Popular sports psychology techniques may actually set you up for disaster in races.
In December 2008 my wife and I flew to Hamburg, Germany, indirectly from San Diego. It was a three-flight journey (in coach seating) that took nearly 24 hours door to door. Although the main leg was an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, I don’t sleep on planes, so I knew it was going to suck, and I thought about how much it was going to suck frequently in the week preceding our departure.
And it did suck. But when we arrived at our hotel in Hamburg I realized that the trip had not sucked quite as much as I had feared it would. In the next moment I realized that it had not sucked as much as I had feared it would precisely because I had expected it to suck in the extreme. This is a basic feature of human psychology. Our experience of suffering is influenced by our expectations of suffering. When we brace ourselves for an unpleasant experience, it’s easier to get through it. Accepting the inevitability of imminent suffering does not lessen our suffering, but it does change our relationship to it.
Imagine you are invited to a house party that promises to be loads of fun. When you arrive, your hostess confesses that she tricked you. For the next two hours you will be subjected to a network marketing presentation. You will be miserable for the next two hours. Now suppose that the same friend, instead of promising a house party and instead trying to get you to join a pyramid scheme, simply invites you to a network marketing presentation, and you accept the invitation reluctantly out of a sense of obligation. You will still be bored, restless, and uncomfortable during the two-hour presentation, but you will not be as miserable as you would have been had you expected a house party, because you will have braced yourself for a bad time.
The same principle applies to running. Research by Carl Foster at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has shown that endurance performance is influenced by the relationship between actual and expected suffering. On a mostly unconscious level, experienced athletes use the degree of suffering they experience at any given moment to regulate their pace and effort level. We race by feel, and the runner who has a bunch of 10K’s under his belt knows just how much he ought to be suffering at the two-mile mark of a 10K race if he is to reach the finish line without bonking but also without having anything extra left in the tank. When a runner finds himself suffering more than he is “supposed to” at a given point in a race, he is likely to slow down. If he is suffering less than he is supposed to, he will probably speed up. Studies have shown that experienced athletes are remarkably adept at finding their optimal race pace by feel.
But even the most experienced runners are often surprised by how they feel at various points in races relative to their expectations. That’s because each race is unique. In each race, your body is in a slightly different state of fitness, readiness, and restedness than in any other, and the environmental conditions (including competition, the course itself, etc.) are also peculiar to that event on that day. Even small internal and external differences from past race experiences can make a big difference in how you feel relative to how you expect to feel in races.
Within any given runner, the capacity to suffer is not static. It is highly variable and subject to a variety of influences. That’s one reason we can almost always run faster in races than in workouts—because we are more motivated in races, we are able to tolerate a greater degree of suffering and therefore run faster. In addition to cultivating motivation to suffer, preparing to suffer in the extreme is also an effective way to maximize this capacity and thus run faster. If you expect your race goal to be achieved relatively easily, you are likely to find yourself suffering more than expected in the race, and this nasty surprise will trigger a performance-limiting loss of will that you are powerless to consciously override.
Suppose you are physically capable of averaging 7:00 per mile in a 10K race. Imagine that you enter a 10K race hoping to sustain that pace relatively comfortably, because it’s just a low-key tune-up race and you are not mentally primed to really go to the wall in this one. If 7:00/mile is your true physical limit at this time, then this hope is a pipe dream. In this scenario, you are likely to feel worse than expected early in the race, panic, slow down, and wind up averaging something closer to 7:06 in the race—and still feel uncomfortable the whole way. But if you had gone into the race expecting your target pace of 7:00 to feel awful, you could have held it. Also, if you had planned to average 7:06 while feeling relatively comfortable, you could have done that.
Sports psychology as it is commonly practiced is a form of positive psychology, based on happy talk and can-do spirit. That stuff has its place, but widely recommended techniques such as visualizing yourself performing perfectly in races and feeling supremely awesome while doing it may actually hinder performance instead of helping it, because they may send you into races with unrealistic expectations. Going into races with confidence in your ability to achieve your goals is a good thing, because true confidence is inherently realistic. But going into races expecting to feel any better than wretched in pursuit of maximum performance is a form of self-sabotage. Expect every race to hurt like hell and you will race better.