is always a good idea. Whilst Red Bull* might “give you wings” it’ll only lead to a mighty crash in energy later in the day and, if this happens, you’re more likely to suffer a crash of the “ouchie” kind as well. No bueno.
So, stop. Chomp down on a dose of dopamine and allow it time to get to work (about 30 minutes) before hopping back on for round #2.
2. Cool down / Warm-up.
Sounds simple right? Yet we often get so involved with riding itself, that we ignore the cues from our body telling us our temperature may not be at its optimum for performance. Struggling onwards under three layers because you don’t want to lose momentum when you are too hot just makes your life harder and, worse, puts you at risk of heatstroke if it’s a particularly warm day out.
Likewise, if the temperature has dropped as you’ve ascended and you find your arms now resemble chicken-skin, it’s time to don your wind-cheater and/or another outer layer. Often, we can feel internally warm through exertion but ignore the peripheral signs of the cold. If your body is having to work overtime to keep you warm, you’re wasting valuable energy, which is only going to lead to greater fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle that you’ll never win so, take a break, add a layer, take on some fuel and hit the trail again once you’ve warmed up.
In either scenario, if you’ve made a boo-boo and find yourself inadequately prepared for the day’s adventures, consider if calling it a day (see #5) would be more sensible. Heatstroke/ hypothermia are not badges of honour, being able to ride again tomorrow is.
Don't ignore the signs!!
3. Take a break
Often in the midst of a “bad” day, we convince ourselves that it’s all gone to custard and it can’t/won’t recover so, what’s the point? However, perhaps a much-needed reset is on the cards. Many a ride has been rescued by making the decision to take lunch early or pull up at a particularly picturesque spot and sit awhile. Bonus points if you take your socks and shoes off and get some good-old toes-in-grass action on the go. Yes, you may be out riding but if it’s proving to be a difficult day, pulling it up, musing it over or interrupting the flow just chatting with your pals can pay dividends. This gives you an opportunity to switch up your mental state and return to the bike with a fresh set of intentions.
Hmm...what to have for dinner...
4. Dial it back
Just because you set out to do a 20km loop with 6km of gnarly descent at the end, does not mean you have to commit to this if you find yourself riding accompanied by a raincloud for one. Listen to your body; observe your brain. What’s going on for you? Brains are notoriously difficult characters and sometimes like to get in the way of our perfect ride, but that doesn’t mean it gets to steal your day unless you let it. Say “screw you brain!” by remaining on your bike but opting for a different kind of ride, one that you can come away from with some endorphins in your body as opposed to some stitches.
If it’s your body that’s letting the side down, then be gentle to it. Your meat suit works hard on the daily, and if it’s a bit fatigued today, chances are there’s a reason. If you’ve been going at it good guns and haven’t taken a rest day in a while, perhaps some “active rest” is in order. A pedal at ground level or a non-techy flow trail might be the best option to ensure you come away from your ride full of feel-good and not at the mercy of the MTB Gods once more.
Time on the bike is time on the bike, why not take it chill?
5. Get in a group
Many of us would agree; mountain biking is better with friends. Not that it can’t rock to have some alone time now and again, but I speak from experience when I say that my solo rides are generally more testing than when I’m riding in a group. Perhaps it’s the pack mentality, the ability to follow a lead, or the fact I’m more at ease and out of my head (i suspect it’s a combo of all 4!) but, when it comes to bad days on the bike, I’m more likely to have one riding on my lonesome than with the gang.
Depending on what you’re used to, this may differ for everyone. Still, the social aspects of community alone are proven to improve mood and mindset, thus likely to ameliorate the day you are having. So, if you find yourself having a pity-party for one, don’t struggle alone, grab your phone and see who else is around!
Even if you turn up trumps, don’t be afraid to chat to others you see out riding. If you’re here reading this, then you’re already familiar with the friendliness of the MTB community. Some of the best rides I’ve had have been with total strangers who invited me to tag along with their train, who knows, you might be about to meet your next riding bestie!
6. Call it a day
And then there are these days. You know the ones. The ones where you wonder if you’ve just woken up from a dream where you thought you knew how to mountain bike because, clearly, that’s not the case. It feels like you’ve spent more time on the floor than on the bike and the biggest drop you’ve encountered today is the one in your mood. We women can be notoriously hard on ourselves on days like these, often wanting to berate ourselves or force ourselves to carry on until something goes right - until we see some tiny sign of improvement.
However, sometimes, the very best thing we can do for ourselves and our fellow riders is to call it a day and try again tomorrow. If it’s not your day, it’s just not your day. Do not become another statistic at the local emergency department because you ignored the signs that something was off. Your intuition is a powerful thing; use it. Mountain biking is as much about your mind as it is your physical and technical capabilities and, if you find yourself wondering if you’ve lost all of them overnight, tap into your inner wisdom and do the right thing. Your future self (that isn’t lying in a hospital bed) will thank you for it!
How about you? What tricks do you use to remedy a ‘bad day’? Drop your comments in below and share them with the tribe!
*other caffeine-laden energy drinks are available.