Over the next couple weeks, I have a few posts planned to talk about the mental side of running. As rewarding and enjoyable as our sport can be at its best, it can be equally frustrating and disparaging at its worst. Running demands the best of you – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and I’ve found that while there is so much information out there about the physical (training) side of our sport, most advice about how to work on your mental game tends to be really generalized and nondescript. ‘Be tough’ and ‘just push through’ are not really good or helpful advice for anyone dealing with mental roadblocks. SO, as a certified running coach and B.A. in Psychology, I thought I’d share my own tips and insight.
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Setting yourself up to succeed
First, there are a lot of things you can and should be doing in the months leading up to a goal race. Preparation doesn’t just come from doing the physical work – it also comes from mentally rehearsing, training, and ‘callousing’ your brain.
1. Visualization – The best parts of visualization are that it is FREE, not time-consuming, and can be done any time and anywhere. You can visualize for 5 minutes before going to bed; you can visualize while out on the run; you can visualize in the shower getting ready for work. Visualization is a really powerful tool and ensures that when you’re standing on the starting line of your goal race, it’s not a shock or a surprise, and it’s not your first time doing so. When you’ve already run the race mentally so many times, you’re confident, self-assured, and know exactly what to do at each turn.
I’d advise you to write out a super detailed race plan, from a minute-by-minute of your morning to exactly what pace you plan to go out at, when you plan to speed up or make any moves, what positive self-talk you plan on using when things get tough, and what you plan to do in the final miles. (A good coach will help you do this, as well.) Be as detailed and descriptive as possible, from what you plan on eating for breakfast, to what you plan on wearing, where you’ll do your warm-up, etc. Then, mentally run through each of the steps in your plan, trying to imagine any negative thoughts or fears that may come up along the way and how you plan on combatting them. But mentally ‘seeing’ yourself doing all of these things and executing your plan seamlessly will give you so much less anxiety or uncertainty come race day.
Some “cues” to help you get in visualizing mood: I like watching footage or browsing through pictures of past years’ races (it will give you happy chills), or listening to the same pump-up songs I plan on listening to on race day.
“Before I had it, I closed my eyes and imagined.”– Kanye West
2. Practice, practice, practice – For me, confidence has always come from practice. Nailing workouts, overcoming obstacles in a training cycle, and going back and ‘beating’ workouts that I used to struggle with are the biggest things that help me to feel ready on race day. Prior to race day, take some time to look back and reflect on your training cycle – the good, bad, and ugly, and what you’re most proud of. Remind yourself of the times you pushed through when you weren’t feeling at 100%, the workouts you did in the rain, heat, cold, or dark, and the very best workouts you’ve done this cycle. Training is cumulative, and you take all of that (plus all your ‘miles in the bank’) with you to the start line.
The power of not giving up
My best advice for racers is to never, ever give up. ESPECIALLY in a long race where there is so much time and so many unknown factors at play. You have no idea what could happen, and if you run long enough, you will truly see it all play out in different race scenarios.
If you’re competing for the win, a spot on the podium, or prize money, you have no idea who is going to drop out, take a wrong turn on the course, or fade in the last couple miles.
If you’re competing for your own personal best, stay engaged in the race even if you’re hurting early and think it may not be your day. Find a way to adjust and get through the early miles, even if it means slowing slightly off goal pace. I tell my athletes: in ANY race (from your worst to your very best), there’s inevitably going to be points you feel good at, and there’s inevitably going to be points you feel bad at. If you feel ‘bad’ early on, maybe your good is coming later. Racing is an ebb and flow, and a range of emotions and feelings. You have to be able to ride through all of it. Even if you’re never able to find that next gear and it really isn’t your day, you know you’re going to be disappointed at the finish if you didn’t fight for it anyway and go down trying.
Getting through tough spots and salvaging a bad race
In a race, there will always be moments that you feel good, and there will always be moments that you feel bad. Sometimes it is just a bit skewed as to which of those sensations you’re experiencing more of. A few of my favorite tips and tricks for pushing through the tougher spots in racing:
1. Focus externally – When things aren’t going well in a race, what’s the first thing most of us do? We go internal and get in our heads. We start overthinking and catastrophizing. The best way to get out of our heads is to focus on something external. It could be the rhythm of your breathing. It could tuning into the race music or the sounds of nature. It could be taking a moment to (mentally) pause and notice the landscape around you, and feel gratitude for getting to run in such a beautiful place. Maybe you make a game out of counting houses, or trash cans, or lampposts.
An external-thinking trick I use with a lot of my runners: in the final miles of a race, I tell them to focus on picking people off one at a time. As soon as you catch one, put your eyes up and decide on your next target. Picking off people and playing this ‘game’ distracts you from how badly you’re hurting at the end of a race. It also ignites your competitive side, and it gives you forward momentum that makes it easy to end up running way faster than you thought you were capable.
2. Think small – The next turn. The next mile marker. The next telephone pole. The next family or friend you know you’re going to see on the course. Find a way to make a long race really small. Tell yourself, “I just have to get there.” Once you get do, do it again.
3. Reset the clock – My college teammates and I made up a mental game to get us through long 10K workouts that seemed impossible on paper. After 4 or 5 or 6 long reps, we would tell ourselves to ‘reset the clock’. That we hadn’t done anything up until this point and were completely fresh. And we only had 1 rep to run. Or 2. Or 3. And we would say, “Ok. Well that seems doable. 2 hill reps on its own is a very easy workout.” It sounds silly, but it works. It’s compartmentalization. The best part? You can reset the clock as many times as you need. Maybe you tell yourself you just have to run ONE mile, and you ‘reset the clock’ every time you hit a new mile marker. After that, again – “Ok. I just have to run ONE mile.”
4. Throw in a few 30-second to 1-minute surges – I’ve used this on many a long run when my legs were feeling dead and I found myself gradually slipping further and further off my goal pace. It can be applied just as well in races, too. When you find yourself either going backwards or having settled into a slower pace that you just can’t seem to get out of, you need to disrupt the trend. Surging will feel impossible, completely shocking to the legs, and like the last thing you could possible want to do. But remind yourself that you can do anything for just 30 seconds to 1 minute. Oftentimes a few short surges is all you need to wake your legs back up and get you back in the game.
5. Find someone to help – My former boss, the Head Cross Country and Track Coach at Michigan State, always told this to his runners. If it’s not your day, find someone who’s struggling, and help make it their day. Giving back is a guaranteed feel-good recipe. It’s always rewarding and something you never regret. But oddly enough, it’s often when we find someone else to help that we end up helping ourselves in kind. Find someone just up ahead of you who looks like they’re struggling, go run with them, encourage them, and tell them you’re going to do this together. Maybe you help them get through 1-2 miles, and you go on to find someone else to help. Don’t be surprised if somewhere along that process you end up finding your own second wind or inner strength.