Most of us know the part of getting through a race that is physical, but there is also a strong mental component that can just as easily break you down. When it comes to training for – and then crossing the finish line at a marathon (or your first 5 or 10K) – you need your brain as much as you need your legs. You face a lot of fatigue, mentally and physically, and it gets very challenging. You want to remember that we control our mind, it does not control us. The next time you have one of those tough races when you feel like giving up early, use these tips to change the negativity into positive thinking.
- Set short-term goals. Just like you gradually increase your mileage during training, it pays to set small goals during the race. As you go up a big hill, focus on the next tree that’s pretty close by. When you get to it, you can think, ‘Okay, I got that one down, now what’s next? A street sign? A lamppost?’ Before you know it, you’ve conquered that hill. Make your water stations your “walk stations.” Tell yourself that you are going to run to the next water station, and if you need to walk for 10-15 seconds, this will be your opportunity. Break the race down to smaller distances. Watch your 5K splits, they’re much easier to control and are easy to digest. First time running a 5K? Break it down into three 1 mile segments and make it your goal to keep them even.
- Reorganize and be flexible with your goals. Every mile is not going to live up to your expectations or go exactly as planned. There are different challenges that will pop up along the way; no shade, a big hill, tight roads with a lot of runner traffic. Be willing to change-up your goals as you go and don’t let your discouragement take over. You have a plan and you have plenty of time to make up for any slow downs. Always remember, when Bill Rodgers ran a 2:09:55 American Record at the Boston Marathon, not only did he stop to drink at every water stop but he also had to stop at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill to tie his shoe.
- Stay positive with self-affirmation and self-talk. Before you begin the race, decide on a few easy to remember mantras that will help you gain confidence and persevere through any rough patches of the race. Make sure that all the words in your mantra are positive. For example, use “I am strong, I can do this” as opposed to “push through the pain, don’t give up”. The second mantra elicits negative connotations with the words “pain” and “give up.”
- Counter negative thoughts with positive ones. When discouragement creeps in—and it inevitably will—take charge. One of the greatest things we can do is be aware of negative thoughts and then squash them. Hear that inner voice saying you’re not going to make it? Then tell yourself “It is possible. It is happening.” Legs feeling tired and heavy? Remind yourself of the long runs you conquered during training and how good you felt afterwards.
- Listen to your body. Likewise, you can employ mental cues to remind yourself to focus on proper running form when going up a hill or when you start to get tired. Use the mantra “relax and go” in the later part of a race to remind yourself not to tighten your face and shoulders as you get tired. Remember to keep your hips out, shoulders straight, and run on your toes. Watch for your faults and correct them. Not only will this keep you running efficiently but it will distract you from the negativity brewing inside.
- Trust your training. You’ve trained your best and your body is now a lean, mean running machine. It’s time for all of those training miles to pay off. You did your homework, now ace the test! Make sure you have a pre-competition routine in place and let it take over just like you planned. Whether you rehearse it in real time or visualize it, a plan will give you a comfortable and reliable mental structure and can reduce anxiety. Your planning has gotten you this far hasn’t it? Let it take you those last miles.
- Play games. Focus is good, but if you’re constantly thinking about what mile you’re on, and how much everything hurts, you’ll go crazy—quickly. Try to pass the time by counting backward from 100, or coming up with a word game. Start singing your favorite songs, practice your multiplication tables. I’ve heard it all. Do what works for you!
- Visualize yourself succeeding. Think about that last quarter mile before the finish line. Think about how great it’s going to feel when you approach it and you hear the cheers of spectators for the final time. Anticipate seeing your family and friends on the other side of the finish chute and how proud they will be of you. This gives you a rush and takes your body into a different zone. You’re exciting your mind and hopefully, in turn, your legs!