Why we ride: Finding purpose in training during COVID-19

Like everything else, organized sports have been cancelled due to COVID-19. This includes all the bike races sanctioned by Cycling Canada and USA Cycling. UCI World Tour races have been cancelled, and the Summer Olympics is also postponed. Those who were planning to race might find themselves wondering whether their training this winter had a point. They might also be struggling with motivation: why keep up the rigours of training with no racing in the foreseeable future?

In addition to being an amateur track racer, I’m also a professional philosopher. Here I want to discuss some ideas from philosophy which might help struggling athletes keep up motivation. This isn’t a post about mental health. I don’t have (and can’t give) advice about how to cope with depression or anxiety. If you’re struggling with those things, you should consult the proper certified mental health professional. Instead, this is a post about purpose. I’m here to talk about why we ride.

A final caveat: I have seen a number of cycling organizations recommend athletes shift into maintenance training. With facilities shut down and social-distancing mandates, riders obviously cannot engage in their normal training routines anyway. I’m not suggesting anyone do anything different from these recommendations. Listen to your coaches, of course. We’re all (largely) stuck inside, just trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. What follows are some thoughts on why we ride which I hope others will find interesting, and perhaps helpful in keeping motivated as they complete whatever training is appropriate for them in this moment.

When we ask why we do something, there are two possible answers: (1) we do it for the sake of something else, or (2) we do it for its own sake. Philosophers call the former sort of activities instrumental goods, and the latter intrinsic goods. There are many reasons why someone might mount a bike and push themselves through the pain of serious training. Training affords cardiovascular health, endorphin-fuelled stress relief, and socialization with friends (to name just a few things). But presumably anyone disappointed about cancelled races trained primarily for those races. They train to participate in, and succeed at, high-level bike racing.

Being a competitive person, I sympathize with the thought that if one can’t race (and win), then there’s no point in getting on the bike. At a certain point, when I realized I wasn’t good enough to compete at a high level in track cycling, I seriously thought about giving up the bike all together. But this myopic focus on competition blinds one to all the other reasons for riding.

First, notice that so far I’ve only mentioned extrinsic reasons for riding: race wins, health, etc. This construes training as a merely instrumental good, something done only for the sake of something else. But training is also an intrinsic good, something worth doing for its own sake. At a gut level most competitive riders presumably see it this way. After all, they presumably find riding and working out fun. When I say that training is something worth doing for its own sake, I don’t merely mean that it’s fun or enjoyable. (That would make it an instrumental good, done for the sake of the joy it brings.) Instead, I’m suggesting we find it fun and enjoyable because, being cyclists, we recognize the intrinsic value of the activity.

When you, for example, push yourself through the pain of an all-out 4k effort (or the equivalent maximal 4-5min effort on a trainer), there’s something intrinsically interesting, valuable, or noteworthy about what you just did. It was worth doing, even if nothing comes of it. Why? It’s hard to say. I suspect part of its value lies in its inherent difficulty, and the strength of will it takes to overcome the pain. Part of its value is aesthetic: a bike is a beautiful machine, and the way a skilled rider pilots that machine, their legs spinning the cranks and torso positioned just so, is akin to the way a dancer moves their body through space.

So it might help those struggling to stay motivated to reflect on the intrinsic qualities of their training. Find whatever made it inherently fun to ride before. Focus on the beauty of, or inherent achievement in, competing efforts or other training blocks.

In addition to the intrinsic goodness of training, let’s also return to the external goods. I suspect that competitive racers probably aren’t much moved by appeals to many of the benefits of cycling, such as improved health. An easy ride around town can yield these benefits anyway. There’s no need to engage in the kind of structured, serious training involved in bike racing.

So it’s helpful, at this point, to expand one’s perspective. My suggestion here is that competitive training, including the rigours and structure it imposes, help one to thrive. Now this concept of “thriving”, as I mean the term, isn’t familiar to most people outside academic philosophy. It goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Aristotle. The Greek word is “eudaimonia”, which is usually translated as “happiness”.

To get the idea across, imagine a certain kind of person. This person lives their life in a way that allows them to weather the vicissitudes of the world. They are generally happy, in our colloquial sense of the term, and even when emotionally down they have the social and familiar support needed to lift their spirit. They plan their life well, but also know how to live in the moment and enjoy themselves. Their life includes a good mix of relaxation and time spent in pursuit of things of value. They have friends and those friends would largely judge them a success. This person, in short, is thriving. They have, as philosophers would put it, a life worth living.

Now, note that the above description is rather generic. There are many ways to fill it out: many different types of lives are worth living, and there are many ways to thrive. For example, a life centred around rearing children and a life spent researching cancer treatments can be equally thriving.

To get back to my suggestion, for many athletes training is a key component to their thriving. When questioning whether I want to continue serious riding, I often land on the realization that my training contributes to me living the kind of life I find worth living, or satisfying. It provides structure, friends, and achievement (to name just a few things). But it provides more than just the sum of these parts: it enables me to thrive in a way I wouldn’t without it. I am motivated to train because I understand how my cycling shapes my life and moulds it into a form that brings me satisfaction. So instead of focusing on lost opportunities to race, it might be helpful to step back and consider the broader picture of how cycling fits into one’s life and contributes to their thriving.