You bought all the gear. You trained hard. You are physically capable of crushing the course. So you're ready to race, right?!
Maybe you are some super strong badass and you don’t need to consider the mental aspect of racing. But if you are like most of us, this can be tough to master. Even after acknowledging how important mental preparation is, many runners spend so much of their time focusing on mileage, pace, and nutrition that they fail to formalize the mental aspect of their race plan. If you ask elite runners whether they use mental preparation techniques, the immediate answer is 'yes.' So why not apply this same principle to all runners? If you want to maximize the enjoyment of your race, hit a PB (or both!), and you have already spent countless hours training, then why not give yourself the best possible chance for success by setting up a formal mental strategy?
Here are some key elements for your mental race preparation that you should consider to ensure you have your head screwed on straight when the gun goes off – and keep it that way all the way to the finish line!
- Enjoy The Experience! For some people that means being cool as a cucumber, while others enjoy the feeling of being hyper-focused. Regardless of what makes you happy, any coach will say that you will ultimately perform better if you can remain relaxed. What's the best way to stay relaxed? By enjoying what you are doing! You have committed to a training plan and to running the race, so now go one step further and fully commit to enjoying your race regardless of the outcome.
- Keep It A Drama Free Zone. This is easier said than done in the throes of a race, but the more focused and calm you can remain, the better. Sure, you will feel all kinds of emotion during your race; but when you feel yourself getting worked up, try to remind yourself to stay calm. Maybe you can focus on your breathing, use visualization tactics, or remind yourself of point #1 above 😊
- Take It Step-By-Step. How do you want to feel in the start corral - do you need some alone time to get focused, or do you need the distraction of chatting with other runners? When do you want to feel most relaxed, and when are you going to intensify your focus? It is not realistic or smart to think that you are going to give 110% effort for the entire race. Even if you run the exact same pace from start to finish, it will become progressively harder as you get deeper into the race, and that can mess with your head. So what's your mental strategy? One example of a mental plan is to stay relaxed during the first segment, and then choose a segment that will be your "work" section - this is where you will dig deep and commit to staying positive and focused. Then you can reserve the last few kilometres for giving that 110% or maybe even just finding your happy place. The point is not so much about how you structure your mental race plan, just make sure you have one!
- No Pain, No Gain. What do you do when the pain train smashes into you head-on? There will be difficult segments in every race, so how are you going to deal with them? I like to remind myself that my brain likes to keep me comfy and warm, but my body is capable of so much more. “No, I won't die if I hold this pace for another kilometre. Yes I do have a kick left in me." When you feel that physical suffering creeping in, plan to remember how your body responds when you are 200m from the finish line - you can virtually always speed up! So you know that you are physically capable. Having a bank of positive mental images and memories that you can draw from is a great way to use the powerful mind-body connection to push through the toughest challenges.
- The Statistical Advantage. During training season, we frequently review our stats to figure out things like our projected race pace, and when we can handle a pace or mileage push. But you can also review your stats to remind yourself of workouts where you felt particularly strong, or where you made that small leap forward. Then commit those to your memory bank so they can be recalled during tough segments of your race. The key is to pick a bunch of good workouts and study them BEFORE the race. You don't want to be scanning your memory trying to find them during the race - they should be easily accessible! The positive association you have when you think about these accomplishments can give you a gentle reminder of what you are capable of.
- When the "Can't" Syndrome Creeps In. You can pretty much guarantee that the negative thoughts will come! Maybe you will only have a few, or maybe you will have a lot of them. The first step in preparedness is to recognize early on in your training that those negative thoughts WILL sneak up on you. It can be helpful to plan to acknowledge them when they make an appearance, and then simply let them go. But what if you can't let them go? You will need to find strategies to deal with them, but it is better to think about what works for you NOW, rather than during your race!
- You Are Ready! Always remember that you have proven your mental toughness time and time again during training, and you can be that tough again on race day - or maybe even tougher! This is the celebration of your hard work, and where you get to show yourself just how strong you really are!
- Finish With A Smile! If you commit to ending your race with a smile, not only will you get a great photo, but you are much more likely to remember the day as the success that it was!
We hope that the takeaway message here is that you should think about having a mental strategy long before race day. Take a little time during taper week to think about how you can stay feeling positive and strong. Review your stats, remember your best training runs, and soak up as much positive running energy as you can. This extra preparation will make the whole experience much more enjoyable, and it will help you reach your fullest potential. Running is supposed to be fun after all, so commit to enjoying your experience and you can almost guarantee that it will be a race to remember!