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Relax and Keep Pedaling: How to Avoid Anxiety on a Challenging Ride

By Megan Flottorp

Cycling is a great way to beat stress and boost your mood, but what happens when performance anxiety starts to take the joy out of riding? Everyone faces obstacles while progressing in a sport, but fear of failure or embarrassment shouldn’t keep anyone off a bike. The beginning of a long climb is intimidating even for the pros, but here are some tips to help you leverage your adrenaline, overcome your fears, and enjoy your ride from start to finish.

Talk yourself through it

Having a mental roadmap in place before you even start the ride is important. Although you might be feeling great when you hit the road, anxiety can creep in at any minute and it is hard to think positively once this happens. It is a good idea to have a strategy ready before things escalate. Think about why you went out to ride in the first place, how good you felt last time you got to the top of that hill, and if you’re trying something new – give yourself a break, it takes courage to venture into the unknown.


Have a plan of action

When gearing up for an ambitious ride, set goals according to the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, and time-phased. Using this matric to assess what you’re planning to achieve will help you make sure your goals are realistic and motivating. That being said, things come up and our bodies don’t work the same way every day. Decide what you’ll do if you start feeling exhausted, or if on a group ride, what you’ll do if you get dropped. Having settled in advance whether you’ll turn around and backtrack home or finish the route solo and hope to catch up, or even diverge on your own ride, will help you feel more at ease from the get-go. Having to make a decision when you’re already exhausted will just cause you more stress and leave you feeling frustrated.

Use your energy wisely

Breathing properly is the key to staying relaxed and maintaining a reasonable heart rate. It’s normal to have a few butterflies in your stomach when embarking on a challenging ride, but it is important to keep your adrenaline under control and remind yourself that it is often mind over matter. If you’re having trouble determining whether you’re relaxed or not, try deliberately tensing your muscles then releasing them. This helps you feel that you’re firmly in control of your body.


Having a pacing plan in place might seem obvious, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget. Be mindful of the number of hills on your ride, but don’t think of them as one huge challenge to overcome. Break the ride down into components and think of the effort required and recovery time in similar terms, you’ll use your energy in a more economical way if you’re cognizant of what lays ahead.

Give your body what it needs

Remember that food, drink, and rest are all ways of fueling your body. What you eat and drink before and during a ride will have an impact on performance, so be thoughtful about your nutrition choices. Getting even the slightest bit dehydrated can absolutely mean the difference between getting to the top of the hill, not to mention being able to enjoy the way up. When the body is hungry or thirsty, it goes into panic mode and any existing stress is greatly exasperated. If you start to feel light-headed or vapory, take the rest you need. You can’t push through dehydration and could end up hurting yourself if you don’t listen to your body.

Keep things in perspective

Remember that everyone has fears when it comes to cycling and that progress requires both physical and mental training. Make sure your body is properly fueled, focus on your breathing, and trust that you’re now armed with a few sound strategies to rely on if things get intense. And most importantly – don’t forget to give yourself some credit for venturing out of your comfort zone in the first place.