A strong mental game can help you run your best on race day
For decades, sports psychologists have told runners that focusing on the act of running is the best way to chase PBS. But what are you supposed to think about? New research suggests that certain midrun thought patterns are helpful, while others can do harm. And the more mental tactics you practise, the more likely you are to have one that works in any race situation, says Ulster University sports psychology researcher Noel Brick. To master the mental side of your next spring race, start training to use these tactics now.
Elite runners are masters of ‘metacognition’, or thinking about thinking, says Brick: they plan what they should think about at various stages of a race to maximise their performance, and they practise those thought patterns in training. After the race, they assess which strategies were successful and which weren’t. Did you start falling off goal pace when you focused on staying relaxed, and then pick it back up when you started looking ahead to the runner in front of you? Take note of that pattern.
CHECK IN, THEN OUT
‘Can you maintain this pace to the finish line?’ is the big question in racing. To answer it, you need to assess how you’re feeling, then slow down or speed up accordingly. But if you focus non-stop on how you’re feeling, it can make the run feel harder. Instead, Brick suggests, do a periodic body scan – at each mile marker in a marathon, for example – and if all is well, turn your attention back to other matters, such as your running form. Experiment in training to find form cues that help you feel smooth and fast. Focus on maintaining a quick cadence and light steps, or keeping your shoulders down and arms swinging freely.
TALK TO YOURSELF
Your internal dialogue isn’t just a response to how you’re feeling; it also helps shape your reaction. Thinking that you feel like crap isn’t going to make your race any easier. In a 2014 study, researchers showed that positive self-talk improved time to exhaustion by 18 per cent in a cycling test. Draw up a list of mantras to use at different points in a race (eg, ‘Feeling good!’ early on and ‘Push through this!’ in the closing miles) and try them in training to determine which feel comfortable. Then practise them until they become automatic.
Alex Hutchinson is a former elite athl ete and the author of Which comes first, cardio or weights? ( William Morrow)