Staying mentally strong and motivated on long distance bike tours
In 2011, Mountain Leader Cress Allwood began a journey on her bike that would take her around the world. Returning to England in 2013, she now works as a leadership coach. Here she offers her three top tips for keeping motivated on long expeditions.
1. Manage your mind
One of the most crucial aspects of touring for months on end, especially when travelling solo, is the language and the self-talk that goes on in our heads and keeps us motivated.
While travelling we’re more likely to find ourselves in unfamiliar situations where fear or other emotions hijack our rational mind: controlling the tone of our thoughts – the talking inside our heads – may no longer be straightforward.
I discovered that my usual mantras, used successfully for many years to keep myself going when things got tough, were no longer adequate. I needed additional methods to keep my mind working for me, not against me. In northeastern Chile, 10 months into my trip, I put myself in a new and vulnerable place, mentally.
Late one afternoon I made a spontaneous decision to cycle off road into a disused mining area. I loved riding deserted dirt tracks. The dusty peace and challenges of the undulating terrain were liberating: a vast expanse of land around me and no one in sight.
I camped that night, but the following morning I felt less certain of the route. There were no signposts – absolutely nothing to indicate or reassure me that the ill-used track ahead was the correct one. My map had no detail and I didn’t carry a GPS. I knew, on a logical level, that if I followed my compass and the used the sun as a guide, I’d be OK. I hesitated, my thoughts wandering unhelpfully. ‘What if I get lost? What would happen..?’ I’d never really considered such a situation before. Acknowledging a different type of vulnerability perturbed me.
I scanned the landscape, searching for signs of life. My gaze hovered at a run-down looking shack in the distance. I scrambled over the valley, in search of anyone who might be able to provide me with some reassurance. Spotting a lone male, and suppressing mild apprehension, I communicated in broken Spanish. To my dismay, he grunted and pointed in a different direction, towards a steep, rocky trail with large, broken boulders. My eyes flickered critically: yup, completely unsuitable for a heavy touring bike weighed down with panniers. Oh dear!
I hurried back to my tent, packed up my things and set off, convincing myself that I’d be OK on the original track. Moments later I heard the voice of my eldest sister loudly in my ears, saying ‘Look after yourself, Cress. Stay safe.’ Being ‘safe’ meant one thing – turning back and retracing known steps. I weighed things up, turned round and headed back down the hill. At least I knew the way back – phew!
Three guys on horseback appeared from nowhere and rode over. Looking every bit like classic cowboys, with leather chaps, worn Stetsons and impressive steads, they seemed keen to help. I asked them the way, and they pointed in the direction I’d come from. So it WAS the right way! Instantly I changed my mind about playing safe – anyone can do that; it wasn’t why I was out here! With renewed determination and vigour, I pointed my bike back up the hill and set off.
A while later, slowly grinding my way uphill with sweat dripping off me, I stopped for a sip of water. I wasn’t happy – nagging doubts were still pervading. Riding in the heat in these conditions was physically tiring, and I didn’t need additional mental stressors draining my energies. My mind and body needed to work together. Instinct made me pull out my camera and record myself talking to the screen. I’d never done this before and felt instantly calmer. Voicing concerns out loud helped hugely. I set off, feeling more at ease, yet within minutes I’d stopped again. This time, I laid my bike on the ground. Continuing with my unhelpful mind-set was not going to happen. I had to get a grip of my thoughts, and make them work for me, before cycling further.
Sitting down by a stick of a tree stump (the best shade available) I dug a pack of Coaching Cards out of a pannier and sat upright, ensuring my body position was in a resourceful state. Having studied Business Coaching for years, I hold the belief that ‘the mind that holds the problem, holds the solution.’ These cards are designed to prompt quality thinking and open up lines of thought. I shuffled them and looked at a few in turn, waiting for one to resonate. Luckily, one question tapped into my belief about the purpose of my trip. To venture into the unknown was why I was here: this trip wasn’t about playing safe. This triggered further thoughts and a realisation that I wasn’t fully committed to my goal, which was to reach my destination by sticking to the track. I was allowing negative thoughts to question my judgement continually. As soon as I’d sussed this I knew what I had to do.
Committing to the route meant doing so 100 per cent, allowing affirming self-talk only. I forced myself to concentrate, doggedly focussing on this one task, knowing that I was being true to my values. It took much mental energy and effort to keep negatives out, but it worked. Hours later I arrived at a saddle, and knew from surveying the landscape and checking my compass that I was heading in the right direction. With a long descent ahead of me I felt a huge sense of relief, and took comfort from the fact that I’d managed to control my mind. I took a photo to celebrate.
My top tip? If you find yourself in an environment that you perceive as hostile or where positive mantras aren’t enough, focus on the aspects that are in your power to control. Recognise that you’re in a new and scary place, mentally: it’s normal and OK to have some fears. Manage your anxieties as soon as possible. Notice what’s going on internally and ask yourself coaching questions. Work out what’s getting in the way, what’s inhibiting your progress. Once you’ve decided on your course of action, stick to it.
2. Take time off and recharge: give your mind and body a break
Having quality time off the bike can be a great motivating factor. I knew before I left that I’d want to stop every so often and take my time exploring places of interest. Recharging is healthy in many ways. I also knew that I’d lead an expedition or two along the way, to help financially. In hindsight, these times of work and play were important in ways I hadn’t previously considered.
Leading trips – whether I was climbing mountains, trekking through jungles or working on a community project – afforded short periods of time when I had a specific and defined role. Role modelling positive behaviours, while facilitating the leadership skills of young people who are out of their comfort zones, was often challenging yet hugely rewarding. These contrasting experiences added a sense of worth and no doubt reinforced a sense of self. They were generally great fun, and called on a host of skills I didn’t need on the bike. Being responsible for other people was a healthy activity and very different from the somewhat selfish solo pursuit of my tour.
Expedition work also meant that I had deadlines: dates by which I had to reach a certain country. They gave my trip a structure I would not otherwise have imposed, but which helped provide focus. This motivated me – I had to reach La Paz, in Bolivia, by July 2012, so I devised a route through Chile that seemed challenging yet attainable in the weeks ahead. Similarly, I needed to be in Quito the following December. I planned a passage to Peru, giving myself lots of time in the mountains to explore and acclimatise, before heading northwest into Ecuador. I also wrangled a free flight to Patagonia afterwards.
Cycle touring enriches the soul in many ways, yet I met many long distance cyclists, (away for months/ years) who undertook an array of additional activities to provide some balance.
For me, the interjections of work added a sense of purpose and I relished the diversity. Knowing that I’d earnt some money to top up my funds and continue without financial concerns, added to my peace of mind. I wouldn’t need to check my bank balance/bother logging on for months! The whole point was to escape such tedious concerns. I couldn’t wait to jump back on my trusty stead ‘Muriel’ and continue my journey, feeling relaxed and refreshed after the expeditions: ready for the next leg of adventure.
Whether it’s work or play, if you’re planning to be away for months, or possibly years, pen in down time. Feed your soul and look after your body. Give your muscles respite from the routine of daily riding: allow the mind to wander, and consider different subject matters. Allow yourself to be refreshed. Budgets and preferences will dictate what this looks like. I endured painful massages to ease weary legs and did yoga classes in many countries in a bid to look after myself holistically. I visited art galleries when I could and read loads on my Kindle. Nourishing one’s soul while away is part of this process and I’m sure adds to the long term enjoyment: cycle purists may hold opposing views. Do what feels right, but do look after and respect both mind and body.
3. Recognise the blues and be kind
When undertaking a journey that’s longer than anything you’ve done before it’s inevitable that there will be ups, downs and unexpected occurrences. This is normal. Managing oneself when things don’t go your way can be especially challenging when travelling solo, requiring patience and self-respect.
Towards the end of my bike trip, after nearly two years, I had another goal in mind. I felt ready for what I perceived as my ultimate challenge – climbing the highest mountain in South America. Aconcagua sits proudly in Argentina at a height of 6,962m. I had saved this highlight, intending to finish (if I’m honest) in a blaze of glory, having summited this magnificent and demanding peak. It takes around 3 weeks to trek up and down, and is notoriously difficult.
Having cycled for months at altitude, and climbed mountains along the way to prepare myself, I felt ready for this level of challenge. On a gloriously sunny afternoon, having ridden endless zig-zags uphill, I saw the snow-covered mountain and visualised myself on the summit. I felt prepared for what lay ahead. I was slightly nervous, but mainly excited. I’d peddled half way round the world and was raring to go.
The following morning, a freak accident occurred. Off the bike, I twisted my leg and tore my calf muscle. In an instant everything changed. I couldn’t walk or put my foot down. Climbing Aconcagua was put in doubt.
Returning to Santiago to seek help, a physiotherapist informed me that I wouldn’t be able to trek or cycle for 6 weeks. Upset, I felt that the injury was my fault. I was furious with myself – how could I be facing certain failure, just when I was ready to start climbing? Although I’d felt strong and in great shape, I clearly hadn’t noticed how tight my muscles were. There was absolutely no chance of realising this dream, of attempting the one mountain I’d set my heart on, before I left England.
I felt very depressed and shed bitter tears, feeling stuck in a city (Santiago) where I didn’t know anyone and was barely able to walk. I had to be brave and face my fear of failure, while also acknowledging a huge sense of disappointment and frustration. Fundamentally, I needed to be kind to myself – to give myself permission to feel utterly wretched. I spent 4 days moping around, doing little, but feeling pitifully sorry for myself.
The next morning I decided it was time to turn things around. I realised that I could spend the next few weeks drafting articles and planning my future. Suddenly I felt much happier. Here was a rare opportunity to write and think with no distractions. I felt calmer, re-energised and more positive. Balance was restored and I had a clear sense of purpose. Although I’d been forced to change my plans, I found an alternate path and one that was satisfying in other ways. Aconcagua would still be there another time.
By magnifying the significance of climbing a mountain, I’d successfully minimised any cycling achievements. My earlier thinking of ‘I’m a failure!’ had been distorted and unhelpful.
Being with a vulnerable version of oneself is not always easy: by giving myself space to feel raw emotions before moving on was vital. I didn’t want to ‘bury them alive’ (in the words of Freud) and not deal with them.
Feeling scared and uncertain as a result of injury is normal. How we deal with such setbacks is what matters. Be kind. Allow time to heal before re-aligning your focus. Ultimately, something good will emerge as a result of changed circumstances.
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