The Mental Embrace of a Cycling Interval

The cyclo-psychology of a successful cycling training interval. What goes through your mind?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

You sense the hint of a metallic taste in your mouth, but it isn’t there. Your heartbeat quickens ever so slightly, and your breaths become shallow, but there is nothing to make it so. Even while sitting there, there is a bit of a burn in your quads. It’s all in your head. Cycling intervals get in your head!

It’s the undeniable perception every rider that has pedaled for a purpose knows, a sixth cycling sense. The sensation isn’t sincere, but the memory is palpable. The pain of the known looms in the deep shadows of your mind, shrouded by unpleasant repetitive thoughts of the unknown.

Cycling intervals can get in your head

For a peek inside the mentality of a tortured intervaler, check out the ZOM article series entitled, 

Tomorrow has to be a cycling interval day. You just know it, and you can’t shake the preoccupation that has cluttered your happy headspace. Logically it’s no big deal. You’ve done them before, and you’ll do them again.

There is something in the back of your mind, and it won’t let go. You can’t completely relax. You’re sharing your focus with a subconscious uneasiness of unanswerable questions. Tomorrow will be the day you crack, the pain too much to bear, and you let yourself, your mates, and your coach down. 

The defeatism is irrational, and the judgment harsh. Nonetheless, to escape undue consternation, you avoid opening your training plan email for fear of catching a glimpse of the I-word and confirming your doubts. There is only one way out of the illogical interval purgatory: embrace the effort. But how?

Man doing cycling intervals on indoor bike
Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

Look beyond the intervals, the brief stints of lung-searing torment, and frame the ultimate goal in your bigger picture. Make the interval effort a consequence of the purpose and not the cause. Your A event is the priority, and the interval workout is a means to achievement. 


The effort of sustaining physical pain is a consequence of the satisfaction you receive when performing well on the racecourse. You establish a performance-effort connection by creating a solid bond with goal-oriented gratification—the big picture. Picture this! 


Individual interval efforts are no longer an opportunity for failure but a chance to take a step closer to the reward instead. Frame the training session as a pleasurable piece of the performance puzzle. It’s a necessary part, but not the whole, and only deserves a couple of mental matches. Your big race gets the whole pack. But how?  

Develop a Cycling Interval Identity

Your actions align with your self-perception and the thoughts of others. You are a bike racer, not an intervaler. Act like one, and that is what you will become.

Make Cycling Interval Success a Habit

Define interval success as getting closer to your goal and not the goal itself. Then make a habit of thinking that way.

Be Realistic

Structure your interval sessions to reach but not exceed your ability. A supreme challenge is good when you aren’t destined for failure from the start.

The Sum of the Parts is Greater Than the Whole

Break your overwhelming training session down into smaller and more manageable parts. Think of those 5x:5 VO2s like one, followed by another, etc., and focus on achieving each individually. Check each one off as a reward as you power along.

A group of Zwift avatars
Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

Conclusion—Enjoy the Cycling Interval Ride!

The cycling society cherishes effort and rewards the “no pain, no gain” mentality. We place a stigma on the thought of not giving enough and praising ourselves when we push past the point of no return. 


Treating each hard training session or challenging ride this way is tough to sustain. Your mental and physical energy suffer, and your motivation begins to wane. It slowly chips away at our bodies and puts unnecessary negative thoughts in our heads.


Instead of feeding the cycling delusion of “more is always better,” consider performance success as a long-term process built on efforts as a consequence. Only then will we appreciate our intervals and enjoy the ride.

Do you have unwelcome negative thoughts?

How do you cope, and what strategies do you use to silence them and smile through your intervals?  Comment below!  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know. 

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