Happy Valentine’s day. A fitting time to pitch a case for more love, or more specifically more self-love. 14 years ago today, Marco Pantani killed himself. A wonderfully gifted athlete who ultimately cracked under the extraordinary mental pressures he placed upon himself. The Italian climber embodied an ethos of perfectionism, a disregard for pain and denial of one’s limits that is not uncommon in the sport. Good was never enough for the dreamer in Marco; there was always more.
The tragedy of his life highlights how unhealthy chasing athletic perfection can be. In the world of cycling, riders are often told to embrace pain, mammoth training loads are “kudos’d” and single-figure body-fat percentages are coveted. This can be a dangerous mix. The repetitive and time-consuming nature of cycling often draws out the worst obsessive and addictive traits in people’s personalities. Combined with the variable factors outside of our control during racing and training such as crashing, mechanicals and injury, it’s little wonder that cyclists can become obsessive about factors which they can control. Many have pre-race rituals or superstitious routines. But some obsessions are less comical; statistics show that cyclists are at much greater risk of having clinical eating disorders or exercise addictions.
This problem can be exacerbated by recent developments in technology. I guiltily admit to forcing myself to ride around the block in the rain after a hard training ride simply to get to a perfectly round number on a screen. Whilst this seems a bit trivial, today it is far too easy to quantify training loads, compare power-to-weight ratios and even track our sleep quality using technology that is a little too unhuman. The obsessed athlete can often forget these metrics are only models. Our Central Nervous System cannot differentiate between different kinds of stressors. We may be frustrated when our power is down after nailing every training session for the past week whist ignoring the stressful loads work, school or family may be placing on our bodies. It is too easy to see mammoth training loads or stick-thin physiques of professionals and feel like we should replicate them. But we fail to account for our own limitations: genetics, age or even lack of performance enhancing drugs.
I’ve learnt too many times that more is not always better. Chasing unrealistic mileage goals and unsustainable weight targets have only led to burnout. It is a cruel irony that a perfectionist approach to sport is only detrimental. Aiming high is good whilst aiming too high can be harmful. Like Pantani, pushing our own physical and psychological limits can lead to great peaks and greater falls.
Instead of a one-step forward and two-steps backwards approach, nowadays I try to see more perspective in my own training and racing. No longer do I judge the worth of a week in the number of miles I’ve ridden. After driving myself crazy over a daily number I no longer weigh myself at all. However, I constantly battle the inner perfectionist who always endorses doing more. This is partly why I value a coach so much. Having someone tell me to rest is so much easier than having the courage to acknowledge to myself that less is more. Without being told that a day off is needed, I would always feel an urge to keep pushing myself.
Furthermore, whilst being inspired by professional athletes is prima facie a good thing, comparing ourselves to our idols can be harmful. Never mind what Chris Froome uploads to Strava, even if Joe Bloggs from the office is doing more hours a week than you, this does not make you any less adequate than either of them. Any dreamer can place superhuman workloads on a pedestal, but it takes rational strength to see that the “perfect” amount of training for you cannot be purely quantified in TSS. The perfect ride is not the one which stops after a magical number on a Garmin screen. Perfection is a myth. But a ride which leaves us with a smile is one which should be valued.
You will always be able to find someone better at something than yourself. So instead of worrying about how you compare with others focus instead on being the best version of yourself. I think this is the most sustainable way to approach training and can ultimately lead to our best performances in a competitive setting, a time when testing yourself against others is no bad thing. After all, there is no such thing as a perfect way to win a race, all that counts from a sporting perspective is crossing the finish line first. The most beautiful thing about Pantani’s racing was the erratic and un-calculated way he raced. Ultimately this is what drove emotional Italians to idolise him as a national hero; despite his own perfectionist obsessions, he was loved for his artistic imperfections.
“Marco, why are you such a strong climber? To shorten my pain” – Marco Pantani
It is easy to worry that there is more to be done but takes balls to look yourself in the eye and say you are adequate. Remember above all that your self-worth is more than sporting performance, physique or power numbers. In 2003 Pantani underwent cosmetic surgery in an attempt to remove some of his physical imperfections. Just a year before his death, this act seemed to foreshadow the self-destructive downfall of il pirata. As explosively as he climbed, he fell.
Whilst at times sport can seem to be the only thing that matters, there is more to life than a perfect #1 ranking on procyclingstats.com. Worry less about numbers, you can never put a number on your self-worth, and give yourself some self-love this Valentines day.