Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 54 - Christina Birch - PEDAL LIKE A PRO - Part 2 of 3

Do you have a typical schedule when you’re traveling? ‘Cause I’m assuming you travel probably a considerable amount more than I would in a typical season. I know if I’m flying, I like to arrive at least a couple days extra to deal with any kind of swelling from going altitude on the plane, anything like that.


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JESSE: Do you have a typical schedule when you’re traveling? ‘Cause I’m assuming you travel probably a considerable amount more than I would in a typical season. I know if I’m flying, I like to arrive at least a couple days extra to deal with any kind of swelling from going altitude on the plane, anything like that. Do you have like a methodology you use for travel?

CHRISTINA: Yeah, the travel that we do with Team USA or USA Cycling for these World Cup circuits is pretty standard. We’ll get to a race a week before usually, and we have the same pre-race preparation that we go through every time. So, like if we’re there– a week ahead of time sounds like a lot. But for track racing, every track is built slightly different.

They all are 250 meters, wooden, banked, etc. But how long the straights are, how tight the turns, how wide, how tall; all of that has some variability. And so when we’re talking about races that are won in seconds or 10ths of seconds, dialing in our line beforehand is really important. And so getting to know the feel of the track is a key part of the race prep, and so you’re not stepping out onto the track for the first time come race day.

And so we’ll spend maybe three days on the track prior to the competition. And then the day of competition we will not touch the track except for competition. So, there’s open sessions where you can do a warm up on the track, but we only do our warm up on trainers because the risk of crashing or being crashed out is really high. And so it’s again one more variable, we can control is just to keep the warm up on the trainer. I do the same warm up every time.

I might adjust it if I’m feeling a little bit less open and I need a harder effort or if I’m feeling tired, I might do a little bit less. But honestly, I don’t really don’t think that the changes I make in warmup are grossly affecting race performance. You know, I think the mindset you bring to the line is more powerful than all that I do those two one minute efforts, or whether they’re two 45-second efforts.

JESSE: Right, right. But at the same time, I mean, that’s exactly the point. Right? And I come back to this a lot. And I have this other show that I just talking about running, I talk about mentality sometimes. But it’s like, your brain is in charge of your body and like, if you just focus on this is a physical sport, be it cycling or running or swimming or football, whatever it is; then you’re like, okay, you’re missing out on the engine.

Like your brain is running the body, you know? So, even if you’re making those adjustments and it doesn’t physically make a difference, like if it makes you feel better, then it did make a difference.

CHRISTINA: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned it as an engine because one of my favorite [??? 03:14], we have a bunch of physical therapists that we’ll work with as we’re traveling, has referred to me as a sports car. So, body like a sports car McLaren, or whatever, but my brain is like a Ford. And it’s true. Like I and I sometimes blame the Ph.D. end of this.

Because I’m constantly overthinking things, and my brain is running 100 miles an hour, and sometimes it just needs to shut up, and just chill. And so that’s– I envy a lot of athletes that have been doing this for their whole lives because they’ve maybe grown up learning to temper and overthinking mind for sport.

And for me, that’s not my natural state. And I mean here on the ranch, if you’re not overthinking things, you could be missing something that could result in massive damage to machinery or you could get stuck on the machine or you could lose an arm or you could die.

So, I was kind of raised with this very hyper-awareness thinking process. And that’s good if you’re sort of in the moment of a race and you’re very in tune with what’s going on. But if you’re just overthinking it turns very quickly into worry or that that wound spring.

JESSE: Yeah, that makes me think of this kind of a favorite phrase I have from a college coach of mine because I do the same kind of thing where it’s just like, whatever particular workout we were doing and track. I don’t know, now it’s been lost in my brain. But doing some kind of workout and I guess I was just asking a lot of questions.

And really I was trying to think about, like every 200-meter segment. So, anybody that’s not familiar with the track, it’s 400 meters, so 200 meters is half of the lap. So, I try to think about my pace in 200-meter segments and really try to break down like every interval. And he was like, “Jessie, do you know why stupid people are so much faster than you? Because they don’t think about how much it hurts, they just run.”

CHRISTINA: Yeah, yeah. Yep. I ran. I ran cross country in high school and I had a coach tell me something very similar, just run, you know. So, this is clearly a trend.

JESSE: Right. But you’ve probably experienced it by now that you can get to that place where you’re not overthinking anymore. You know, it’s just like, there’s a little bit of, I think, consternation. I’ll speak for you, feel free to correct me, consternation on our part where we’re like overthinking about how to get to the place where we’re not overthinking. You’re like, I want to be there. How do I get there? So, then you’re like working on it, and that’s the complete opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing.

CHRISTINA: I definitely remember that space. I feel that now this last year, in particular, was just so much racing so much travel. I think I almost never left that just chill, this is where we’re at, this is the reality kind of mindset, and I think that it came with a lot of practice.

JESSE: Yeah. I think repetition breeds value is the short version.

CHRISTINA: True. And I think you can do that with a lot of repetition squished into a short amount of time, which is my cycling story, or I think you can do that if you’ve been riding since you’re a junior and you spread it out over 20 years of racing.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. It’s that consistency where you have that natural tendency, in our case, overthinking and then you just, you do it over and over and over and over again. And finally, like your brain slowly starts to calm down and you don’t necessarily notice the change because it’s so gradual. Or maybe you did because it is so compressed for you. But yeah, it just seems like the more I raced in college, I would stop getting nervous before races.

Everybody else would be nervous. And I remember being nervous to start but just, we raced 24, 25 weeks out of the year, and it’s like just literally every other weekend when you spread the whole year out, but then it was every weekend for a whole season and then you get a couple weeks off and do it again, just like it’s just the same thing again, like why am I nervous? We’re gonna do it again next weekend, you know. So, that’s where I think that at least for me, that theory comes from the repetition beats it out of you.

CHRISTINA: Yeah, and I think for me now the pre-race nerves are empowering. It’s part of how I know that I’m ready and mentally tuned in and it’s no longer such a– It’s not a negative feeling at all. It’s part of the preparation.

JESSE: One of the things that always perplexes me about cyclists is how do you deal with the different disciplines? So, I mean, you’re racing gravel, and you’re also racing track, which at least in my mind, my cycling background is basically like in triathlon, and I get scared going 35 miles an hour downhill. I’m not a great bike handler. I know how to go fast in a straight line and that’s about it. So, how do you– [crosstalk]

CHRISTINA: [??? 08:51] ready for team pursuit.

JESSE: Okay. I mean, how do you deal with that? Is it a big deal or am I overblowing how different they are?

CHRISTINA: I think they are different. I think coming to gravel was sort of for me, it felt like a return to cyclocross in a way. Only just like an extended ultra long-distance cyclocross race with much fewer technical features. It’s like one of the things that I was really good at in cyclocross was very efficiently moving over the barriers, was one of my favorite parts of the race, and I’ve always, always felt really confident there. And in gravel there isn’t any running, thank goodness.

But I mean, I’ve seen the bike handling skills that I built in cyclocross and like those muddy icy courses in New England, I’ve seen that translate to the track where I get put in a tight situation or I get myself into trouble. Maybe I’m overlapping wheels with someone.

Like in a recent race, I was actually fully touching my front wheel on their back wheel. It’s just because there was a pinch and I think just being able to ride something out changing your balance if you get bumped and you skip a wheel on the track just not panicking. And I think if I’ve learned anything from cross it’s how to have the bike move under me, and shift my weight appropriately. And so I feel like that’s really saved me on the track a few times where you’d think that oh, there’s no mud here. This is going to be a pretty straightforward sport.

And then in gravel, my experience is, I’m still rather new to it. But of the races that I have done. It’s been a lot of straight shots, maybe with some power climbs, and then one turn and then a straight shot, a couple turns. But I think it’s all bike riding and I think if you go into tricky situations, be that a descent on a TT bike or a gravel turn where the gravel is loose, I think the bike, this is gonna sound weird, and I don’t really believe what I’m saying because I’m a scientist, but the bike can sense our fear or confidence as a rider.

So, if you go into that situation with fear, it’s going to manifest in tense muscles, rigidity on the bike where you need to have a little bit more flow. And you’re more likely to have something bad happen like a crash. If you go into a corner with confidence, not Cavalier, but with sort of like an ownership of the bike, I think you’re much more likely to be able to ride through a tricky situation.

JESSE: Yeah, I definitely can relate to that. Go ahead.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. I was gonna say like at the Dirty Kanza last year, I did the hundred-mile race. So, just the shorty. But they have this one descent through a bunch of really rough rocks right before a turn, and all of this was happening in traffic as the front group of the hundred was catching the back group of the 200. And I just remember thinking the same thing I think in any race when there’s a tricky situation is a little bit more pressure on the pedals rather than more brake. And I find that that has put me in that right mindset of no, I’m here to navigate through this really purposefully, and I’m sure there’s some good physics behind putting more pressure down, more traction to the wheels with that.

JESSE: Yeah. So, you’re talking about the bike kind of sensing what you want to do. I definitely relate to that where it’s like, and then also mentioning putting the pressure down, I think that’s why I feel like the hills freak me out sometimes because I get going fast enough where like, I can’t gear and then put any kind of pressure down. Like I have no ability to put more speed into the bike to change where it’s going. So, then it’s just a coast You know, I’m just coasting down, and then subject to, Missouri does not have the best of roads, and then wind or whatever is gonna push me around. And so I think that freaks me out. And I noticed if I’m more freaked out or anxious, then like, it’s gonna be worse and I’m more likely to crash.

And I know there have been times when I’ve been racing, I’ve cut around a corner, like just a 90 degree and for whatever reason misjudged it, popped off the road. I’m now on gravel with my time trial bike. And then somehow I get back on the road. I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t freaked out. I was just like, oh, this is what I’m doing now, and I go on about my day. But, yeah, so I was like, I’ve definitely lived those two mentalities and can sense the difference.

And again, it’s a matter of like, at least I go back to repetition will beat it out of me. I just slowly build up the pressure like okay, this hill, maybe I’ll go 25, 26 and then the next time I’ll go 27, 28 just build up the speed. I just don’t have the biking and the skills that you do or the background. So, I have to take these a little bit slower.

CHRISTINA: Hey, no, I think it’s really good to set, like personal challenges regardless of what they are right there. They’re personal because they’re personal and important to each of us. And I think those little challenges are so great. I think it would be different if you were sitting there saying, oh, well, 25 is good enough, or I’m never going to go faster than 25. And some people have their reasons for that. But I think the little pushing the envelope a little bit here and there, whatever the personal challenges, is really important.

JESSE: Yeah. I know. I mean, I’m different when I race too, which is interesting. I’ve gone over, I don’t know what it was 40, 41, 42 something like that, on a hill in a race, it didn’t bother me then. But if I’m out just practicing by myself, and I’m going 27 and it’s windy, I’m like, oh, I don’t. I don’t like it.

CHRISTINA: Sure, yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, definitely my risk aversion has gotten higher with age. I’ve noticed that when I first– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Yeah, I wondered about that.

CHRISTINA: I think it’s actually real. I thought that I was not going to be susceptible to it. But now in my early 30s, I’m like, well, maybe 60 miles an hour on that descent wasn’t so smart, but it’s still fun.

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I wonder too, have you– I assume you’ve probably crashed at some point in time.

CHRISTINA: A few times.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I talked with, this is way back on episode six. I think it’s episode six, Cecilia Davis Hayes. So, she’s a pro triathlete, but she used to race [??? 16:27] one. And she crashed and like broke her pelvis and just, I don’t know, she broke other things too. But that was like the thing I remember most. We kind of talked. And I’d crashed in a race and broke my collarbone which is pretty common with cycling.

And we kind of talked about the mentality of coming back after a crash, where you have that trepidation because you did just go through this traumatic event and your brain’s like, “You’re an idiot, stop doing that. You broke us.” And kinda getting back through that. So, since you’ve crashed, do you remember that kind of period after that working back in? Did you have that trepidation? Or is it just like back on the bike?

CHRISTINA: I think I, in some ways, got a little lucky and didn’t have to face that because most of my crashes, there was an immediate requirement in the situation to get back on a bike. So, one of my bad crashes, I crashed on onto my shoulder, at the track in T-Town in Pennsylvania, and actually have like a little bit of blue from the blue line embedded in my shoulder from that crash. But– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Got an involuntary tattoo.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. But it was at nationals and so I had to get back up and finish the race that we were in and then continue on with all of the other racing that was there. And so I didn’t have any moment to think about it other than I need to get a new jersey, stop the bleeding and that kind of thing. So, I think there’s something to be said if you can to get back on right away. But to be fair, I’ve been really lucky I think in the crashes that I’ve had.

I have heard of people, especially like people that have started riding bikes since they were juniors being taught how to crash appropriately so you minimize injury, how to [??? 18:38] and roll. I missed out on all that. I am not quite sure how I’ve gotten away with no big– I’m gonna Jinx myself now, but no terribly bad injuries, but I think you’re right. I think we, I’ve told my dad when I started cycling, I was like, “Look, I’m probably gonna break my collarbone eventually.” That seems to be the common thing.

JESSE: Well, you [??? 19:09] your shoulder and I always felt like for the longest time, so I didn’t, I was never taught how to like crash on a bike. But I grew up in martial arts and you work on how to fall properly, how to distribute the energy from your body to the ground so that you’re not leaving it into a single point so that you don’t break things. And I think it was my very first year of triathlon, I was kind of forced into a crash or in a wet corner, and it was like 200 meters from transition. So, I got back on the bike, got the bike in, ran the 10K, and I’ve got pictures with this like blood going down my arm.

Makes for a good story, but not that I was like, I crashed, that was fun. It was not fun. But yeah, I don’t feel like I had the same kind of like mental effect as it would have been– I would have been probably 20 then, and then 28 when I crashed and broke my collarbone. And that’s when I wonder where it’s like does age have that factor as well. 28’s not old, but I do notice like I put on more clothes in the wintertime when I go on a run. I don’t like to be as uncomfortable like, I’m just like, I’ll just be hot. Like I just noticed these little things as I get older, and I wonder how much that plays into that you know that resilience getting back on after whatever accident.

CHRISTINA: That’s interesting. I definitely, I don’t know about that. It’s funny you mentioned putting on more clothing. I found myself like doing that in other parts of my life. And I think it comes from, I hurt myself so much in training like every interval or every gym session that it is like an absolute luxury to be warm inside. And little things like that. It’s like so much of my mental energy is directed towards giving 100% when I’m training or racing, that I am less interested in being uncomfortable without a good purpose. I think people call that getting soft.

JESSE: Yeah, well, that’s– And there’s this idea that like the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And you had made me think about this earlier when you’re talking about, you’re comfortable being the underdog, but then when you’re no longer because that was the story that you told yourself who you are, and then that’s no longer your story and you’re trying to figure it out.

So, there’s this story we tell ourselves as athletes where it’s like I’m strong and then you notice yourself getting softer and you’re just like, I don’t– this isn’t good. Like I don’t want to be this person. You have to adjust that story inside your head to still be able to compete and do your job. But then cope with wanting to be more comfortable. You’re like, no, it’s okay. Like, I’m gonna stay inside. I’m not gonna go deal with a cattle. I’m just gonna sit here like–

CHRISTINA: Hey, now, I was out in the field all day yesterday. Thank you.

JESSE: Okay. Okay. That does make me think about, I just did a video because a lot of people ask about, especially I deal with runners. So, in my case, runners, but I think this happens with cycling too, new people are like, why does the first like five minutes suck so much when you get going? And sometimes I think it has to do with temperature. Do you experience that? That just like initial kind of momentum, just it’s not great or are you like ready to go all the time?

CHRISTINA: This is a question about track, or–

JESSE: Just training in general, like when you go out for a training ride, any training ride.

CHRISTINA: Because I would definitely say that track or race is over in four minutes. [crosstalk]

JESSE: No, I [??? 23:10] say you’re going out for training, right, you’re gonna be out for an hour, and just the first five minutes you get going, do you ever or often experience that like, things just don’t feel right and then you’re– I mean, you always know you’re fine, but just that initial getting going, do you ever experienced that kind of hurdle?

CHRISTINA: Yeah, sometimes. It is accentuated if I’m riding with other people who want to start out at a quicker pace than I want to. Sometimes it accelerates that warm up period. So, instead of being like, not quite in the zone for five minutes, now it’s down to two. But I mean, I’ve had a couple rides recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road bike, and now I just switched over to my gravel bike out here, that where it took me an hour today to feel like okay, this is like, this is my powerful position, now I can really go. It took me a whole hour.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah.

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