Mental Toughness during COVID-19

What is mental toughness?

Google it.

Go on, I’ll wait. Type: athlete mental toughness. I did it this week while working on this blog and got nearly 1.5 million pages with ‘answers’. From coaching pages to youtube videos, instagram memes, scholarly articles, and news reports, there are pages and pages of information on the topic. And they all said different things in trying to decide what it was: strength, optimism, determination, performance, pressure, toughness, resiliency, self-belief, motivation, calm, concentrated, winner, hardcore, grit, pain.

The first message that I took away from my searching was: no one really knows exactly what it is. And it seems that on that one point, others agree:

When it comes to sport psychology, mental toughness is possibly one of the most widely used terms, and yet, there is no agreement on its definition.

Athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists have consistently implicated mental toughness as one of the most important psychological characteristics related to success in sports. Over the last few decades, numerous studies have been conducted to examine the role of mental toughness in sporting success. However, its conceptualization and measurement are without consensus.

The second message that I took away from my searching was: Don’t Google it.

Over the past few months, Melissa Urie (Mel) and I have been talking a lot about mental toughness. If you don’t (yet) know who Mel is, Google her. Add in the word UberMan. Impressive eh? So to say that Mel knows a little bit about this subject is probably an understatement. But even after months of talking about it, we also still aren’t quite sure what it is. Other than it’s something that you need to develop and create your practice around, so that when the time comes that you need it it comes ‘naturally’ to you as a result of training those habits. And it’s not always easy to develop. Okay, it’s actually never easy to develop. But it is important for the kinds of athletic endeavours that both of us try, and want, to do. Which is usually in the gruelling arena of endurance and ultra endurance sport.

Over the last few months that we’ve been in the midst of the corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic (and its accompanying pandemic – the social media sh*tstorm) I’ve found it a lot more difficult to cope with even ‘simple’ day-to-day activities. The idea of continuing to work on and develop my mental toughness has seemed like a far reach. I knew it was important, but trying to keep up the mental toughness required to ride 200+km rides in the middle of winter seemed… well, rather difficult. And exhausting. It made me start to question why I was even trying, and I reached out to Mel to start talking.

Mel came up to where I live (in regional Victoria) to ride together the weekend before last and it was lovely to just ‘go for a ride’ outdoors that didn’t require digging deep into the mental toughness bucket.

Riding together in the Macedon Ranges

We had planned an even longer ride together the next weekend, but metropolitan Melbourne (and Mitchell Shire) had such an increase in covid cases that they reverted back to ‘Stage 3 restrictions’ and locked down those suburbs.

This meant for Mel that she could ride in different suburbs and council areas but she could not leave the Melbourne metropolitan area. For me, there were no restrictions on where I could travel within the state (of Victoria) but I couldn’t ride in to the Melbourne metropolitan area.

So we were, quite literally, separated.

We could Zwift zoom…

So Plan B. Mel had a 120km ride locked in her training program, so decided that she’d have to do this one indoors. I ‘volunteered’ to ride indoors at the same time as her, and we’d set up some sort of video conference meeting so that we could see each other while riding. It had been an insane week for me already of zoom meetings, classes, projects, and other fun work stuff, so I hadn’t been able to get outside for any riding. That meant that of my planned 12 hours of riding for the week I had accomplished just under 6 hours… so it looked like a 6 hour+ Zwift session for me while Mel rode.

Needless to say, neither of us chose flat rides, or bunch rides, for our workout. We would be doing this solo. Zwift solo even.

  • For the Zwifters: Mel chose to ride the Uber Pretzel Loop, and I chose to start with the Mega Pretzel (I already had the Uber badge) and then add on one or two other courses afterwards pending how we were going for time.
  • For the non-Zwifters: the Uber Pretzel is currently dubbed the ‘hardest route on Zwift’ at 128.3km and 2380m of elevation. The Mega Pretzel is the second hardest route (or third, depending on where you rank the Four Horsemen) with 107km and 1642m of climbing resistance

And while we rode the hardest courses on Zwift, we would talk about mental toughness training.

Let’s just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The recordings

I recorded (almost) our entire session with the voice recording software on my phone, then spent hours (days!) afterwards transcribing the recording of our ride discussion. I’ve quoted us as much as possible to try and really capture not only our thoughts on mental toughness during a pandemic, but also what it’s like to try and talk about mental toughness during a long tough day of indoor training. I found it somewhat surprising how much we open up when we aren’t trying to filter our thoughts and some of our defensive walls are down. Makes me think of why riding long with a buddy is so important for clearing out that head space… maybe that’s a blog for another time.

All the recordings – I grabbed them in 30 minute blocks just in case of errors

Side note one: I’ve omitted much of the pauses, coughs, sniffs, strangled gag noises, swearing, and heavy breathing during efforts and climbing that also took place during the recordings. There are a few references to what we were doing on Zwift so if it seems that we get sidetracked occasionally it’s because we were riding while having this chat.

Side note two: I am grateful, very grateful, this is not a podcast.


Where does the focus go when your “why” is gone?

Typical of many long rides, Mel and I started our chats by outlining what the plan was for today in terms of distance and time. Trying to keep ourselves accountable I guess. I did caveat by saying that I might not ride all 6 hours but would see how I went, and Mel suggested that she might just ‘ride to 120km’ and then stop instead of doing the last 7km up the Alpe du Zwift climb at the end of her ride. Both of us knew we were bullsh!tting each other and that we’d push on to the end, but it was nice to have that safety net plan there just in case.

Our talk then shifted to ‘silly things we’ve done in training’ that have been mental wins when we’ve been preparing for big events. Such as Mel backing up an IronMan by riding the Alpe d’Huez (in real life, not on Zwift) and then backing that up with more riding in the alps until her legs finally gave up on her.

Mel: But holy hell. That was… when I realised I’m actually pretty fricken tough. I can do this. That was kinda my moment of reckoning. They were like how are you still riding? I’m like I have no idea. But I am. And climbing these ridiculous mountains. Yeah.
And that’s how I proved to myself before I do it. If you do something ridiculous, you’re like, aw yea cool.

Talk then shifted from real life stupid things we’ve done to Zwift stupid things we’re doing. Such as FTP tests, racing on Zwift, and training. I admitted to Mel that I struggle with the FTP tests, and where I ‘stand’ in comparisons to others

Tiff - I just can’t push that much power and then keep going up. I can drive a wee bit of power for a very short time, and then that’s it, I’m done. But if you ask me to hold something steady for like 10 hours I’m good. But don’t ask me to put any power down because, like, I die. So my FTP is always I think significantly lower than what people expect it to be.
Mel – aw yeah (laughs) but also for me it’s actually just a number... it doesn’t mean anything
Tiff – yeah, it doesn’t mean anything outside of this (gestures to Zwift) for me, because I don’t have a power meter on my bike. I don’t know what I’m like in the real world. But I guess when I’ve been doing, I know it’s just a number but, when all I’ve been doing is indoor training looking at numbers, it kinda becomes more important than maybe it should... and becomes then, because I’m not doing distances, the number start to kinda define how I’m doing
Mel – yeah it’s that racing mentality
Tiff – yeah maybe... probably. Silly Tiffo

Look I know they’re just numbers. And they’re only my numbers. But I’ve always played the numbers game. Always. It’s part of who I am, so to say ‘oh they’re not important’ would be lying to myself. But somehow I still haven’t figured out a way to make them less definitive of who I am as a cyclist. Maybe it’s because I started out on the indoor trainer riding just to the numbers. But given it’s been four years since then you’d think I’d move on, but I haven’t. So maybe it’s time to accept that a part of me does see them as a validation of how I’m doing, and learn to be comfortable with that. That being said, I do ignore the numbers that don’t say what I want them to say.

Tiff: When I got this Garmin thing, it’s got a body battery thing on it. But because it had no data on me, it...
Mel: did it just average your scores for your height and weight
Tiff: Yeah, it would be like, here’s your height and weight and age, you don’t have any VO2Max scores, so we don’t know how quickly you can recover yet, so we’re going to treat you like a normal person. So I’d do like a normal day, and it would be like WHOA you need to lie down for 4 days! It’s getting the hang of it now, it still doesn’t like the really long distance multi-day rides. It’s like ‘you burnt out on day 1, you now need to lie down’ and I’m like nope.. 
(laughs) it’ll say be careful tomorrow because you don’t have any energy. I’m like, be careful like 360kms? I’m in!

It would seem the days of big multi-day rides are in the distant future, and the timing on those is yet unknown. So without any clear goal, I’ve switched up what I do on the weekends to include more time with my family and friends. And that includes spending more time on my feet and getting back into hiking and spending time re-connecting with a good friend. It’s amazing the difference that makes to my week. I know it’s an obvious thing to say. I’m finding if I can decrease the external stresses in my life (even though I use the bike and the running to combat those) including work, family, friendships, and cycling-related push goals, it becomes different to do what I do on the bike.

But then without those external stresses in my life, do I need the big 200km rides to ‘combat’ those stresses anymore? Turns out I don’t. And if I don’t need the long rides for cleansing and catharsis anymore… then what is my reason for doing them? Where has my ‘why’ gone?

Tiff: But I’m also finding that my push through the long rides is not as strong at the moment. And I’m trying to figure out why that is. Like, why do I now want to do... I mean, long rides like 200km or more outdoor. Not on Zwift. 200km outdoor long rides. And, it’s really making me, I think, think about “my why” as well. Because it was always, I do that because I’ve got a certain Audax goal, or, giving myself this personal mission to do this, or I’ve got a big event coming up, or, I’m having a really really shit time in my life and I need the catharsis that the long ride brings. And now I’m going, my life is not super shit. There’s no Audax rides at all, I don’t know if I have a big goal coming up, so...
Mel: Yeah
Tiff: why bother?
Mel: Yeah (aero tuck downhill!) and up a wall. Jesus!
Tiff: yeah you’re coming down the KOM that I Everested when you were on the phone with me. Remember, 13% uphill on a downhill this is bullsh!t!
Mel: yeah and I’m not turned up to 100% either!
(discussion on the hardness levels of Zwift)
Mel: yeah so anyways keep going
Tiff: yeah so it’s just been an interesting… I’d love to sit and unpack why it is that I don’t want to ride long now. And I did want to ride long before.

It’s a really intriguing thing, because I’ve always been so driven to do the long stuff. But if there’s not an external goal I’m finding my own motivation is going down quite significantly. Especially now that Audax Victoria has pulled all its rides so there’s no ‘Audax gain’ from doing the longer rides.

I know that technically there’s nothing stopping me from doing these long rides, just like there’s nothing stopping me from getting on my bike and riding with Mel on Zwift. But I think maybe it starts from last year: at the beginning of last Audax season (November 2019) I’d just come out of the PBP nightmare. Or at least I was feeling like I was progressing out of it. And I set some goals for the 2020 season. Because that was what I felt I needed to do and I could do this season. It’s my fourth season in Audax, I’m feeling strong, I’m mentally got myself back together, and thought if I planned ahead of time and focused, I could really kick some goals on an ‘off year’ between PBP and LEL (London-Edinburgh-London, a 1500km ride planned for 2021).

And then I had an ankle injury, so that lost me a multi-day ride. And then I had to take all that time off, and then Covid hit right after that, and then it was like, oh now we’re not riding. Are we riding? And it was all just… I just lost the focus.

Tiff: so, yeah, it’s just been an interesting time, going. Like I’m still training, I’m still riding. And I think, like I set up this Zwift program so that I have a “thing to do” not because I’m aiming for something. But, because I’m not finding the internal motivation is not as strong.
Mel: when did that start dropping off?
Tiff: I don’t know, I’m trying to think, like, I definitely feel, like when I saw the Audax Vic announcement that there were no more calendar rides, no more perms, that hit like a punch to the guts. Like I really felt that one. Because I think the first time we had to make that call it felt like, yeah, of course, this is what we have to do, it’s a national level strategy, we’re all in this together.
Mel: but now it’s just Melbourne
Tiff: now it’s just Victoria. Yeah, and it just really sucks.

Acknowledging that it’s not fair and it sucks

With the Audax rides gone (again) I struggled. And not all Audax Australia. Just Audax Victoria. I agree that they’ve made it a Victorian shut down, and not a National shut down. Because why should everyone else be punished because one region has had its second wave with an increase in cases by the day. (though as I write this it looks like NSW is coming up next). So logically I understand why we’ve done this. But emotionally… well that was a different story.

Tiff - I’m just like a petulant toddler having a tantrum in the corner pounding my legs on the floor crying out it’s not fair. It’s not fair! And I know that’s not the right response, but you know, I think I have to acknowledge that that’s kinda where I’m at. Which is f**k this is sh!t and it’s not fair. Wah!! Wah wah wah!
Mel: And you’re not alone there, there are so many people having that response. Like one of the girls that I work with. There’s two doctors and they can’t take leave at the same time. So one of them went on leave last week, went up to Bright for a couple days. The day he came back was when they announced the lockdown. And he was like well thank god I got that time away. And she was like f**k you I hate you. Because on my leave I can’t do anything I can’t go anywhere. And like, it’s just that sense of injustice. Like, I’ve been doing the right thing, why can’t you a$$holes do the right thing as well?

Talking with Mel made my reaction (even though not what I’d like to feel) seem more normal, which helped. Mel said the thing she really struggled with at the very start of Covid was that sense of identity. Like who am I? That’s the other thing that we’ve heard a lot of athletes talking about in regards to not having races, and therefore not having motivation and drive. Which is now what am I doing this for? For myself, if I’m not that endurance cyclist, who am I? And if I’m not doing long rides can I still say that I am?

So it was back to not just where is my why, but where is my identity?

Tiff: yeah for both of us it’s such a big part, not just who we are. I mean I recognise that I have a lot of other aspects of my life. Family job kids friends social drinking haha all those other activities that I do. But they aren’t as mentally or as time consuming as the cycling is... and they’re not, like, where does my outlet go if I don’t do this?
Because I’m honest enough in myself to know that I need to do something. Or I will become a psycho wilder-beast. You know, it’s not like oh I’ll just stop cycling and I’ll meditate and become a hippy. Nope. This is silly. I’m not going to fight my nature. It’s taken me how many years to start working with myself, we’re not going to start fighting it again. Accepting that this is who I am and this is what I do. And this is how I work with myself and why I do it.

But it feels like I just finally found myself and now I’m losing me again.

I am not finding myself in a Zwift virtual world. Like. She’s lovely but she looks way to calm all the time. She doesn’t even smile! She doesn’t know any good dad jokes! Useless!

How to stay accountable

So if I don’t have that inner drive to keep pushing myself, then I need something outside of me to help. That’s where finding accountability comes in. I think too what’s hitting me really hard, especially this week, was that I actually had friends come up and ride prior to lockdown. And I got outside on the bike. With people. This made me realise that I’ve actually been super caving, and riding a lot by myself. I haven’t been trying to get out on group rides, I can’t even bother.

Mel: then where is the accountability coming from?
Tiff: well, it’s... I’m the only one driving my accountability right now. I’m the only one that knows what I want to do on Zwift this week. How many hours I want to do what kinds of rides. It’s just me. And like, part of me misses the Strava kudoses that I get when I do the big stuff outdoors because, Strava needs a Zwift filter, no one wants to see this sh!t. 
Mel - Right?
Tiff - Yeah, so the only accountability is myself. Which I think normally my only accountability is myself. Really. You know. I don’t have… anyone really watching what I do. To the level of going “hey Tiff you only rode 6 hours this week, you all right?” nope. No one cares about this stuff but me. Which is a good thing! I try and talk to Max about it and he’s like “I don’t care... this is my not caring face” ... but he’s been good. Like, getting up at 5 in the morning to get on the bike at 6... It is still not a real time of day. It is still awful. But making sure that I’ve got, two rides... even if they’re virtual bunch rides a week, that keeps me accountable. Well, and plugging this in with you on a Sunday. (laughs) Not gonna lie, was not super keen to do this one in the virtual world. Would one million thousand percent prefer to be out there in the rain with you.

But having Mel come up and ride outdoors prior to lockdown made me realise I need to do this! Book in, schedule time, make the effort to do stuff with people. Because it’s too easy. Way too easy to just go I’m done, I’m just going to slide into my cave and not deal with people.

Cortisol and the stress cycle

But everything that’s been happening in the past few months has felt like it’s just building up my stress, and that hasn’t felt super great. Chatting with my friend the psych provided some insight into this, as she has been researching ‘the stress cycle’ a lot more lately:

In a very primal way, our brains are designed this way to keep us safe. The stress response is designed to help us escape, flee, run. It was designed with the stress of a rattlesnake or saber-tooth tiger in mind: things you’ll have to literally run from.

To calm the entire system down, the cycle has to complete. Once our fight/flight/freeze response is triggered, your brain and body wants to know you’ve escaped the threat. It needs to know that you out-ran the tiger.

Many of our stress triggers today would be completely inappropriate to literally run from. Instead, most of us bottle it up. We slap a smile on our face.

There’s a reason why exercise is recommended as the number-one best way to reduce stress: it’s the fastest way to show your brain that you’ve escaped the threat. It’s the fastest way to complete the stress cycle and essentially rinse the stress hormones out of your brain.

But we can’t ‘run from COVID’ or fight it off, so it ends up being this underlying insidious stressor that maybe we aren’t accounting for when we’re trying to plan out future ‘hard’ activites.

Mel: The thing that I think people don’t really account for that I really make a point of talking about is life stress as well. And it’s like... the amount of people that I talk to, like, "I’ve just moved house, I’ve got two kids under 5, and I want to do an Ironman." Like, do you really think that’s a good idea to do this right now? Like, how much time, realistically, can you dedicate to this? And it’s like, you know you have, a sick elderly parent or something, you know, you’ve got to be thinking about all those other things as well. You can’t just...

(fights with zwift, lost signal) The virtual world is so great except when it doesn’t work which is much of the time. Mel’s had been dropping out so much this ride she it would have been comical. Except that it wasn’t. I think that we could almost do a podcast, or a blog, on maintaining mental toughness on Zwift when it doesn’t work! But maybe we’ll leave that for another time…

Mel: And like the other thing at the moment, is Covid is a significant life stress, like, we’re not... even when you’re at home relaxing, it’s still in the back of your mind thinking about it. So we’re all kinda like at that heightened state of alertness and anxiety, kinda sitting there in the background. So you’ve gotta be mindful of, you’ve gotta be careful to not pile on the pressure that is actually not needed right now. It’s more time to dial it back a bit and find your purpose in other ways, rather than like doing crazy crazy things. Is that going to be serving you how you need it to be.
Tiff: I found the first... I’d like to say it was only the first couple weeks but I reckon it was more like 4-8 weeks where just everything felt too hard. Trying to find a new routine, new rhythm, get on the bike, life, work, teaching, family, kids at home, home schooling. You know. Everything was so hard. And then you’ve got people like ‘oh, I’m making sourdough’ and I’m like f**k, I made Mac & Cheese for lunch and I burnt it. But well-done you. How, like how? I’m just gonna turn off all this social media sh!t off for awhile. Cannot cope with the one-up-manship of people trying to prove they’re okay. I’m like damn, I’m just gonna put it out there and just go: confirming. Super not okay over here. Having hard time trying to do all the things.

Life stressors. It’s that underlying subconscious. Maybe you’ve stopped thinking about it, maybe it’s still there because you can’t avoid any talk of Covid every single day. It’s on the radio, it’s on the news, it’s on all the social media feeds, it’s in my email inbox. So, unless I’m hiding under a rock, which has become a really appealing option, you can’t get away from it. And even if I was hiding under a rock I would still need my husband to bring me food and chances are he’d feed me food and then tell me what was happening with Covid. So we cannot escape. We cannot escape this.

That underlying covid stress is big, and I think it’s bigger than we’re admitting that it is in terms of the effect it’s having. But there’s still this feeling like we should be used to it. We’ve had it for a few months, let’s just get on with our ‘adapted for Covid life.’ But we aren’t. And I’m feeling it.

Tiff - but it’s like… I don’t think I am (coping). I don’t think I am used to it by now. And I think now having to go into the second round of lockdown…. It’s like I don’t want to do this again.
Tiff: How do you develop mental toughness during covid when you’re not riding… spoiler alert, you don’t. You just f**king cope. I think that’s what it’s coming down to.
I don’t know if this is the time to be pushing those physical and mental boundaries to get tougher. I think it’s a lot of like, almost like, the rest week that lasts forever. Bedding in what you’ve got. Acknowledging that it’s sh!t
Mel: yeah

Maybe it IS doing all that “I just need to be kind to myself” stuff. Shudder. Yeah for those that have a reaction to that phrase I’m with you. But maybe it’s about learning new skill sets. And those skill sets could be: how do you embed what it is you have. Almost like working on that base again, base line mental strength training, instead of trying to be at that cutting edge of “harder better faster stronger.”

Mel: yeah! That’s it. Like is it actually serving you. What’s the, what’s the purpose of what you’re doing now, is it actually a valid (oh I’m in the jungle now!) Yeah, like, what purpose is it serving you at this point in time. And is it actually worse pushing the boundaries and you know, being all crazy tough. What’s the actual point of that? If you want to fine, but you don’t have to.
Tiff: but I think you know like we get so conditioned
(hold on, sun came out, gun show. Like this is the filter I need in my life)
But we get, well I get, like conditioned to doing things that are mentally tough, until that becomes my normal, and then I have to ramp it up to the next level, whatever that means, and I don’t have anything to draw from, because my, like, reserve mental toughness tank is dealing with Covid right now, and it does just feel like everything it too damn hard.

I’m not taking up making sourdough and knitting though. There’s got to be another purpose rather than crafting.

Shifting the focus: today is enough

Tiff: I’d kinda like some food, my support crew is significantly absent this morning. Like dude! Where are you? You need to come in here and open up the windows cause it’s like a fricken steam room in here right now...
All right two hours down.
Mel: we were talking before about mental stuff but we got distracted
Tiff: distracted by the food
Mel: that’s right
Tiff: yeah we were talking about... because I was thinking, when we were going to talk about this, I’ll put together a (sorry, climbing for a sec...)
Me: I mean Jesus can’t you talk when you ride? (laughs)
Tiff: I can but it comes out a little bit porn-stary

When I set out to write this blog my recording the Zwift session with Mel, I thought we’d be talking about how to develop mental toughness when nothing’s on, because Covid. And now… now I don’t think that’s the blog now. I don’t necessarily think that pushing and developing is good now.

Mel suggested that instead, maybe it’s not necessarily a focus. Which is a different tack for both of us to take as we’ve been discussing, and focusing on, mental toughness and its development for months now.

When I think about the notes that we’ve written on mental toughness, we’ve talked about finding your comfort zone and then pushing outside it. I think right now so many of us are so far outside our comfort zone, every day all day, with what’s going on, and the idea of then trying to push further… it’s just too much right now. Just day-to-day is enough. Just life is enough right now.

Tiff: yes, sometimes even just getting up early to get on a bike to do a training for no purpose... that’s enough. I don’t need to go out and ride 300km in the middle of winter in order to prove to myself that I’m hardcore. I’m like, you know what, I got out of bed this morning. When I really, 1000% did not want to. And I got on my bike when I would much rather be sleeping. Or having a bath. Or eating. Mostly eating.
Mel: yeah, anything else but right now
Tiff: and nothing else, but just being here is enough.
Mel: yeah absolutely. And I think that’s also, that point that we’ve spoken about before, about being kind on yourself. Like having a bit of a chill time when you need it, and not having to strive for excellence every single day, because then you’re going to risk burning out, and then what was even the point of that.

As it turns out, stress isn’t just something that happens. In fact, it has five stages: alarm, resistance, possible recovery, adaptation, and burnout*. And it is easier to pinpoint physical burnout than it is mental burnout. Especially for me as I’ve been there before. So how do we know when we’re close to mentally burning out?

Mel: when you’re really having to push yourself hard to get out the door. When it’s like, it starts to feel like it’s more of a chore than enjoyment. That’s like what I was really starting to feel in my training for UberMan. And even though I do all the work about how exciting and preparing myself for afterwards… it becomes much more of a... I kinda want to focus more on the after than the present because you just want it done. Just want it over and done with. And I can definitely feel like that when you’re like, in it as well. When you are doing all the work and you’re like I’m over it I’m over it. 
But that feeling kinda persists in your easy weeks as well, when you’re having that bit extra recovery, and you’re mentally starting to get that refresh but it’s just not happening as much as what it was.
Tiff: you know I had this friend I was talking to last night, saying to her you know I’m shattered. We’re up at 5, on the bike, shower change breakfast, bang into work, work all day, then work all night. And then get up and do it again the next day. And she’s like, whoa. You’re hardcore. And I’m like I’m not hardcore. That’s just the only time I can ride my bike. And she’s like right but you don’t have to and you’re still doing it. And I’m like oh yeah. I don’t really think about it.

So maybe it’s not about trying to build mental toughness. It’s just being where I’m at, and appreciating what I’m able to do. And that might mean also accepting that it is a lot more mentally challenging for me to ride inside on Zwift than it is to ride outside. Outside you start finding you’ll distract yourself with scenery and different things. But on Zwift, I’m still looking at the same thing. Even though the course is changing. And I need to remember the little things… like how to turn my head occasionally so it doesn’t lock up.

Mel: yeah absolutely. You’re still doing it. 
Tiff: my feet are super pissy with me right now. I’ll take a break when we get to the top. Which is still awhile away apparently.
Mel: I passed a casino!
Tiff: there’s one brontosaurus out there as well but it’s a statue not a moving one… oh I see, I’m climbing up what I came down earlier in the ride. Doing the reverse now
(much gear spinning and breathing)
Tiff: this is the part I find I struggle with. Where I know I’ve got a break that I can take. But I have to get to the top of the climb first
Mel: why don’t you just take a break now, what’s the big deal? (makes sarcastic face then a silly face)
Tiff: I could, I totally could. Except I don’t break until the top of the climb
Mel: and you are screwing with your future self by doing that
Tiff: but I’m like, now everything hurts and I’m dying and I’m climbing and I want to get off the bike. And all I can think about is not riding
Mel: yeah absolutely. Because it’s like... who even cares where you stop
Tiff: right? No one will know. Well you’ll know but I could just tell you’ve I’ve hit the top woo hooo here I am haha.
(sighs and keeps climbing and breathing and sniffing)

After more awkward climbing noises, Mel and I settled in to another chat, which solidified that this blog post wasn’t going to be about pushing the boundaries of our mental toughness during this uncomfortable time. At least for me it wasn’t.

Tiff: I guess it is to each his own. You’ve got to find what’s working for you. And if Zwift racing is your MO, then f**k, go nuts. You’ve got lots of opportunities now. Or do some base km training or try something different.
Mel: yeah
Tiff: Meanwhile I’m like, I got out of bed. That’s all I got today. Yay.
Mel: Well done
Tiff: Well done. I got out of bed and I’m doing some pretzeling with Mel on zoom. Yay yay.
Mel: Thank you!
Tiff: Almost like riding outside. But not. So how you going?
Mel: Apparently, I’m riding downhill
Tiff: I’m climbing on gravel. Apparently.
Mel: I’ve got a friend from work, who was like, what are you doing this weekend? I’m riding indoors, and I’m going to zoom my friend. Is she also riding indoors? I’m like yeah? She’s like, you’re weird (laughs)
Tiff: but less weird than zooming my friend who’s NOT riding indoors? That would be weird. Like you’re going to watch me Netflix and chill while you work out? That seems cool.
Mel: (laughs)

Finishing what we started

At the beginning of our six-hour session we had both given each other ‘an out’ in case we needed it. Which we didn’t. Having each other there for company, even on zoom, even with all the weird noises, heavy breathing, swearing, sniffing, and gasping for air, made enough of a difference that we both got through it. An unspoken pact to get each other through this Zwift session, and through this tough time. Even if it was just for the one day. Because sometimes, that’s really all you can do. And that is enough.

Tiff: done done done, I need a break, get my shoes off. Shoot myself in the feet. And then look at what I need to finish it off. And find a route that is not quite so hilly for me. Project save Tiffo’s knees.
Mel: Hell yeah
Tiff: oh man. What a week.
After I finished my time on the bike I stayed on Zoom to cheer Mel on as she conquered the Alpe du Zwift. There was much excitement that it was finally over 🙂

Stats for the number peeps

Elapsed time6 hr 42 min6 hr 19 min
Zwift km covered130km146km
Elevation resistance 2380m1950m
Course(s) coveredThe Uber PretzelThe Mega Pretzel
The Volcano Climb
Jungle Circuit
Calories burnt(someone accidentally
deleted their Garmin file…)
3068 cal


I went back to work (from home) on Monday and woke up very tired on Tuesday, with some physical indicators that I was getting run down. After a two-hour Zwift session on Tuesday I felt okay, but didn’t seem to perk up quickly afterwards. By Wednesday I was dragging myself around, and my classes that evening were not optimal to say the least. Thursday I couldn’t even get out of bed. Hello burnout.


Guess it’s time to be kind to myself. Maybe I’ll learn how to make donuts instead of sourdough.

4 thoughts on “Mental Toughness during COVID-19

Add yours

  1. I think it’s always time to be kind to yourself. I don’t see it as being weak and it doesn’t mean you can’t push really hard until it hurts and take on daft challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you and agree. It’s just the phrase “be kind to yourself” is often wrapped up in a ‘hugs and cookies’ approach and it doesn’t really resonate with me on the same level. But again, it’s something I’m still learning about and for sure something I need to work on!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly right. To me, being kind to myself isn’t being soft on myself. It permits some stress, some pain, some exhaustion and some angst but not to the point that they can become destructive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: