How Reflecting on This Year’s Training Can Lead to Next Year’s Best Rides

Writing down the good, the great, and the bad can help drive your confidence and pinpoint where to improve for another year of success.

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For the past two decades, 40-year-old cyclist and triathlete Ryan McGrath has made a habit of reviewing his race seasons once they’ve concluded. Throughout his athletic career, the Baltimore-based account director has kept thorough training and racing logs, and when fall rolls around each year, he combs through them, looking carefully at what worked and what didn’t.

McGrath says this key time of reflection each year has served as a launching point for determining the coming season’s goals. “I always acknowledge what was successful, and where I could improve,” he says. “I reference previous years to help me identify trends throughout the year. Then I use that information to determine my race schedule and optimal training times.”

Kay Porter, Ph.D., a mental preparation coach in Eugene, Oregon, says that McGrath is onto something. “Many athletes journal throughout the season, especially around races,” she says. “This is important to do within a few days of the race while it’s fresh. Then at the end of the season, you can go back and see what you were happy with, and what you weren’t.”

Why take the time to write down everything that went well and everything that didn’t go so well in your training and racing? Well, you gain a few meaningful advantages.

The Benefits of Reflection

This practice of reflecting can not only help you understand the keys to success in the coming season, but serve as a boost of confidence, too, says Julie Emmerman, Psy.D., a Boulder-based clinician who specializes in working with athletes. “Past successes are the biggest indicator of future success,” she explains. “If you can feel good about a past race, you can draw confidence from that.”

Elite level cycling coach Neal Henderson, agrees, and works with his athletes throughout the year to reflect before and after events. “We keep it simple, but we use a planner to cover several key points,” he explains. “Ahead of an event, for instance, I ask them to name three positives from their race prep. Then we plan for the warmup, the middle of the race, the finish, and postrace.”

In that postrace summary, Henderson again asks his cyclists to review three positives from the experience. “Even if they didn’t have the end result they wanted, it’s important to note what worked,” he says.

While you may realize what worked and what didn’t in the moment, actually writing it down and looking back on it can keep you from repeating mistakes and instead, help you grow as an athlete. Taking the time to analyze your workouts and sit with the information you gather brings strengths and weaknesses to light and can help to improve your physical and mental performance.

How to Make the Most of Your Training Reflections

reflection benefits for athletes
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Maximize the payoffs of looking back on your rides with a few key strategies:

Write it down right away

Experts agree that reviewing what worked and what didn’t is an important year-round task. Reflecting while it’s fresh in your mind immediately following a workout or race, and then setting aside more time post-season for an overall review, will set you up for achieving your goals in the coming year.

Make it detailed

You want to be all-encompassing in your reflections. “Take a look at your physical training, your nutrition, the conditions you raced in, and how you used your mind to help prepare for races,” says Emmerman. “Identify what helped, what you want to replicate, and how to adapt in the future.” Get clear with these distinctions so you can easily look back and find takeaways.

When Henderson works with his athletes at the end of a season, they start by looking into the top three to five highlights. “We get into the specifics of the preparation and execution and make note of what went well and what didn’t,” he says. “We consider both the physical and psychological preparation and how that can help in the future.” Nothing is too granular for you to think about and write down.

Think back often

Emmerman says that reflecting should be a dynamic process. “Each new season offers opportunity for improvement,” she says. “Don’t become too dependent on the past because it can trap you in the future.” Getting stuck on goals you’ve set and achieved can hold you back from growth. For example, if you spend one cycle focusing on becoming a stronger climber and you see improvements in tackling those inclines, it’s time to focus on something else.

For this same reason, coach Sarah Kaufmann, owner of K Cycling Coaching in Salt Lake City, encourages her athletes to keep a beginner’s mindset, like they’re starting a new season fresh, even if they have some knowledge and skills to build on. “In an ideal world, athletes have a linear progression,” she says. “But in reality, you can’t always replicate past success and that can be demoralizing.”

Approaching next year’s goals with a beginner headspace that’s not overly laden with expectations, also means cyclists can take some of the pressure off themselves. “I remind athletes that they’re looking to get the best out of themselves,” says Kauffman. Keep in mind, that “best” can vary day by day and season by season—what’s important is focusing on what you can do now and how you can improve today.

Keep it positive

Of course, you want to learn from what went wrong in workouts and seasons past, but Porter encourages athletes to let go of past mistakes and focus on the positive moments. “Imagery can be a part of this,” she recommends. “Close your eyes and notice what you saw, felt, and heard during events. What are you saying to yourself?” If positive self-talk or an uplifting moment sticks out, try to hold onto that.

When reflecting on those moments of success, Porter also asks athletes to pull out a word that expresses how they were feeling. “It might be ‘euphoria’ or ‘excitement,’” she says. “I tell them to remember that word so that when they find themselves flagging in confidence, they can pull it out and gain strength from it.”

Learning from this mental reflection and channeling these positive moments might just be the secret sauce, says Henderson: “The athletes with the greatest confidence—combined with the best physical preparation—will have the greatest success.”

Using reflection to build your belief in your own abilities can then help you reveal your greatest potential. You just have to take the time to do it.

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