at the races Maximize Your Race Day Psychology

Maximize Your Race Day Psychology

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You lace up your shoes and slip on your running gear because it’s something that makes you feel good, feel like you have accomplished something and can often clear your mind. It’s time to yourself and lets the world around you turn without you for a few minutes. For some runners, it can change when they step to the start line of a race. Instead of calm and fun, it’s a time of nerves, worry and stress. Even though you have voluntarily signed up because you have a goal, your stomach is in knots, your heart races and your mouth is dry.

This is the final article in a series that has been an opportunity to share my journey to find out more about myself and my struggles at races.

“Nothing is stronger than a peaceful mind.” – Eluid Kipchoge

From talking the time to stop and look inward I realized that I have issues with self-confidence and that I am driven to prove and show that I can be successful after a history of struggling with races. I have also learned that the person that shows up at the race is the same person at home and work. My brain, my thoughts, my problems, or issues follow me. The stress of a race just places me in a pressure cooker that makes my issues come to the surface. Often, I perform poorly or fail to reach the finish line.

Talking to other runners has shown me I am not alone. Most people are nervous on the day of a race. It can range from nervous energy to being completely crippled by stress, fear, or self-pressures. Some people come up with strategies to overcome the nerves, jitters or pressure and realize that sometimes talking to yourself and by confronting the doubts you can overcome.

Elites I found also struggle, but sometimes find ways to confront their fears and pressures to achieve their goals. Successful athletes analyze, learn and find ways to perform at races. I also learned that it’s sometimes good not to over think and trust in your training, and to keep it simple. Olympian and now counsellor Leah Pells said, “We often outthink our bodies. Trust your body. Let your body do what it needs to do.”

I listened to others and read a lot of books and articles online about sport psychology—which is looking into the mind of athletes during sport. I confirmed I was not alone. I started writing myself daily, positive affirmations (the opposite of my doubts and negative self-image), and got advice to do some visualization of what a good race day would look like. I created a self-meditation I recorded and listen to. But I am no expert. The final step would be to talk with psychologists and sports performance specialists with training and experience. I signed up for a few low-key races and events to try and practice all that I was putting together about how to face race day.

Learning. It’s what life is about, especially if we want to change and overcome a hurdle in life, or sport. So, I wanted to learn from the best. I found three experts to help provide me advice and insight. The first was Robert Beer, a sports performance consultant and co-owner of Mindset First in Concord, Ontario. He said one of the first things I should do is identify my biggest fear regarding competing—to look inward and ask myself questions. His top three points are:

1) Train the same way you are going to race. If you do not race with music, do not train with it.

2) Use visual cues, things to remind you of how to think, to be on race day. 

3) Visualize the things you need to do to throughout a race to be successful.

My second expert was sport psychologist and well-named, Noel Brick from Ireland, the author of, “The Genius of Athletes.” His book specifically focuses on runners and was written with well-known running writer Scott Douglas. One of his key philosophies focuses on the fact that humans have a brain that responds in a primal way. The “old brain” can take over when feel threatened, and our brain controls everything in our bodies. How our brain perceives a situation (like race day) can influence our performance. If we perceive a race as threat our heart rate goes up and, because we feel threatened, our bodies tense and our arteries constrict. Our blood pumps hard, but the blood flow is restricted and the oxygen flowing in it decreases. When the gun goes, our bodies are not in an ideal state to perform well. We feel heavy, not ourselves, not as good as all our training would indicate. If we accept the race as a challenge, and that being nervous is normal, our bodies can relax, and our brains do not perceive things as threatening. Our heart rate goes up out of nervousness and excitement and the oxygen-filled blood fills our bodies and prepares us to race and push ourselves.

Noel’s three bits of advice for runners:

1) Build your self-confidence by focusing on mini-goals as you work towards your goal or focus on parts of your race not the end-result.

2) Focus on the things you can control, not what you cannot – like your race plan, how you will approach the day and situations.

3) Pick race goals you can control like your breathing, how you start, when you will make a move etc.

The pieces started to come together. What started out as a pure puzzle seemed to become a little clearer. My final words of wisdom come from Lester Kaplan, iRun editor Ben Kaplan’s own father, an experienced psychotherapist and professor. He emphasized how we are all looking to fulfill the same basic needs such as companionship, to feel good, happy and to find meaning in life. What differs is how each of us tries to meet these needs. Our genetics and experiences shape our worldview. He told me, “The way you run and race is how you deal with life.” His advice was very mind-focused, including:

1) Come to terms with your own motivation and see yourself positively. Accept yourself.

2) Do your best and come to terms with it.

3) Understand who you are and what you want.

After all the research, talking to runners and experts I feel like I’m in a better place. I have learned about myself (and am still learning) and how to better approach race day. What started as thinking I hated racing has taken me places where I have learned about myself, met some great people, and armed myself with tools to tackle racing, and life. Each one of us is different. We all have our own journeys, stories and struggles, but I hope through sharing I can help someone else.

To read the first of Noel’s sports psychology stories, please click here and here.

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