at the races How to Run Without Fear

How to Run Without Fear

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Lots of us will have gone years without in-person racing by the time we line up at our next start line. That can be a cause of discomfort and anxiety but Peter Papadogiannis, mental performance consultant, professor and head of the Toronto Marathon’s psych team, argues that the discomfort can actually be a launching pad to a new opportunity, if only the framework of our approach to race day can change. 

“Times to runners are historically so important—all we hear about is PBs—but if you flip the script for this race season, that being back is what’s important and trust that the times will come, I think it will serve many runners well to have this season’s races be all about gratitude,” says Papadogiannis, who, alongside his colleagues, has been a presence at the Toronto Marathon for the past 22 years. “In fact, believing that racing is a privilege is a helpful approach at any time, but it feels awfully appropriate during times like these.” 

There’s pressure, even for amateur runners, when racing. We compete against ourselves, against the clock, against our peers. However, reminds Papadogiannis, that pressure is almost entirely self-imposed. Don’t let the nerves get the best of you, says Papadogiannis. Sometimes, he says, a finish line is nothing more than a starting line in disguise.

“A technique I often tell racers is to approach their event as a learning moment, you can’t get to where you want to go without starting, and perhaps this first event back is just a stop along your path,” he says, mentioning that race day helps not only in terms of physical performance, but also mental toughness and a practice of your race day routine. “There are so many different factors that go into race day, and we’re all out of practice—society is—which, when you think about it, is a wonderful opportunity: every race you attempt after COVID is something brand new.” 

To get ready for your race, break things down into simple chunks. What are you wearing? How are you getting to your event? What will you eat? Give yourself a realistic race goal. Many of us are no longer in the shape we were at the start of the pandemic. Plus, this winter’s been long. All that’s OK. The point is, says Papadogiannis, relax, lean into the moment, and trust that you’ll have this opportunity (if you’re lucky) again and again.   

“We always look forward with trepidation or else we’re fearful and go into the past, but I tell all my runners, it’s much better to be in the moment, be grateful, and have fun,” Papadogiannis says. “It’s a wonderful thing to get to the startline, and that doesn’t change no matter how well you do.” 

Racing is back in-person and, as runners, that’s something exciting to us all. But with that, however, comes expectations and, sometimes, unhelpful nerves. All of that is natural. Papadogiannis urges racers at any event this spring to enjoy the process, focus on building strength (both mental and physical), learn from the experiences, and be prepared to do the whole thing again.

“The thrilling part of racing, what gets us hooked, is that it’s all one ongoing evolution,” says Papadogiannis. “Remember that and take a giant exhale. Do your best. And trust that you’ll be here again.” 

Peter Papadogiannis leads the Psych Team at the Toronto Marathon, which is Sunday, May 1. To read more about it, and Papadogiannis’s Psych Team, see torontomarathon.com.