Improving Success Odds By Managing Race Day Nerves

Jannine Myers

When getting ready to compete, whether against other runners or against yourself and the race goal/s you have set, mental preparation is key to determining your odds of success. Just as diet plays a key role in achieving health, weight, and fitness goals, mental fortitude plays a key role in achieving race and performance goals.

Getting to the finish line in a performance-worthy time (and a still physically composed manner), often has to do with how mentally strong you are. In a previous post on overcoming pre-race nerves, I offered some hopefully helpful tips; the following is an add-on:

1. Practice winning in your mind! Not necessarily a literal win, but a win in terms of the goal outcome you’re hoping for.

I can’t say it enough; visualization, and playing out in your mind what your ideal race-day will look like, is an incredibly powerful technique. During the week leading up to races, I like to use my final few training runs to hone my mental skills and get my thoughts in line with how I hope to perform.

More often than not, I am tired by this point in my training, and even though tapering runs are not terribly taxing on the body, they can still feel quite hard after weeks of focused training. The problem with this, is that a tapered run that feels like a struggle to finish can easily result in the body sending a false message to the brain; a message that produces a considerable decrease in confidence. Hence, it’s important at this time to combat false messages and thoughts by practicing techniques such as visualization and positive declarations.

2. Know what your “calming” rituals are, and if you don’t know them, learn them!

I have three specific calming rituals on race day: isolation, deep breathing, and focused self-talk. I enjoy immersing myself in the company of other runner friends as I’m checking in at races and getting myself organized, but as the start time nears the best way for me to calm my nerves and get the adrenaline working for me (not against me), is to excuse myself and go find a place to be alone. A few solitary moments afford an opportunity to meditate, breathe deeply, and practice visualization one last time.

3. In addition to visualization, practice “re-centering” your thoughts.

At my last race, my mental focus strayed a few times and I had to work quickly to recenter my thoughts. The first occurrence was at the start line, before we had even started running. A female who carried the obvious stance and posture of a competitive runner, and who was wearing a pair of Adidas Boston marathon shoes, positioned herself right in front of me. For a moment I was slightly intimidated and questioned my decision to be up front amongst the starter group.

The second occurrence was soon after; I hadn’t even made it to the 1km marker when a cheering spectator – who thought she was being supportive – yelled out, “You’re doing so good! Keep it up!” WHO DOES THAT? An endurance runner with a competitive goal in mind, does not want to hear, at mile .05, that he or she is doing “good!” Heck, there’s still 20.5km to go at that point!

Spectator tip: crowd support is the best – it truly is – but the best time to encourage a runner and let them know they’re doing good is closer towards the end of a race, when both stamina and mental strength are running low 😉

OR, the face you make when someone tells you you are doing great - at mile 0.5 of a half marathon!

OR, the face you make when someone tells you you are doing great – at mile 0.5 of a half marathon!

The third occurrence was when a male runner decided to attach himself to my side and stay in line with my pace. It’s hard enough to concentrate on controlled pacing and breathing as it is (especially when you’re working hard to keep to a set pace), but when you have another runner right beside you mimicking your every footstep so that both sets of footsteps sound like one, it can become quite distracting and annoying.

In all of these situations I momentarily lost my focus, but that’s where meditation can be a game saver! Knowing how to quickly re-center your thoughts when your focus is diverted is key to overcoming such distractions and confidence drainers. You don’t need to be an expert at meditation, but practicing during training runs how to combat drifting or negative thoughts, can really help on race day.

4. Don’t underestimate your ability!

I heard an interview between Lewis Howes and 8-time Olympic Speed Skater medalist, Apollo Ohno, in which Ohno said the following about race day performance: “Somehow we have this unexplainable ability to perform beyond what previous physiology has shown.” With that in mind, Ohno would go into his competitions with a mindset that assured him of greater success, because he believed that in addition to all of his hard work and training, an underlying strength, unconsciously reserved for race day only, would also come into play.

5. And finally, play mind games that help get you from one mile or km marker to the next.

I almost always have some strategy in place, or what I will refer to as a “mile marker game,” going into every race. Giving myself little mind games to play as I run from one mile or km marker to the next, or from one aid station to another, really helps to keep me focused, motivated, and happy. It’s easy to feel excited and on a high when you first start running, but you all know how dismal it can feel towards the end of a race when your energy reserves are low and motivation is seriously waning.

At my last race, I had two things in mind at the outset:

The first was to run for one of my co-workers whose 21st birthday happened to be the same day. I told her that I would count down every kilometre as if it were a year of her life. As I passed each km marker, I would smile and imagine Hannah celebrating a new age and year, and as the finish line drew nearer, I felt motivated to get there faster so that I could imagine in my mind’s eye Hannah turning 21 and celebrating a significant milestone in her life.

The second was not so much a game as it was a source of inspiration. A good friend had sent “good luck” wishes, along with a message that her husband was running his first triathlon the same weekend. Her husband however, had been in a serious hit-and-run accident a year earlier, and was coming back from major surgeries and rehabilitation. Consequently, I made a conscious decision to show up at my race with feelings of gratitude and joy because unlike some, who are physically limited, I am only limited by my thoughts. I not only am capable of moving my legs and running; “I GET to run!”

I hope these tips are helpful; race day nerves can feel quite overwhelming but with strategic attention given to them, they CAN be managed :)

Hitting The Wall Might Just Be An Excuse For Quitting

Jannine Myers

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This week’s post is one that will hopefully give you something to think about the next time you run an endurance race and encounter the dreaded “wall.” For those of you not yet familiar with the term “hitting the wall” (or “bonking”), it refers to a point in a race where an athlete suddenly loses energy and consequently slows down or gives up altogether.

Up until recently the general consensus has been that race exhaustion, followed by a decline in performance, is attributed to physiological factors (specifically, depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles). But new research suggests that there is also a significant psychological component at play, and that with the right type of brain-training it might be possible to override sensations of fatigue and discomfort. A tired runner, for example, could potentially ignore perceived threats of “bonking” and continue to perform well all the way to the finish line.

Dr. Samuele Marcora is the exercise physiologist leading the argument that endurance fatigue is nothing more than a perceived state of mind. He explains that under extreme conditions, as when we exert ourselves physically for an extended period of time, our brains attempt to direct our decision-making to prevent us from compromising our ability to survive. Hence, an athlete may think that he or she is exhausted, when really there is enough energy tucked away in reserve to keep going.

The good news then – or bad, depending on how you look at it – is that the wall is probably as high or as low as you want it to be. You can decide that it’s low enough to get over, in which case you’ll have to get serious about devoting time to mental training. Or, you can decide that it’s too high, but now that you’ve read this post you’ll be making that choice knowing that Dr. Marcora says you’re actually choosing to be a quitter! 

[For more detailed information about Dr. Marcora’s research, read this article]