Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tackling A Race: The Mental Game

Being a high school coach has made me consider each thought and action I have during a race. One area that I find new runners curious about is the mental preparation of a race. What do you do when you're afraid to run? When you doubt yourself?

Don't get comfortable
Over the last year I have learned to "forget" about what I have always done. Just because I ran 20:xx for 5Ks over the last few years doesn't mean I still need to. Just because I always ran my regular runs around 7:30 minute pace doesn't mean I can't run faster - or slower- depending on how my body feels on that particular day.

I remember my track coaching saying that we have a box. It's our comfort box. It's easy to run in that box and get the same times every time. But if you want to get faster, you need to step out of it. You need to take a risk, whether it is in a race or in training.

Believe in yourself
I always tell my runners that they need to know that they are going to run well when they step onto the starting line. They have to believe in themselves. They can't be doubting themselves. They have to feel it in their heart and body.

Easier said than done, right?

Lose the Fear
So what happens if you know you can do it but are afraid? For one, ask what you are afraid of. Is it hurting? If so, running fast means you need to hurt. Tell yourself that and accept it. Get through the race and you'll feel fine after. Convince yourself that it's only 19 minutes, 22, or 28 minutes of pain.

Are you afraid that you'll go out too fast and "die" or "bonk" half way through, being passed by tons of runners at the end? If so, you'll have another race to run. Try a new approach, learn from it, and make changes to your next race. Just because it could happen doesn't mean it will.

No regrets
Do you really want to have regrets after the race? It sucks to finish a race and immediately say, "I know I could have pushed more", or "I relaxed too much and could have ran faster." Far too often I see runners prevent themselves from having success because they are afraid of failing in the process. Change your mindset. Although it sucks to have a bad race, each bad race is a learning experience if you take the time to analyze it. Each bad race can be a little tool in your tool box for future races.

What do you have? 
A new way to approach the race is to approach it with curiosity. What is your body capable of right now? Inexperienced runners always say, "I can't run that fast!". I say, why not? Why can't you? Who says you can't? You are the one telling yourself this, and if that is how you believe, then that is how you run.

Go out there and run your race with your heart. Don't look down at your watch to compare what you're doing with what you've done before. Go on effort. Go on belief. Know that your biggest obstacle out in a race is you. Put your doubts behind. Question what is in you and allow your body to work. We are meant to move. We have moved for thousands of years. It is in our blood to work. When you step on that line, remove the fear by allowing the unknown to emerge. Convert your doubts into curiosity for what your body will give you.

Have a plan
I've heard coaches tell their athletes to envision the race. I never could understand it. It would be better if coaches said to have a plan. You know you are going to slow down in mile 2, so what are you going to do to change it? Or, what are you going to do when you know that your arms are going to start hurting in the third mile? Or when you get to that huge hill? Or when your asthma kicks in?

What will you do?

In general, successful people, know how to overcome obstacles in their path. To be a successful runner you need to recognize your areas of weakness, and decide how you are going to overcome those in a race. It won't happen immediately, but every time you race you have a chance to improve something. Over time, those "little somethings" add up to a big something - a PR.

During Boston, I knew that my weakness was the last two miles of a race. Mentally, I break down. My focus for that race was to change my attitude toward those miles. I envisioned myself staying calm, worked on relaxation (thank you winter yoga), and it worked.

In my last 5K, I knew that my weakness is slowing down in Mile 2. What was I going to do? I said I would speed up, but found my thoughts drifting off during that mile, just like they do in every 5K. Sometimes your weaknesses are easy to change. Sometimes they take multiple tries. Work at it, be patient, but never give up.

Put it together 
Knowing your plan will help you line up at the line feeling confident. You can know in your heart before the start that you are about to give the race your all. And when those things are present, you can finally ask your body to bring out your best. You can put away the fear and allow your heart to run. When you do this, you will be amazed to find that what you thought you could do was far less than what you are truly capable of doing.

It is this reason that I find coaching such a rewarding job: Over the coarse of a season we begin to see athletes gain confidence in themselves that not only translates into better races, but extends into their academic lives, allowing them to question their abilities in the classroom, and bring up their grades. The mental preparation needed for a running race doesn't have to stop on the field or track. Those same techniques can be applied to life: the classroom, the job, or the home life.

Running isn't about getting faster. What I've come to discover over the years is that running is about learning to live life and living it to your fullest. You aren't just getting a PR on the track, but rather PRing in life.

A view of high school cross country runners from a race 2.5 weeks ago

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