Break it down. One of the simplest ways to deal with pain is to approach it in stages. Break an effort down into shorter, more mentally manageable segments and you can stay motivated through long efforts.
On a long climb, for example, find out how many bends there are. Tell yourself you’ve just got to keep going to the next bend, then the next bend, then the next one and so forth. Keep the big picture at bay. When doing a timed piece, especially indoors, break it half, then each half into quarters and further if the effort is long enough. For a 20 minute FTP test, for example, you can think of it as two five minute chunks, then three two minutes, then four single minutes.
Some riders even count pedal strokes. This can be particularly helpful for single minutes, but isn’t for everyone.
Set a goal. It’s far easier to suffer if you know what you’re suffering for. This is easy when racing—aiming to make the break, win a sprint or not be dropped is as cut and dry as it gets. On your own, however, things are trickier. Shooting for a specific time up a climb or a certain power figure can be a huge boost, especially if the goal is at the upper limit of your ability.
Strava is an excellent tool for this. Many cycling computers now allow you to track your progress on a segment live, and this can be just as good as sitting in a competitive bunch.
Train hard. “It never gets easier, you just get faster”, or so the saying goes. Certainly true, but if you’re fit your body will soak up the rigours of every day training much better than if you’re an occasional rider.
By putting yourself through it in training, you make it easier to perform for a race, sportive or even just a big ride.
Don’t be last. It’s all very well going for gold, but there’s something much more immediate about the fear of being beaten.
Many athletes will have a story about the time they went deepest into ‘the pain cave’ not being when they were on top form, but when they were going poorly. All it takes is an illness coming up to a race, some bad nutrition or simply lack of sleep, and you can find yourself struggling to stay with riders normally far behind you. Digging in to stay with riders who shouldn’t be beating you is a fast track to a getting the most out of yourself.
You can harness this in training too. When the going gets tough, just ask yourself if not training is worth losing. They shouldn’t be beating you—so don’t let them.
Dish it out. One of the truest things in sport is that it’s much easier to suffer when someone else is having a worse time of it. Some riders make their careers on this—most famously Marco Pantani.
If you’re struggling to keep yourself together but are still with other riders, the chances are that they’re struggling too. The last thing you want is for someone to attack, so why not be the attacker? Be their worst nightmare, and it just might keep you in once piece long enough to finish the ride.
Furthermore, just smile. Putting a brave face on it really does help, especially if you have friends to share the burden. Try to see the funny side—you’ve chosen to take time out of your day to dress up in Lycra and put yourself in profound discomfort on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. You might as well get something out of it!
There doesn’t even need to be as much thought as this. Just tell yourself that whenever you’re in pain, the best thing you can do is to smile, and force yourself to smile whatever you’re feeling inside. It can work wonders.
Many of these points are similar, and at the end of the day there’s only really one way to get through a painful ride: just hang tough and get on with it. Above all, however, try never to stop because of what’s going on in your head. Slow the pace, have something to eat, rethink your life decisions—whatever you need to do to keep going—but don’t stop. It’s never worth it.