Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio: Balancing freedom and structure

South African winning again after Chrono des Nations crash

A big part of being an athlete is having structure. Goals are specific, schedules are meticulously planned, and daily training is detailed. From nutrition to holidays, decisions are made with performance in mind. The lead up to and including the Rio Olympics was four years of intense planning. Four years of strict structure. Four years I spent saying “no” or “yes” based on that one race. Afterwards, like anyone, I naturally wanted nothing to do with structure. No rules. No plans. Freedom.

Freedom felt great until I crashed and broke my hip during the Chrono des Nations individual time trial. What could have been a career ending crash, however, was a light bulb moment. Too much structure, always trying to be perfect, was confining. Too little structure was just reckless. I needed to find a balance, a way to live with my goals, not for them.

When it came time to face race day again—as fate would have it another individual time trial—I knew it was going to be the first test for my new mindset. Time trialling is all about discipline and precision. My new mindset was about being present, trusting my instincts instead of obsessing over details.

The first test was deciding to race. I was off the back of a crash, not exactly fighting fit and I hadn’t been on a time trial bike since one slid out from under me three months ago. Not exactly perfect preparation, but I resisted against my normal thought process. Why not race?

It wasn’t until I was on the start line did I feel the pressure of perfection again. I had to remember to take that corner on the left, stay to right on that corner, power up the climbs but not too hard, be mindful of the crosswind section and save energy for the headwind. Should I take a water bottle? It was 40C. Stay in the bars, stay focused, hold your power, sprint at the finish. Then I remembered, I had another race day goal that had nothing to do with the details.

I let myself race with a clear mind. I had my strategy but this time I wasn’t distracted by what I was supposed to do, I was focused on doing. For those 27km I held that balance and it was freeing, enjoyable, and empowering. I was happy to win the national time trial championships and proud that I was present for every moment, from the starting countdown to podium.

I need structure. I can’t be a successful bike racer without training plans, strategic race calendars or specific goals but, after living to maintain the plan at all costs, I’ve learned that if you’re too focused on what you’re supposed to be doing instead of actually doing it, you’re missing the point. Plans are important but they should never be at the expense of the moment.

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