Mental Strategies for Racing Your Next PR

Mental Strategies for Racing Your Next PR

As we wrap up 2016, I naturally reflect upon how I’ve grown over the past year. As a runner, 2016 certainly was a year of improvement and breakthroughs for me. I ran two big PRs (half marathon and marathon) and qualified for Boston. I’ll be breaking down the reasons for that success for the next several blog posts – how I changed my fueling, my training, my mental strategies, and more. So to begin, I want to share mental strategies for racing that helped me run faster in the marathon and half marathon this year.

The usual advice – trust your training, listen to your body – is certainly valuable and practical, but at a certain point you need a few more mental strategies. You need that extra mental boost to earn that PR, whether it’s in a 5K or marathon. 

You can use these mental strategies for racing your next PR in any distance. Some may work well for you, while others may seem silly. Mental strategies are about setting up your individual mindset for coping with discomfort and achieving success – which means these strategies will vary from runner to runner.

Mental Strategies for Racing Your Next PR

Mental Strategies for Racing Your Next PR 

Recognize the Pain

In past races when I tried to disassociate from pain, I realized that I focused on it even more.

During the final 4 miles of the California International Marathon, I experienced the expected pain of a marathon – burning muscles, tight spots, and aching feet. I acknowledged each point of discomfort, rather than ignore it, and then moved my thoughts on to something positive. A few times I offered up the pain and prayed. Other times, I shifted my thoughts to how I would feel when I finished strong and focused on making my family proud.

Recognizing pain and obsessively dwelling on pain are significantly different – you do not want to think about how much your feet hurt with each and every step. But I think there is something powerful in knowing that a race will hurt, acknowledging the pain, and then realizing you are stronger than that temporary discomfort.

“Psychologist have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself.” – Matt Fitzgerald, How Bad Do You Want It?

And, of course, I must say that if the pain is an injury type of pain, you must stop running. There’s a difference between an achy hamstring from running a hilly marathon and a strained hamstring. Acknowledging the pain also decreases your risk of ignoring an injury and running through it.

Relax the Night Before

The night before CIM, I ate my pre-race dinner in the comfort of the hotel room, popped open a beer (don’t worry, I also had plenty of water with Enduropacks), and watched a funny movie with Ryan. This sounds more like a relaxing Saturday in rather than the night before a goal marathon – but that was what I was aiming for.

Several people told me to focus on relaxing the night before the race. Don’t analyze the course map, don’t stress about splits, just relax. Of course, don’t stay up late binge-watching Netflix (I was in bed by 8 PM), but just do whatever makes you relaxed: read a book, watch TV, have one (just one) drink.

Use Power Colors for Your Race Clothes

This piece of advice initially may sound vapid or superficial, but how you dress affects how you perceive yourself.

Over the past year, I wore the same Athleta Chi Tank top to each and every race. In part, it’s because this super comfortable tank wicks sweat quickly and never chafes. But I also wear it because red is a power color. I associate the color with power, strength, speed, and confidence – think of the Flash. Red stands out from a crowd, is bolder than a gentle pink, and catches the eye of spectators.

Find a color that conveys that to you and wear it on race day. Your race day outfit should make you feel confident, strong, and unstoppable. I also wear the same tank because it reminds me of the previous races I wore it in – and I draw upon those moments of overcoming discomfort and achieving my goals.

Mental Strategies for Racing Your Next PR

Give Yourself Permission to Miss Your Goals

I had some really rough races in 2015. Despite running a 3 minute PR, I was disappointed in my finish time at the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon because I was obsessed with achieving a very particular goal time. When I began to derail from that goal during the race, I began to struggle as much mentally as physically. I was so set on achieving my goal that the thought of missing it tore me apart mentally during the race.

At both my PR half marathon this spring and my BQ marathon this fall, I gave myself permission to miss my goals. I wanted that sub-1:40 half and I wanted that BQ fiercely – and had completed months of hard training for both.

But by letting go of my goals and giving myself permission to miss them, I removed the self-imposed pressure that had caused me to choke or give up mid-race before. I took the race mile-by-mile, without worrying about what the next mile would bring or what if this scenario happened.

“Counterintuitive as it may be, caring a little less about the result of a race produces better results. An athlete who believes in herself whether she succeeds or fails is able to put her goal out of mind and race in the moment, and to race in the moment – in flow – is to race better.” – Fitzgerald, How Bad Do You Want It?

Have Cue Words to Achieve The Desired Psychological State

I mentioned in my race recap of CIM that Ryan shouted out “Haul ass, Norris!” at the 20 mile mark. That was my cue to shift gears, dig deep, embrace the burn, and give my all over the next 10K. Up until this point, I had been maintaining a steady pace and been mentally discomfort. The words were meant to change my psychological and physical state from comfort to discomfort. 

Before mile 20, I relied on a single word to cue my mental state. I scheduled alerts to send out on my Garmin watch during the race. In addition to alerts for when to take my fuel, every 30 minutes my watch would flash the word flow. I choose the world flow because it reminds me to focus on finding that rhythm where the pace is comfortable and the miles flow by. The word cued me to the psychological state I wished to achieve during the race and seeing it every 30 minutes redirected me back again and again to the flow state. 

“[A sports psychologist] called it “flow” and defined it as a state of complete immersion in purposeful activity. Endurance athletes describe the flow state as one in which they seem to become the thing they are doing. The part of the mind that normally watches the part that is focused on the task at hand vanishes, leaving the athletes’s consciousness directed externally in a way that feels right and yields exceptional performance.” – Fitzgerald, How Bad Do You Want It

Find a few words or phrases and focus on them for different segments of the race – words that will help connect the mind and body and bring you into the state of flow. These can be cues to keep you from starting out too fast at your next marathon or mantras for dealing with the pain train of your next 5K PR attempt. Choose words that resound with you and are easy to remember. Share them with your friends and family who are spectating as well, so they can cheer you on with those phrases and help you focus on your goals.

What mental strategies work for you in racing?
When did your mental state help you achieve a big running goal?


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10 Responses

  1. It is all about the mental game, especially if you have done the work physically. I like to look at miles that are giving me trouble as work miles, just like a tempo mile during a long run. That way, I’m not overexaggerating my feelings and getting my panties in a twist!

  2. running is so totally mental, I think it’s more mental than physical because if the mental part is missing, it doesn’t matter how fast you are capable of going or for how long you are capable of running, you will get nowhere if your mindset isn’t right! I think about this all of the time and even with improving my fitness, I know that I need my mental game to be on par in order to keep going and finish my runs happily/run a good race.

  3. Great advice Laura. The mental game is 100% the hardest part about a marathon. Positive mantras have really worked for me. So has waiting to put in my music until the last few miles. It gives me that energy boost that I need to finish.

  4. The quote by Fitzgerald reminds me of the Birth Book by Dr. Sears that I read when I was pregnant with my third child, Katie. He talks about how when women accept the pain of childbirth, while they’re having contractions, rather than fight it, then the pain is significantly reduced. And guess what? It’s true! I have had four deliveries to prove it. The first and second babies were OUCH. Katie? She slid right out, because with each contraction, one at a time, I accepted the pain, I welcomed it as a helper, visualized the contraction opening up my hips and my cervix, my eyes rolling back in my head, and it all went so smoothly and so fast that the doctor didn’t even make it there (the nurse delivered her). Callum, my fourth baby? Different story. HA! Because, well, the universe likes to throw us a curve ball from time to time eh? 😉

  5. I’d never thought of the idea of letting go of your goal as a way to bring you closer to it. That’s definitely something I need to focus on, I get way too anxious and obsessed over goal times.

  6. Because of goals that I am now setting for myself in 2017, I do believe that the mental side of running is something that will become even bigger for me. This is a great post and already has me thinking about many things….

  7. Hi Laura! Thank you so much for these strategies! Ever since I started running I’ve struggled with having negative thoughts during my races! I’m going to put some of these to the test for my next race!

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