Running is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. And let’s be honest, us runners are all a little insane for doing what we do. Leading up to a long anticipated race, it can be tough to keep your head filled with positive thoughts and self-motivation as doubt and nerves start to make a guest appearance
Like many runners, I have personally struggled with mental toughness. For about 5 years, I dreaded races. Not because I wasn’t physically prepared, but because my mind would play a game of self-sabotage about half way through each race without fail. Harmful thoughts would bounce back and forth in my mind – “You are racing horribly,” “I can’t believe you’re running this slow,” “you look so pathetic right now” – that in turn hugely affected my performance in a very negative way. Fortunately, my college coach was extremely supportive and saw past my disappointing race times. Through weekly one-on-one sessions, I was able to slowly build up mental toughness and grow to love racing again. As my mental strength improved, so did my race times. I was finally able to perform in way that reflected how hard I worked at practice every day.
Now, I am excited to share some of the strategies that have worked for me, with all of you! Everyone is different in how they prepare for a race so I recommend experimenting with these tips and see what works for you. As I mentioned, I have been fortunate enough to have some excellent coaches and running role models in my life, so a lot of these tips are inspired by their amazing advice and guidance.
My high school and college cross country and track coaches (2011, 2015, 2016).
1. Trust your training
Think about how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to get to race day. This doesn’t mean that your training was perfect – no one’s ever is – but when you reflect on your preparation, tell yourself that you did everything you could to make yourself better for this race. Do not let yourself start to doubt and think about what else you could have done, instead think about the incredible things you did do.
Racing at Van Cortlandt Park for Marist (2015).
It helps me to think about specific training days that make me proud. These specific days aren’t always your fastest workouts or your longest run (although they can be) but maybe it’s a day when you got out for a short run after a stressful day at work. Or maybe you surprised yourself and got up super early to run every day while you were on vacation. Whatever your moments of pride are – remember them! Think about the sweat you’ve put in to make your race day a success.
2. Envision the race
This tip is a lot easier if you have run the course before or are somewhat familiar with it. I like to picture myself running my goal race while I train and then really focus on it in the two weeks leading up to the race. When I am finishing a workout, I envision myself cruising through the finish line. When I am mid-long run, I imagine myself staying strong through the middle parts of the race.
Running the Charles Street 12 (2017).
In the few weeks and days leading into the race, I envision the entire race course. I picture myself starting strong, maintaining a steady pace through the middle sections of the course, passing other runners, and finally finishing with a kick. The more details you can picture about the race, the better! Take a few minutes each day leading up to the race to imagine yourself successfully running the course.
3. Have a plan and know when to toss it
Setting goals and developing a plan to help you reach them is extremely helpful. Your goal could be time-oriented such as setting a new PR or improving your mile splits or effort-based such as pushing yourself to keep a steady pace up the hills or not letting anyone pass you in the second half of the race. You can also make your goal to reach the finish line with a smile or simply enjoy the race experience as much as you can. Whatever your goal is – plan how you are going to accomplish it. You can set certain times you want to reach each mile marker, plan to stick with a certain runner or try to go out steady and then pick up speed as you run the race.
When I was struggling with race mentality, my coach and I would plan out what times I should hit at each section of my next 5K or 6K cross country race. By doing this, I knew that if I hit these times, I would achieve my overall finish time goal. Creating actionable steps made my overall goal seem more easily attainable.
Racing track for Towson High School (2011).
These plans of how to achieve your goals will help you focus going into the race. HOWEVER, when the gun goes off and you start the race, anything can happen so you need to know when to ditch your carefully laid plans. Your running partner might slow down, the weather could be extremely hot or the field may go out faster than you anticipated. No matter how much time you spend envisioning your perfect race – things rarely go according to plan so be ready to go with the race and whatever comes your way. Although I used to plan out my times for each section of the race course, depending on the conditions, other runners and how I was feeling that day, sometimes I had to run a certain section faster or slower than I was planning and know that it was OK! It’s still possible to reach your end goal even if you have to adapt your ideal plan on the fly. Having a plan ahead of time will give you peace of mind going into the race but being flexible once you are out there will allow you to successfully meet your goals no matter what happens.
4. Imagine all scenarios
Expect the unexpected. As with the last tip, we know that anything can happen on race day. So try to problem solve ahead of time so you aren’t flustered when things pop up. What are you going to do if the runners you want to stick with, go out slower than your goal pacing? How will you handle a hot and humid race day? If you start feeling fatigued half way through, how are you going to approach the rest of the race? What are you going to do if you get to the race late and don’t have time for your usual warm-up? Envision your solutions to these scenarios so that if something unexpected happens, you will be ready to react rationally instead of going into full on panic mode.
5. Practice mantras
This tip is what helped me the most when I was trying to overcome my mental insecurities with racing. It is also the tip that will require the most work ahead of time while you are training. You will need to start by thinking of positive words or short phrases that will motivate you and encourage you to run the way you want. Let me provide some examples to make this clearer.
When I was running hill workouts, I would repeat the phrase “power up” over and over again in my head as I ran. By focusing on these words alone, I was able to zone in to the way I wanted to run the hill. It would remind me to drive my legs up high and continue my forward momentum. When I was running a speed or interval workout I would repeat, “long and strong” over and over again in my head. This made me remember to use my long stride and strength to maintain good form with quick turnover and pumping my arms. When I was running a long run or trying to get through a particularly tough part of a run during practice I would say – “stay strong” over and over again in my head.
Racing at Rosedale Park for Marist (2015).
When it came time for race day, I would repeat these same mantras when it made sense on the course. When I was trying to drive my tired legs up a hill, I would repeat “power up.” When I was trying to pass a runner in front of me on a long stretch of flat course, I would repeat “long and strong.” When I felt like giving up because I was getting tired, I would repeat “stay strong.” By reverting back to the same mantras used in practice every day, both my body and mind knew what to do when I thought about each phrase. Your body will follow your mind so if you are repeating positive mantras over and over again – your body will take note and continue to push through the race. Added bonus – this leaves no room for negative thoughts that might want to creep into your mind while you are racing.
6. Do what you love the night before
Someone gave me this piece of advice in high school and I have tried to follow the best I can ever since. Spend your time the night before your race doing something that makes you happy. That could be watching a funny TV show, spending time with friends or family or reading a great book. In college and high school, we would often have team dinners the night before big races which was always a great way to laugh off the night-before nerves over plates of pasta and salad.
That being said, obviously sometimes life gets in the way – you have to work a late night before your race or something unexpected comes up. Regardless, try to find at least 15 minutes where you can spend time doing something for yourself such as doing a face mask before bed or watching an inspirational video. Whatever you choose to do, going to bed relaxed and happy will help you wake up on race day feeling the same way.
7. Only transfer positive energy
One of my high school coaches was really big on this for race day. You don’t transfer negative energy on the starting line. This means that you don’t bring your teammates down with negative thoughts when you’re about to start a race. And really, this applies to the entire morning leading up to your race. If you’re feeling tired, not feeling good about the race or are super nervous, don’t make that the focus of your conversation. That doesn’t mean that you have to fake excitement and obnoxious positivity, but if you start to use negative language about the race, not only will it affect those around you but it will impact your race as well.
Marist pre-race team huddle at Van Cortlandt Park (2015).
Instead of saying, “This course is so hard, there’s no way we’re going to be able to hit our goal times,” say, “This is a tough course but we’re well prepared so let’s give it our all!” That swap in thinking will help you tackle the race with confidence and positivity and translate to a better race day experience.
When I was struggling with my mental state towards running in high school, my mom took me to see a sports psychologist. One of the tips he gave me was to smile while I was racing. This is supposed to make you feel better by relaxing any tension in your face and releasing endorphins. At the time, I felt like I was always faking a smile during the race as the negative thoughts still bounced around in my brain. In college, I started to smile from actual happiness. I would think about how much I loved racing and doing what I do. Obviously you won’t want to smile during the entire race – like when you’re trying to pass another runner while conquering a monster hill – but when you get a chance to realize that you are doing what you love, or at least when you are cruising into that long-awaited finish line, let yourself smile and soak in the moment.
Racing the Walkway Half Marathon in Poughkeepsie, NY (2016).
There is no way that I can sum up strategies for mental toughness in one blog post but this is a condensed version that hopefully helps you start thinking about ways that you can improve your racing performance by mentally preparing yourself for race day. Overall, I am a believer in the power of positive thoughts and self-confidence so if you can make yourself believe that you are going to have a great race, you are more likely to actually do so. Plus, you’re way more likely to enjoy the racing experience (remember, we do this because we love it). Happy racing!
Let me know if you try any of these strategies! How do you mentally prepare for your races? Please share with us in the comments below.
Plus, here’s a pin so you can save these tips for later: