Follow these tips to stay focused and avoid checking out mid-race.
A wandering mind is the kiss of death to your race. Let those middle miles slip by in a mental fog and the body starts running on auto-pilot; as you tire the pace starts to lag and by the time you finally come to it’s because you’re about to get out-kicked in that last 100m.
“Even in a race as short as a mile, that middle 400m is where your mind wanders. And in a marathon, miles 13-20 are when many runners check out mentally,” said Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39-marathoner, coach, and author.
That attention lapse is precious time — and places — lost from your performance. Staying present in a race is more than just cycling the legs over from start to finish. It’s staying mentally focused, conscientious of your competition, and checking in with your body cues.
Start with a form check. If your shoulders are tight, shake out your arms and get back to running efficiently. Keep your breathing controlled. And how is your stride? These are important because they make the physical act of running more effective, but focusing on these tangibles will also keep your mind engaged. As the pain starts to really kick in, these are constants you can turn to as distractions; counting steps is better than counting how many miles are left to get through.
“When you get significantly fatigued, like in the final miles of a marathon, you should perform a ‘form check’ every few minutes,” Fitzgerald said. “[It] can help you stay controlled through those final uncomfortable miles of a race.”
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Use those around you to your advantage. “Competition is a proven way to perform better than if you were racing alone.”
Assess how you’re feeling, gauge those around you, and then make a plan. If you’re struggling, settle into a pack or behind someone and let them pull you along. Letting others do the work allows you to regroup; as you feel stronger, surge, look ahead to the next racer, and reel him or her in. If this is a race for the win, refer back to your racing plans, read your competition, and decide how you’re going to make your move. Always stay aware of those around you; if you let your mind wander and your opponent makes their move, you could have just lost the race.
Mantras and Mental Affirmations
The pain of racing is unavoidable, but it’s painful for everyone so the battle is who can mentally push through that pain the best. Part of blocking out that pain is remaining confident in yourself. Mantras work well; keep them short, even in tune with your stride. Smooth and Strong.
Confidence also comes from knowing you are prepared, so prior to the race have a few different race plans so that if something happens mid-race you can react accordingly. Think back to previous hard workouts and how you pushed through the pain — you can certainly handle it now.
“There’s always a time in a race when self-doubt creeps into your brain and you might consider a ‘good enough’ performance,” Fitzgerald said. “A line that has always worked for me is, ‘It’s time to make a decision. What are you going to do?’ After months of training, simply asking yourself what you’re going to do is a clever way of re-framing the decision.
“Most runners are unwilling to run a sub-par race when they consider all of the hard work they’ve done!”
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A smart racer will always keep an eye on the course.
“Not all races will have challenging terrain, but if you’re on a winding, hilly course then this is something that needs your attention,” Fitzgerald said. “Always run the tangents, or direct lines in between turns, to ensure you’re not racing longer than the distance of the race … maintain the same effort on the uphills, which will be slightly slower, and focus on quick turnover and staying in control on the downhills.”
This is an effective racing strategy and it also keeps the brain alert and present. The mind games of racing often include using the mile markers (or half-mile, maybe even laps) as benchmarks during the race; don’t worry about making it all the way to the end, but rather, just get your body through to the next mile and worry about the next as it comes.
The mind has a slippery way of trying to cope with the pain of racing by simply checking out.
“Ultimately, recognizing race pain and fatigue as a normal part of racing helps you realize that while it hurts, it’s just temporary and it won’t leave any lasting damage,” Fitzgerald said. “After all, it’s just running! You’ll be much happier if you welcome the fatigue as a sign that you’re running toward your potential as a runner.”
About The Author:
Caitlin Chock set the then national high school 5K record of 15:52.88 in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.