I know that it gets old sometimes, reading about me and my paltry training efforts, but it's a good lesson. One important thing to know about racing is that racing is racing and training is training.
When training gets so tough mentally then you have to back down. You should race in place of hard training rides - it's how a lot of the pros do it. They race to hone fitness. Even so I know of pros who rode only to make a living. Once they retired they didn't ride anymore. It seems a bit sad but to them it was manual work, just like laying floors or hanging sheetrock is manual work.
(The exception would be the climbing camps that pros do because they don't always have the option of doing a mountainous stage race for training.)
Granted, yes, I should do more hard efforts in training, but if I'm racing, that's a really good way of doing hard efforts. Therefore I do most of my efforts in races. I train really just so I can use races for harder training.
I'm helpless at the end of long training rides, I get shelled by, yes, 50+ year old women in the group rides, and I've been yelled at to shift into a lower gear by absolute novices on the bike. Granted the last was about 10 years ago when I had ballooned to 215 lbs and couldn't really ride well at all.
I'm pretty bad at training but I can race okay. One of my old teammates (he still races, still friendly) said to me one day many many years ago, after some hard training ride where I was absolutely demoralized at how bad I rode, "It doesn't matter, once you line up at the line you'll be okay". He was implying that my motivation pushes me harder in a race, and that I tend to draw the best out of myself when it counts.
It seems to me that many racers significant energy in training, working hard, pushing super hard, etc. This dulls the razor sharp edge they need in a race, blunts the peaks they need, and makes them vulnerable at the peak speed moments of a race.
A key here, and one I've repeated often, is recovery. Recovery is when you get stronger. Training hard makes you weaken, at least momentarily.
For example, if you bench 100 lbs now and want to bench 150 lbs, you don't go out and do bench presses all day and all night, thousands of reps non-stop, until you can bench 150 lbs. I daresay that if you have difficulty bench pressing 100 lbs when fresh, it'll be really hard to bench 100 lbs after several hundred reps in a row.
See, the training (bench pressing) is not making you strong. You're actually breaking yourself down.
When you rest and recovery and give the body a chance to rebuild, that's when you get stronger.
Think about that for a moment. If you want to get stronger on the bike, you shouldn't go out and time trial your brains out day after day, 24/7, until you get better. You train hard, recover, train hard, recover. Training too hard is a new racer's classic error and the reason why average speed matters so little in training.
I find that after the initial base period it's best for me to go out and do races when I want to train hard. My training rides tend to be much easier, much more of a semi-recovery ride versus a "training" ride.
I read some article (that I'm not going to bother finding) about Tom Danielson and his approach to the Colorado stage race after placing 9th or 10th in the Tour. He was already super fit and he knew that he just needed to maintain that fitness to race well in Colorado. Therefore he rode lightly, trying not to use up those precious race day legs while training.
Here are a few things that I do when I train. I should point out that I'm a guy that has been racing so long that I can't expend any significant mental energy training. Most (all but two attempts) of my "5x5 intervals" end up something like 1x30 seconds and then "ah, screw it, I'm just gonna ride whatever". My 20 minute FTP tests fail most of the time, I think I've done 5 or 6 in my life, since I got a power meter in 2008. The rest of the tests I give up after a few minutes.
In short I find motivation difficult to find so I use all the tricks I can think of to try and become race fit.
1. I don't race on training days.
In fact many of my training rides average about 16-18 mph on the flats, and 14-16 mph on short hill type rides. On longer hill type rides my average may dip down into the 12-13 mph range. I only have so much to give so I better give my best when it counts. If I track wattage, my training rides typically go 140-160 watts, HR in the 140s, maybe going up to the 150s for a hard ride. On the other hand in races I typically avg 160-165, and a 170 race means I was totally pegged.
2. I rest before races.
I may do a block of training every week, but I'm fresh for my race. For a few years my block was Sunday race, Mon hard 2.5 hour group ride, Tues race, Wed hard 2.5 hr group ride or race. Then I'd spend Thu and Fri with the Missus hanging out and not pedaling the bike. For Saturday I'd spin around for 30-45-60 min if I had time. Then I'd repeat the schedule, racing on Sunday. I don't go into a Sunday race (a "real race") with spent legs. They're almost bloated with disuse; it takes 20-30 min for them to lose the bloating feeling once I start riding that day.
3. I eat before hard days (races or training).
When I say eat, I eat a lot of simple foods, pasta, meat sauce, juice, water. I probably eat close to a pound of pasta (weighing 160-180 lbs). I know I can carry about 2-2.5 hours of glucose in my body (in the liver?) and I want it saturated. I don't want to make an effort 2 hours into the ride and feel my legs crumble. I can't stand the idea of bonking in a crit, but I've done it. I've placed high in important crits after eating just before the start - one big summer crit I downed a hot dog and a large coke right before a hot, hard crit. I dropped both my bottles within two laps (super light cages, idiot me), and the 32 oz of Coke sloshing in my stomach became my fluid for the next hour. I got second after watching a friend of mine attack and not responding because we raced on the same collegiate team. I want to be fully fueled when I race. Dieting is over 36 hours before the race. I can start it again after, but it's counterproductive to limit calories before a race then feel a bit weak.
4. I race as best as I can.
My good races are those where I average 170-180 watts (race speed might be 26-27 mph; I might win or place top 6). The hard races I average 190-200 watts, race speed similar, I DNF or finish at the back of the field. I try not to see wind for more than 60 seconds in a one hour crit. If I feel great, if my HR is 120 30 minutes into the race, it means I need to keep doing what I'm doing. It doesn't mean I go for a prime or piddle my reserves away doing some stupid move. It means I save and save and save for my one big move (for me the field sprint, for those of you reading it might be something else). If I'm not feeling good I do something stupid. Last race I did I attacked early in the race. I soloed for 2 laps. I was off the back on the next one.
5. I've learned speed so I don't have to learn it when I'm training.
New racers don't understand speed. It's not a dig, it's just that they haven't gotten through that 30 mph barrier. Typical recreation riders have a hard time breaking through 30 mph. This can cause problems in a race if attacks regularly go at 35-38 mph, and fast sections of a flatter race may trundle along at close to 40 mph.
I'm much slower than I used to be, but I used to attack at 40-42 mph. I considered a leadout under 38 mph to be slow (and even in 2010, a 35 mph leadout meant my HR dropped 5 bpm in about 20 seconds, so it was still pretty slow; I won the sprint). I can pull at 35 mph for a bit now; it used to be 38 mph or more, and I could tickle 40.
Without a higher maximum speed you will be maxing out your speed without going fast. I consider a minimum speed solo-but-assisted (slight downhill into a flat sprint) to be about 35 mph. 40 mph is better. 42 mph gets you decent places in a Cat 3 race. If I used to sprint at 42 mph consistently, then responding to a "sharp" attack of 35 mph is really easy. Accelerating to jump on a 35 mph leadout train is really easy I once cramped with 500m left in a race, had a 4-5 person leadout train pass and drop me (with a former US Pro leading out the train), then uncramped, sprinted past the leadout train at about 250-200m to go, and won the race.
To race well you must have good speed in your legs, 30 mph should be reasonable almost any time, 35 mph should be a good push when you're trying to bridge, 38-40 mph should be tough but doable.
Because I can ride fast, and because I understand what fast riding is, I don't have to necessarily train for speed when I'm not racing. I'm no different from any other Cat 3, and there are Cat 2s that would scratch their heads and ask, "Wait, you consider that fast?", and the pros, well the pros would feel sorry for my "speed". I use races to train for speed and do a jump or two here and there in training to remind myself what it's like to go fast.
Plus it's fun to go fast. That's what it comes down to, having fun. I'm no pro. I race because I just love it. I would have stopped racing a long time ago if it was about winning or training or whatever. It's about fun.
I guess that's how I'd define a lifetime hobby. 30 years into the sport and I'm still having fun.