How to Keep Improving, No Matter What

9 Ways to Keep Riding Stronger, Faster, and Happier

with SANDRA WALTER, Liv Racing XC MTB Athlete

I’ve been competing in cross-country mountain biking for more than two decades. I started in high school after some friends convinced me to try racing and now, as surprised as I am to admit it, I’m pushing 40. People are often amazed to hear that I’ve been at it for so long, that I love this sport more than ever, and most of all – that I’m still getting better!

Last year, I had my career best season. I was consistently placing in the top-20 at World Cups and achieving personal best results. Unlike many other sports that are truly only for the young at the international level (gymnastics, for example), mountain biking – and cycling in general – can see women in their 40s excelling at the top of the elite field. This fact, combined with my continuing upward trajectory in the sport, makes me believe I can still achieve my dream of competing at the Olympics.

So how do I keep improving, even though I’ve been training at a high level for more than 20 years? Simply put, I never gave up. Here are some strategies that could help you reignite the fire for your sport and keep improving: 

1. As you advance, you will improve more slowly… and that’s ok. When you start up with a new sport, the learning curve is very steep, but relatively short to get to a level of proficiency. Because there is so much new information to take in and so many skills to learn in order to just do the sport, the newbie will improve quickly. With every practice, the beginner athlete will see big gains, which makes it a really motivating and rewarding stage. 

At the intermediate level, the improvement curve starts to plateau, gains begin to happen more slowly, and things get tougher mentally. You’re still making improvements and seeing where gains can be made, but you’ve surpassed that initial rush of quick improvement that is so exciting and it’s suddenly requiring a lot more work to make the more subtle gains needed to become an expert. 

When you get to a stage in your development where improvement plateaus and you start to question your motivation, it’s important to check in and remind yourself why you started to begin with. Do those reasons still apply? If not, what changed? Is it possible to get back to that excitement you had when you started? If not, is there a way you can regain the joy, or is it time to move on to something new?

2. Change things up. If you do the same thing the same way day in and day out, it’s bound to get boring. Not only is it mentally uninspiring, but repetition can also become physically ineffective.

For example, for a few years, my coach and I worked on increasing my capacity to handle consistent aerobic stress in order to improve my endurance. To do this, I did blocks of five or six three-hour rides per week during my aerobic endurance training phase over the winter. In the beginning, I was having trouble sustaining this load. I’d get really tired and struggled to stay healthy. But eventually, my body adapted and I was able to handle it really well. At that point, it was time to change the way I did my endurance training, because my body had gotten too good at that method. The following year, my coach prescribed much longer but fewer endurance rides (up to six hours), punctuated by more short workouts. I was still doing the same (or higher) number of hours, but just in a different configuration, which tricked my body into making more adaptations and increasing my aerobic endurance further. 

This “Change it Up” philosophy also works if you’re struggling mentally with motivation. For example, if you’re tired of doing the same old routes on your road bike, check out all of the gravel options in your area. All of a sudden, every ride will feel fresh, new and exciting. 

3. Develop process goals. Sometimes we get too serious about a sport and we lose sight of the reasons we started it in the first place. This seriousness is often related to outcome oriented goals that can be really hard to control. If your main goal is to get on the podium and you miss it because the World Champion, Olympic gold medalist and World Cup leader all showed up that day, or you had an unforeseeable mechanical, you didn’t achieve your goal even though you gave it everything you had and did everything to plan. In your mind, it’s still a failure, despite the fact that it may have actually been one of the best performances of your life. 

If you had set a series of process goals and you hit all of those goals, all of a sudden your race was a roaring success, even if you didn’t get on the podium that day. Process goals are things within your control, like maintaining good form on climbs, keeping your eyes up and body in an attacking position on descents, sticking to the rear wheel of whoever passes you for as long as possible, cleaning a particularly technical section every lap, fueling at planned times, and staying mindful throughout the race of what you need to do on every section of the course.

4. Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’ve been doing your sport for a long time, it’s really important to keep an open mind and be willing to try new things in every aspect, including training, equipment choices, competition schedule, etc. Sport is always changing, equipment is always being updated, sports scientists are always learning new things, your competition is always innovating. If you just stick to the way you’ve always done things, chances are you’ll stagnate. If I didn’t change things, I’d still be riding a rigid bike with 26” wheels, cantilever brakes and my tires pumped up to 40psi with tubes! 

This photo is from my very first race in Switzerland while on vacation with my family in 1996. Note the rear luggage rack and toe straps! I was on the only one without clipless pedals, suspension or a jersey with sponsor logos on it. But I was the only one with a rear rack. ;-)

5. Train your strengths and your weaknesses. If you’re a great climber, you probably love going out and smashing hill repeats, because you’re good at them and that makes crushing mountains fun. However, you’ll get more gains by training the things you’re not as good at. If you’re not that efficient at throwing down power on flat terrain, doing more intervals on the flats will probably help you elevate your overall game by expanding your toolbox of strengths. Or do you struggle on descents? What could be more fun than putting in some bike park time to help you get more comfortable on the steeps? By getting out of your comfort zone and working on things that scare you or you find particularly difficult, you’ll become better at your sport overall. After all, the best athletes in the world are great at all aspects of their sport.

6. Do it for the right reasons. When people ask why I race, I reply: “Because I love it!” If that’s not your number one reason for pursuing something that requires so much work, financial, mental, emotional, physical and time investment (from yourself as well as your loved ones), then it’s time to reevaluate your motivations. If you’re in it for money, medals, fame or because you feel it’s the only thing you’re good at, it’s hard to imagine being happy.

7. Surround yourself with good people. Invite people into your world who support your dreams! Often, these people share the same interests as you, but that’s not necessary. As long as the important people in your life understand why your goals are important and they love you unconditionally, regardless of your results, then they’re keepers. If they make you feel guilty about going out on a six-hour training ride or leaving for weeks at a time to compete, then they’re probably not people you want to spend too much energy on. 

This is one of our weekly winter training rides – every Saturday, rain, snow or shine! This crew is the best!

It’s important to have a good support network. (Paul Craig photo)

8. Maintain a desire to learn. If you’re eager to keep gaining knowledge about your sport and you recognize the learning never stops, you will continue to get better. People who feel they know all there is to know and think they’ve mastered all of the skills required will probably not see much more improvement in their performance. 

Always learning! In 2016, I took the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association Level 1 course.

9. Keep believing. We all know if we don’t believe in what we’re doing, we probably aren’t going to be successful at it. If you want to be your best in your sport, you need to believe in your training, your goals, and most importantly in yourself. I believe to my very core that I have not yet reached my full potential in XC mountain bike racing. I believe I can still get faster, physically and mentally stronger and more skilled. These beliefs are what keep me motivated to continue working hard and racing harder.