Cycling and academic achievement: finding the balance
12 August 2014
Bryn Davies is a young rider who has just taken his A-levels and who will take up a place at Oxford University to study mathematics this Autumn, depending on achieving his target grades.
He writes about how he combines training & racing with demanding study, about the compromises he has made, and he explains how he achieves personal satisfaction from both cycling and his academic career.
We hope that Bryn’s experience helps young riders (and their parents) who might be struggling to find the balance between racing and school or college work.
A common issue for young athletes is the conflict of balancing their time spent training and studying. The general assumption is that, in order to do either especially well, one must make significant sacrifices in the other. While it is not untrue that abandoning one will allow more time for the other (and many prominent athletes talk about having given up on school) it is certainly possible to achieve great things simultaneously in the realms of both academia and cycling. Just ask riders like Emma Pooley (former World TT Champion who has a PhD in geotechnical engineering) or Jérémy Roy (won the Overall Combativity Award in the 2011 Tour de France and has a bachelors degree in mechanical and automated engineering).
I should say that I am not of the same calibre of rider as these examples; I am reasonably confident that I will never ride professionally! Partly because my personal priorities lie too far towards my academic life to realistically find the hours needed for training. I have, however, achieved a level of success in cycling of which I am proud while also making a decent attempt to progress my academic career. This has been a challenging experience but one that has taught me many things, some of which might be worthwhile to share with any other young riders facing similar situations.
Firstly, planning is essential. There is a lot written about the benefits of working to a training plan but, if studying also forms a large part of your life, it can be useful to extend your planning to include this as well. With your week carefully mapped out, you can be confident of getting everything done. You’re also likely to be more motivated since you have made a promise to yourself, in writing, about the training and studying you are going to do in a given period.
As you plan your time you will quickly discover that you often have to make compromises, and you will need to take into account where your priorities lie – as I have alluded, mine are a long way towards the academic side of my life. As a direct consequence of this, my academic performance is significantly more impressive than my results on a bike… Both studying and cycling are rather primitive at their hearts in the sense that the number of hours you put into each is usually (barring bad luck) directly proportional to the success you will enjoy.
Although I hesitate slightly with A-level results (upon which my place at University relies) still yet to be released, I am sufficiently confident that my cycling has not negatively impacted my academic performance. In fact, I think it has helped. Regularly getting high quality exercise and being able to switch my mind completely away from work has surely helped my ability to concentrate in the time that I spend at my desk. Interestingly, many of the best ideas and biggest breakthroughs that I have made on difficult academic problems have come immediately after I return to work from having trained. Too frequently has this been a case for it to be a coincidence.
When fitting in time to train is difficult, it can be useful to find ways to incorporate training into your day aside from just allocating a block of hours for a ride. For instance, during my time studying for A-levels at Sixth Form College I would normally get the train into Cambridge but quickly found it valuable to commute by bike when possible. Door-to-door it made for a very similar travel time so, using the gym to shower and a locker for kit storage, it was a great way to get several rides done each week so as to maintain my base fitness during busy periods.
The key reason I have become more successful on the bike in recent seasons is, in my opinion, because I have been more specific about the type of events in which I want to compete. Early in my cycling career I tried to do everything from track to cyclo-cross and local criteriums to National Series road races, with very varied and sometimes underwhelming levels of success. Although it is great for a young rider to experience a range of disciplines in order to widen their skill base, I think it is also worthwhile to have a specific focus. This is particularly true if you have other commitments in your life.
To be more specific, I often struggled in long and hilly road races. As a result of this I made criteriums and track racing my explicit focus in more recent seasons and have been far more successful. This choice was made on the basis that I had been unable to find the spare hours to do the frequent long rides required to compete in long road races, but also because several rounds of Wattbike tests had shown I would be physiologically more suited to sprint disciplines. Hence, I have shifted my training towards doing fewer long club runs and spending more time doing interval sessions or in the gym.
It is also important to find, without being unambitious, the level of competition appropriate for you. For example, I no longer enter Junior National Series road races. These are long races, raced on consistently tough courses by the best juniors in the country. I never had a great deal of success in these races, to the extent that I considered hanging onto the bunch for more than a few laps a success. In recent seasons I have tended to keep to local road races, while still being ambitious in other disciplines.
If you have similar experiences in high-level races, it is important not to let this put you off bike racing. Remember that many of the top junior riders don’t have large academic commitments or full-time jobs so they live in more or less the same way as a professional, being able to train full-time. In long, hard races those extra hours spent training and then resting can give these riders a significant advantage. Many of the juniors that I am most impressed by are not necessarily those that win national level races, but those who consistently achieve top 20 positions whilst also studying for A-levels or working full-time.
As you get older and move into junior racing, races get longer and harder so you are required to put in many more hours training. Simultaneously, any form of study will also cause a large increase in workload. As a result, there will be times when it (quite correctly) feels like all you ever do is study or cycle. Many riders complain of lack of opportunities to socialise so it helps to fit some social contact into either studying or cycling. Hopefully you will have friends at school, but it is also worthwhile finding nearby young cyclists to make friends with. This way, a drive to a race or a long, steady ride can become a chance to catch up with friends. It is also great for morale to have close friends experiencing the same difficulties as you are.
Finally, I think it is crucial to always keep in mind the reasons that you have decided to pursue two very difficult careers simultaneously. A large number of riders leave the sport during their junior years as a result of the two-pronged increase in the required workload. It is only human that during particularly busy and stressful times one would consider this. My way of getting over times that I lack motivation is to remind myself of the reasons I undertook my two careers. My studies are important to future jobs but there is also the fact that maths (my subject area of choice) and bike racing are things I am passionate about. I often forget that the basic reason for all my effort is enjoyment. That might seem contradictory but when you work hard at something over a long period of time it can be easy to forget that your original motivation was that you love doing it.
In summary, my simple (but admittedly cheesy) piece of advice is to just enjoy it. You are privileged to live in a part of the world where you get the opportunity to worry about balancing commitments of studying and racing bikes. So long as you continue to love cycling just enjoy riding your bike, whether that is in elite-level races or friendly club runs.