Coaches in the circles I run in often joke that they wouldn’t have a job if athletes figured out that all they need to do to achieve 95% of their physical potential is the same five workouts, except they’d get too bored, so they need a coach to come up with variations of those workouts, so they don’t burn out.
Before you get excited, ask me what those workouts are, and fire your coach so you can top up your 401k or buy more Starbucks, you should know that that’s not true. Sure, those five workouts target all the relevant physiology you need to stress. If you do them consistently for years, you’ll get really, really fit, but knowing those workouts in isolation doesn’t tell you when to do them, why to do them, how to do them, if you’re doing them right, how it should feel, how you should feel for them, or what your performance says about your phenotype or racing strategy, etc.
The real juice in that coach joke isn’t the simplicity of workout design; it’s the jab at an athlete’s boredom. Boredom is an underserved topic. Whenever we talk about boredom and endurance sports, it’s always about how to avoid it. See this article, and this article, and this video, and this article. Plug boredom and your sport into any search engine, and you’ll get a laundry list of articles with suggestions about how to avoid this cruel mental state that has potentially devastating consequences on your training and racing.
Because the consensus on boredom is so one-sided, athletes are led to believe that feeling bored is a cardinal training sin, that they deserve constant stimulation, that at all costs, they need to avoid that state with podcasts, riding partners, bizarre intervals, novel routes, or anything to forestall the deadly shades of gray into their world.
Wrong. They’re all wrong. Every one of those influencers and experts and friends decrying the perils of boredom, they’re full of it. Not only is it OK to be bored, but it’s critical for your progression as an athlete that you can cope, if not welcome, boredom for training and racing success. I’ll ironically start with racing because I don’t want to begin by boring you with how embracing boredom can improve your training.
Boredom is a superpower in bike racing (particularly gravel racing). In almost any cycling discipline, racing requires boredom. If you line up a beginning racer and a seasoned pro, you’d think the most apparent difference between them is their physiology, and you’d be correct to a point. Yes, the reasoned pro is fitter, but that’s not everything. What differentiates a pro from a beginning racer is their racing tactics, specifically their patience in a race.
What is patience? The ability to delay the ego-fueled impulse in the heart of every racer to show everyone how strong they are. How does a seasoned pro achieve this? Through boredom.
Every racers’ dream victory is for the gun to go off, ride the peloton off their wheel, and win by minutes. But that rarely happens because unless the racer is sandbagging the field, there’s no chance one racer will overcome the collective power of a peloton. You have to race smart, follow wheels, conserve energy, keep eating and drinking, follow dangerous moves at the right moments and use your advantages as a racer strategically.
But…that’s just boring. Sitting on the wheels for three hours and doing as little as possible is just dull. It’s far more exciting to pull a flyer and light every match you have on fire while you dangle one minute to 90 seconds off the front of the peloton until you explode, but it’s also much, much less likely to give you a good result.
I have been in pelotons during major stage races riding next to a teammate that’s been training for the race for months look over at me and mutter that they’re too bored just to sit here anymore and then go off and expend energy at dumb moments for no reason just because it’s too hard for them just to sit there, pedal as little as possible, eat and drink, and wait for the critical moment to come. Think about that. They may have trained perfectly for months and months for this race, arrived in peak form, and then thrown it all away because they couldn’t wait for three hours, so they were fresh for the last 60 minutes when everything is decided.
The necessity of tolerating boredom doesn’t just apply to long road races; they apply to almost every cycling discipline. Even in a track race that lasts only a handful of minutes, it’s unwise to just go all out right off the line. You’ve seen the dance, haven’t you? One rider remains high on the track, the other low, and they watch each other playing cat and mouse. Each cyclist carefully reads body language, positioning, and the distance left on the track before making their final move. Even then, they have to wait; they have to endure boredom.
In gravel racing, enduring boredom is fundamental, hell, intrinsic to the discipline. I don’t care if you’re Peter Stetina. No matter how fast you are, the courses are so long and hard that everyone at some point is going to be bored. Just think of Unbound 200 – the fastest racers finish in around ten hours! Do you think they don’t have a couple of moments 165 miles in pushing hard into a headwind that they’re like, ‘Good God, this sucks so hard, make it stop, I just want this to be over? I guarantee you that they do. That doesn’t mean they pull off into the ditch, whip out their phone, and start playing a few games on chess.com. They keep pedaling.
Imagine my surprise when I hear athletes bitching about being bored or see endless articles about avoiding boredom when clearly, in races they want to do well in, being able to be bored is a critical factor in their success! It’s like athletes and thought leaders all saying, “You should never be uncomfortable when you train/race,” or “You should never be hungry when you’re dieting,” or “When you’re tired you don’t need to sleep more.” Collectively, when we say we need to avoid boredom at all costs, we’re arguing against developing a crucial race skill.
And that brings me to training. Athletes rarely piss me off, but if there’s one thing that sets me off, it’s a comment like, “Didn’t finish this, was bored.”
Excuse my french, but I don’t give a damn if an athlete is bored. Workouts are a lot of things, but they’re sure as hell aren’t a rock concert, HBO Max, a good book, a night out on the town, or bungee jumping. Let me put this plainly: No one cares if you’re bored.
Here’s something hard to accept but true: everything fulfilling in life is boring sometimes. Working at a job is boring, saving money to invest is boring, keeping a relationship going after the honeymoon phase is boring, being there when friends and family need you is boring, learning how to cook is boring…boring, boring, boring. But…
It’s worth it. What’s worth is directly proportional to the toil and boredom you must endure to achieve it. Put another way, to achieve a better future; you have to bargain with the present and delay gratification. Delaying gratification is hard because instead of gratifying yourself, you have to be…you guessed it – bored.
So when an athlete tells me they skipped a workout because they were bored or did half of a workout, I’m just not sympathetic. Of course, training is boring – anything that’s fulfilling isn’t by definition whaling on your dopamine button every minute – that’s why it’s fulfilling, you’re delaying gratification and proving to yourself that you can say no to yourself for a better you down the line.
Training that stresses your physiology in a way that will prepare you for the demands of your races will definitely be boring. You’re training for an endurance sport. Endurance literally means the ability to do an action repeatedly without fatigue. To prepare to endure, you have to endure, and there’s no way around that but to spend hours training which is often…boring!
Not only is it OK to be bored when you’re riding, but it’s also something you should seek out. Often when I return from a long ride, my wife asks me what I listened to, and most of the time, I tell her, “Absolutely nothing, I stared into the dead wastes of the Northern Colorado plains for hours on end until the nothingness stared back at me.”
Long rides aren’t the only boring part of training. Long steady state intervals are boring (and painful). Strength training is boring. Oh my God, so much of training is just the ability to execute the same boring thing with progressive volume and intensity at the right moments over and over again, but it works – you just have to be OK with being bored.
And if there’s anything you should know about boredom, it’s that like so many things we tend to try to avoid, if you can learn not just to embrace it but welcome it, it can become a superpower for you. There’s a meta principle in all this: in anything you do, if you can figure out how to flip what’s hard into something you enjoy, you’ll improve rapidly because that thing holding you back won’t be working against you; it’ll be working for you.
I know I didn’t say that well but consider your diet. If it’s shit, it’s probably because you don’t eat real food but loads of processed foods that combine a lot of fats and sugars. If you suddenly start eating more vegetables, fruits, and lean meats, yeah, all of that will taste boring initially. But then your palate adjusts, and you actually enjoy those foods, and if you do eat something you ate before, that sugar-laced fat bomb tastes almost criminally awful, too sweet, too tasty, too much.
The same goes for boredom. The thing about boredom is that fearing boredom is far worse than boredom itself. When you’re bored, you’re just…bored. Nothing happens. Your leg doesn’t fall off. Your brain doesn’t collapse. It just is.
If you can live with that, training will get easier. If you have four hours on the docket on a Saturday, you don’t need to agonize over what podcasts you’re going to listen to or who you’re going to ride with to avoid those long stretches of nothingness; you just ride.
Not only will training get easier, but your life will get easier. There has never been a generation of human beings with more readily available, instantaneous, numerous sources of stimulation than right now. If someone your age appeared in a time machine from 100 years ago and witnessed the sheer volume, intensity, and variety of entertainment to keep their dopamine on overdrive every minute of every day, they wouldn’t make it for more than five minutes without having a stroke. Nothing about modern life is normal. We didn’t evolve for this stimulatory overload, and it shows because most of us couldn’t last a minute in silence before whipping out our phones with such anemic boredom thresholds.
So the next time you get bored, don’t try to fight it. Pedal into it and see what happens. If you keep pushing through to the other side, you’ll find strength in you you didn’t know you had and the will to take on any distance or interval undaunted.