Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Head Games: How Mental Preparation Can Improve Your Race Performance

I have a special treat for you all today, a guest post! We all know how mental preparation can make or break your race so hopefully you pick up a few tips from Alison.

Race day is approaching and you’re feeling ready. You’ve followed your training plan, put in the hours and logged the miles, followed a good nutrition plan, and you’re all set for a great race. But there’s one thing you may have overlooked, something that can make the difference between a good race and a great one: mental preparation.

What happens inside your head is one of the most important things on race day. Your body knows what to do because you’ve trained it. Your head needs training, too. We’ve all heard “it’s 99% mental” and similar catchphrases, but what does that really mean and how can you use it to your advantage?

Positive Thinking
In racing, staying positive no matter what happens is vital. If you go into a race thinking, “ugh, I don’t feel great…think I’m getting sick…I haven’t trained well…this/that hurts…” you are guaranteed a crappy day. You have to stay positive. Tell yourself “I feel great, I’ve trained for this, I know the course, I’m going to do well…” even if it isn’t all true. Yes, lie to yourself a little bit.

I used to always start my running races too fast. After seeing my first mile split I’d think, “Well now you’ve gone and done it, you idiot. You went out too fast and you’re going to DIE. Better slow down now to try to minimize the damage, moron.” Then, one day, after going out too fast yet again, I realized that my body wasn’t complaining, it was just my head. So I said to myself, “OK, you went out too fast but you know what? You feel great so maybe you can keep this pace up. And that first mile was all downhill so it was bound to be fast. You didn’t kill yourself. In fact, you were taking it easy…” That day, I PR’d.

Preparing for Challenges
Being prepared for things to go wrong is key to your mental preparation. This way, if you get water in your goggles or a flat on your bike, you can deal with it instead of having a total mental breakdown. Think beforehand about how you’re going to approach issues. Of course, practicing tire changes is a key factor in dealing with a flat tire, but maintaining your cool is another, and this is done by anticipating, not fearing, such an event.


Pain is another challenge we try not to think about. But thinking about – and preparing for – pain is very important. If you don’t hurt at some point during a race you’re not racing hard enough. So plan for it. Think about what you’re going to tell yourself when the pain hits. Hoping it doesn’t happen is futile. Have a mantra, something to focus on that will take your mind off it. This is what the pros do. Just because you’re not a pro doesn’t mean you can’t think like one!

If you’re hurting early in the race try to work out why and fix the problem. Don’t dwell on it. Sometimes aches and pains come and go. Late in the race things will start to hurt and that’s when you need to focus on that finish line, how close you are to it, how great it will feel to be done, etc. Some athletes learn to embrace pain and see it as an indicator of how hard they’re working and ultimately how well they’re doing. As ultramarathoner Scott Jurek likes to say, “pain only hurts.”

Focus
What’s interesting is that, while you sometimes need to distract yourself from pain, you can’t distract yourself so much that you lose your focus on the race. Focus is especially important in shorter distances because you can’t slow down for a second. In triathlon, I find that I tend to lose my focus on the bike. I’ll just go into la-la land for a bit and before I know it I’ve dropped several mph. In open water I’ll focus so much on sighting and turns that I’ll forget to pay attention to how I’m swimming, something I’m much more attuned to in the pool. Even when running, my strongest sport, I can be distracted by what’s going on around me.

It helps to have a few key words to help maintain focus. In the water I’ll say “reach, glide, pull” in time with my breathing. I’ve found this helps me remember what to do (better swimmers probably don’t need these reminders, but I do!) as well as keep me occupied so I don’t freak out… focus can actually be a distraction from the negative thoughts! On the bike I’ll say “push, pull, cadence” because I have a tendency to forget to pull and to drop my cadence too low. On the run I’ll remind myself to maintain a fast cadence, lean forward slightly, and drop my shoulders. So these things are obviously individual and you have to use what works for you.


Visualization
While this is something you do before your race, I’m telling you about it last because it should encompass all of the above. Visualize your race from start to finish. Remind yourself how strong you’re going to feel and what you will tell yourself when it really starts to hurt. Visualize your finishing kick.

Now all you have to do is make it happen.

Alison Gittelman is a freelance writer and editor from South Riding, VA. She writes about running and triathlon on her blog: www.racingtales.com

16 comments:

  1. Great article...that is always one thing everyone over looks are the head games...i know I do

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    1. Thanks, Ed. Yes, I agree that this is often overlooked as we work hard on the physical aspects. Hopefully the article will help!

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  2. Loved this guest post! .....and her name ;)

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  3. This is such a great post! I've learned this the hard way too, and was just thinking about it again as I was reading Scott Jurek's book and thinking how much pain ultrarunners have to push through!

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    1. Thanks, Laura. Did you like Scott Jurek's book? I loved it and was fortunate enough to meet him and hear him talk about his experiences. He's an amazing person!

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  4. Oh do I play headgames with myself all of the time! Great post today. I need to come up with a motivational saying. Most of the time I just tell myself - 1/2 mile left, 1/4 mile left, .10 left......

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    1. Thanks, Jen. I do that countdown with the distances, too!

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  5. Mental preparation is SOOO important - I've learned that the hard way many many times!

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  6. Great advice, Alison! I especially like number one. I always nail my races where I feel positive. When I don't, well...

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  7. Excellent article. You can do all the training in the world, but if you don't prepare mentally you won't achieve your goals.

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  8. In any sports there is a inner game and a outer game. The inner game is your mentally. You need both to be successful.

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