How to Mentally Prepare for Endurance Mountain Bike Races

Race Mentality: Control What You Can, Don’t Sweat the Rest


As Olivia Smedley says, “Some things are simply unavoidable. Control what you can control. Accept that there are some things you can’t control.”

It is solid advice, especially when embarking on an endurance XC race as epic as the Cape Epic South African Stage Race. Our team of eight amateur and professional athletes who raced in this year’s Cape Epic encountered many obstacles over eight days of racing, from flat tires to crashes and illness. On top of that, they raced in teams of two and found that presented both benefits and challenges.

On the night before Stage 4, I became ill with the gastro bug that was making its way through camp. I was devastated. When it comes to coping with illness I am typically a total sook, particularly gastro. Gastro always leaves me feeling very, very sorry for myself. As I lay awake between toilet stops for most of the night, I couldn’t believe that I was going to be sick for Stage 4. The Queen Stage. The toughest stage of the race. How was I going to ride 113km after no sleep, being dehydrated and not eating? And all that on top of riding 358km in the proceeding 4 days????

Turns out, the answer was very simple. Lisa got sick first. And she just sucked it up and rode. She didn’t sook. She didn’t whine. She simply kept going. How could I quit when she hadn’t? We were in this race together and I was determined to do for her what she had done for me in the proceeding days - not quit!

-Kate Ross

While some obstacles you face in a stage race can be controlled and predicted, others completely blindside you. All you can do is roll with the punches. In a race setting like the Cape Epic, no one is immune to uncontrollable obstacles. Even elite athletes get sick. At the start of Stage 4, news spread through the Cape Epic village that the team sitting second overall in the women’s pro standings would be pulling out of the race. They were sick, and could not continue for the remaining four stages. Liv pros Serena Bishop Gordon and Kaysee Armstrong also fell ill, with only two days of racing left ahead of them.

All you can do is control the controllables. Hydrate, stay fueled, be supportive, and get as much sleep as possible. Stay positive and take the long view. Every day is new and keeping our eyes on the prize (finishing Cape Epic) provided the motivation I needed to keep pedaling when I felt like curling up trailside.

I wanted to be a role model for the rest of the Trail Squad; they were looking to Kaysee and me for guidance and direction. Having this obligation on our shoulders was a responsibility and a privilege. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

-Serena Bishop Gordon

So what can you control before and during an endurance race and what should you worry less about? With the help of all the Trail Squad athletes, we’ve put together the following list to help you better prepare for your next endurance XC race.

What You Can Control & How to Control It

  • Your Training: The amount and quality of your training for the event you’re planning to participate in is completely within your control and is the best thing you can do to ensure a good result!
  • Your Health Prior to Leaving: Weeks before leaving for a race be diligent about washing your hands and wearing masks around potentially sick adults and children. Get plenty of sleep and hydrate leading up to a race. If possible, arrive to the location of the race early to give yourself enough time to acclimate and recover from any jetlag or illness acquired on the trip.
  • Your Rest and Recovery During the Race: As soon as you get off the bike, whether you are in a multi-day stage race, or practicing leading up to a race, begin to recover. If possible, get a massage, as it helps flush the body of lactic acid and toxins. Get off your feet when you can and rest both your body and your mind.
  • Your Nutrition: You can always control what food you put into your body. Start a nutrition plan well before the race begins and try to continue with that nutrition plan – as much as possible – during the race. Race morning is not a good time to try strange foods!
  • Sanitation: Before, during, and after the race, wash your hands often and avoid close contact with other racers. At aid stations, try to eat foods in sealed wrappers and fruits with peel/skin.
  • Prepare Your Bike: Before the start of the race, and after each leg of the race in a multi-stage bike race, make sure your bike is in good working order. Checking the wear of your tires, brake pads, level of tubeless sealant in your tires, bolt tension, etc. are all important steps to take prior to a race. Check out our guide on how to perform a safety check for more info.
  • Learn How to Repair Your Bike: Going into any bike race, but particularly an endurance off-road event, it is important to know how to repair common issues that come up on the trail. Here is a good starting place for how to fix your bike trail-side.
  • Know the Course and Conditions: Being prepared for the challenge ahead can help prevent overexertion and falls. Get to know the course, if possible and calculate risk on the trail. How much is taking a harder line going to benefit you? If you have hesitation about being able to ride anything on course, for an endurance race sometimes your best bet is to go around or walk it instead of risking a fall that could take you out of the race. Knowing the conditions of the trail will help you make informed choices about tires and tire pressure that could give you added traction. And finally, being informed of the weather helps you make choices about how hard to push, how much hydration to bring, etc.

What You Can’t Control & How to Deal

  • Getting Sick: Regardless of how careful you are, if a contagious virus is going around or you happen to ingest something that doesn’t sit well with you there is always a chance of getting sick during a race. If you do get sick, assess the situation. If racing would put you in danger of crashing or further risk your health, it may be best to pull out of the race. If you are able to continue, it’s time to re-frame your mindset and adjust your goals. Find motivation and focus on completing your mission.
  • How other Riders Perform: You cannot control how much another rider has trained and how much work they have put in. When it comes to your competition, if you don’t place how you want to and you have done everything you could to control the controllables, then you have to be proud of what you have done or determine how you can improve for next time.
  • Crashes: Even great riders crash. Crashes can occur because of other riders, unexpected terrain changes, weather, or any other number of causes that are completely out of your control. If you crash in your race, make sure to assess your health and the condition of your bike before continuing. Then, relax. There is nothing you can do about a crash after it happens, so try to focus on the next.
  • Mechanicals: Bike parts break, tires go flat, and more often than not – there is nothing you can do to control it other than making sure your bike is working when you start the race. Get comfortable learning how to fix common issues on your bike (see above, things you can control), then breathe. It’s much harder to fix your bike when you are freaking out!

Even when the going gets tough during an endurance mountain bike race, just remember why you are doing it in the first place: the fun, the friendships, and the challenge.