The other morning, while on a run with a buddy, the conversation turned to the Breaking2 Project, Nike’s manufactured attempt at getting a runner to the Holy Grail of a sub-2 hour marathon. Three handpicked, highly credentialed athletes were chosen: Eliud Kipchoge (2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist, 2015,2017 Berlin Marathon champion), Zersenay Tadese (half marathon world record holder, 58:23) and Lelisa Desisa (2x Boston Marathon champion). Right from the gun, only Kipchoge looked relaxed while the other two athletes looked strained. It was paradoxical that a 58 minute half marathoner could not even hold the pace through 13 miles, even though it was slower than his world record. My friend pointed out that perhaps Tadese’s awkwardness was due primarily to the mental strain of thinking about how many miles he had to hold at that suicidal pace. After all, 26.2 miles at 4:34 pace is difficult for anyone to comprehend.
The very nature of racing is a murky combination of physical training and mental readiness. The lines are blurred of where one factor ends and the other begins, since both are necessary for ultimate success. Athletes spend so much of their time training their bodies, yet, they neglect their mind-training. The body has limited resources when it comes to training because at some point it will just break. However, the mind is infinitely malleable, always able to absorb the information we feed it; but, it must be fed, otherwise stagnation occurs.
Here are my top three mental strategies for race day:
Visualization can be used for any situation in which one wants to succeed. It is not a new construct, athletes have been using visualization since the 1960’s. It is a tool which can be applied to desired improvements in strength training or mastering a spin class or even dealing with co-workers, but it is extremely powerful when used to prepare for a key endurance race.
There are two ways to visualize, internally or externally. Internal visualization is when you mentally generate movements by yourself, sort of like having a GoPro mounted to your head watching what is happening. External visualization, in contrast, is picturing yourself as a third person observer. Both types of visualization are important, because with internal visualization you are going through the motions and feeling yourself doing the activity while with external visualization you can determine how well you are executing something, such as your swim stroke or run form.
Visualization should be viewed as a rehearsal, a chance to mentally practice a situation so when the situation arises you are ready to conquer it. Generally, athletes imagine their perfect race scenario, where all of the pieces fall together in perfect harmony, ending with crossing the line with a huge smile. This type of imagery is important as it builds confidence and we all need some of that!
The truth is, though, most endurance races are not smooth sailing, and are fraught with ups and downs. Thus, the imagery during visualization does not only have to be just about success, but also how to handle hiccups. I call these “disaster scenarios”. It is equally important to imagine the disaster scenarios so when they occur, and at some point disaster will strike, you are empowered through your imaginary practice to figure out how to navigate the difficulty and salvage your race.
For example, an athlete doing their first Ironman will be naturally nervous about the experience. Visualization would be used to: 1. Picture success in finishing the race, 2. Picture how to cope with others in the race who seem “more fit”, 3. Imagine overcoming difficulties during the race, such as heart rate going to high, or a flat tire, or dealing with nutritional issues. In these scenarios, the athlete has thought about different situations and what they look like and how to solve the issue, thus, when presented with it in real time there is the ability to adapt quickly and reduce anxiety.
At first, visualization should be practiced during times that are not stressful. Visualization sessions should be planned and executed with regularity, several times a week. Once a person is comfortable with it, then it can be used anytime. I have often used visualization during training or races – I use the rest period between intervals to think about the next repeat, or during a hard race, I picture myself happily finishing and finally getting to sit down.
Proper preparation goes beyond the mere act of training. Preparation also includes a sufficient nutritional plan, a pacing plan, and ways to manage the fact that an endurance race is a very long way.
It is always shocking to me that athletes wait until race week to decide what they are going to eat and drink during their race. If they are still scrambling to make nutritional choices so late it invariably means they have not practiced their nutrition during their training. What? Your gut has to be training just like your body. If you try something entirely new on race day, you have no idea if it will work. Or not work.
One of my athletes meticulously charts his liquid, calories, and electrolytes every single week so we can go back and determine what worked and what didn’t work. By the time he raced his key race, the Santa Cruz 70.3, he nailed his nutrition and set a PR. Make sure you have a solid nutritional plan going into your race. Write it down.
The weather plays an important role in your race prep. A hot race will require an entirely different nutritional plan and pacing plan than a race in cooler temperatures. You can check the historical data for your race, but make sure you also check the weather race week. Bring lots of extra clothes, because even traditionally hot races can have a cold spell or rain. Manage your pacing and electrolyte intake based on the conditions. You just cannot physiologically run as fast a marathon when it is 80 degrees compared to when it is 45 degrees (the optimal temperature).
Break the race up
In the beginning of this article, I hypothesized that Tedese may have fallen prey to the classic problem of looking at the entire race rather than breaking it up into smaller chunks. In a marathon, for example, 5k segments are much easier to manage mentally. You can use your visualization to picture how each 5k should feel and how you will manage the 5k segments as they get more difficult throughout the race. Certainly, for anyone, the first 5k and the last 5k of a marathon will feel markedly different; the strategy is to learn how to physically and mentally manage the rigors of the failing body at the end of a marathon.
I’ve had so many discussions with athletes about expectations that I’ve decided that expectations are an epidemic that needs to be eradicated. This passage is from my book The Champion Mindset in reference to pre-race interviews with top athletes before the 2015 Hawaii Ironman: “athletes who mentioned their expectations did poorly and did not reach their goals. Perhaps an “expectation” is simply too much pressure. Expectations do not connote poise or that things are all right, and the athletes who convey such haughty ambitions are seemingly paradoxically at the lower end of the confidence meter. Expectations leave no room for a middle ground; it is either success or failure, which means if expectations are waning during a race, the confidence cycle will become negative, opening the door for an undesirable result.”
I tried to convey that athletes who impose expectations upon themselves are backing themselves into a performance corner. “I expect to podium” is very different from “My goal is to podium”. If you expect to podium and then find yourself way off the podium, the race will be viewed with disappointment. If the goal is to podium, even if that goal is missed, there is still room for being happy with the race based on other parameters. It might just be a small shift in semantics, but it goes a long way toward developing a solid mindset.
There are many ways to improve your mental game before a big race. The three topics mentioned here, visualization, preparation, and removing expectations are a good way to begin your mental skills training. Once you open your mind, the physical challenges will become easier to endure.
 Yu, Q. H., Fu, A. S., Kho, A., Li, J., Sun, X. H., & Chan, C. C. (2016). Imagery perspective among young athletes: Differentiation between external and internal visual imagery. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 5(2), 211-218.
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.
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