Deciding to enter a race is quite a big deal. Whether it’s a couch to 5k or a 100 miler, having the mental strength to get you to the finish line is essential. If you’re sensible you would’ve trained well making sure your body can handle the distance. It doesn’t end there though; you need to build your mental strength too. If you don’t, it could all go Pete Tong regardless of the miles you’ve put in.
Racing is part physical and part mental preparation. I would say racing is at least 50% mental strength and toughness. On race day how strong you feel mentally can make all the difference, influencing your performance and experience. We all know what it’s like to have negative messages running through our minds when pushing through the difficult miles but they don’t have to dictate how well we run, our time, position, or overall perception of the race.
We can’t control the thoughts we have on any given day, and race day is no different. We can adopt some strategies though to help our mental strength, even at the most challenging times. It’s well documented that Paula Radcliffe would count to 100, over and over again. If you’re like me and have a tendency to lose count (!), you may want to think of some alternatives.
Here are 5 tried and tested strategies to keep you mentally strong on race day:
Training the mind and body
Ok, I’m stating the obvious here but believe it or not, some people rock up to a marathon having done very little training (naughty, naughty). Although it’s important to put the miles in and accumulate time on feet, you’re also training to simulate the effort and thoughts you’ll go through on race day. Believe you me, when I have to do a 22 mile training run I’m not rushing out the door with enthusiasm and I don’t look forward to what lies ahead. I pretty sure though, that while I’m questioning my sanity at mile 16, it’ll stand me in good stead for race day. By simulating these mental challenges on your training runs, you’ll be more prepared and more resilient on race day.
Despite being a clinical psychologist and knowing all about cognitive strategies, it was Jim Coates from Cheltenham Harriers who got me into visualisation almost 20 years ago. During one of our longest runs before the 2003 London Marathon, he talked me through the last half a mile of the race. He described what I’d see, hear, and feel. It’s something I still resort now to on many runs. It drives me forward and often leads to me picking up the pace even when my legs are tired.
The beauty is you can visualise anything that drives you forward and motivates you. It could be your kids or family at the finish line or something you’ve planned for afterwards. Anything that spurs you on really. Me? I’m all for a bit of glory and taking centre stage. Naturally this means I’m winning some event and I’m basically awesome. (Dream on!)
Find Your Running Mantra
I’ve struggled for a long time to find my mantra. Resorting to Paula Radcliffe once more, I told myself there are “no limits” for a long time. Steve Way’s “don’t be shit” doesn’t work for me, but hey, it’s a personal thing. More recently I came across a post on Instagram. I wish I could remember the account but I don’t. I remember the caption though, it was simple, “How bad do you want it?” This has since found a place in my mind. When I’m flagging during my training runs, I pull it out of the bag. It works; it increases my mental strength and brings out the fighter in me.
Chunking the miles
This is something I use when the effort is getting tough and my mental strength is dwindling. It’s hard to think too far ahead when there are considerable miles in front of you. It’s feels like an insurmountable task at times. When I feel like this, I opt to think of only the next few miles. During some races, I focused on the next mile, or even half mile if I’m really struggling. I find that by the time I get to the last 5k, I feel mentally stronger. 5k always feels doable and the end is in sight. I mean, most people can run a 5k, can’t they?
This seems an obvious mental strategy and it’s simple. If it works for Kipchoge, it’s good enough for me. According to research, wearing a smile when running increases performance economy by about 2.8% compared to frowning. Of course this feeds into the whole idea that facial expressions influences how are emotions are experienced. Apparently Kipchoge’s smiles are brief and often, about 30 seconds. So if in doubt, smile and plough on. No one will know any different and those running around you will think you’re nailing those miles.
When it comes to race day or the long endless training runs, we all have ways of pulling us through the tough times when we are questioning our sanity. What do you do when it comes to keeping your mind mentally tough?