The brain can be your greatest enemy or your most powerful tool on race day. As your most powerful tool, your brain can help you reach your true physical potential; as your greatest enemy, your mind can become a negative space that yields a blow to both your confidence and your performance.
Learning to get out of your own head on race day is an essential step to enjoying racing and reaching your peak performance potential. Even elite runners and high school champions must contend with how to perform well under pressure. Yet as many runners can attest, it’s one of those things that is far easier said in theory than accomplished in actual practice. These approaches to getting out of a negative mindset on race day can help with some of the common negative mindsets runners encounter on race – weather, a race not going to plan, and an obsession over finish time. Like anything, they are most effective when practiced in training as well as on race day.
Negative Mindset: Dwelling on Bad Weather
Adjustment: Control What You Can
We have all experienced races where the weather changes at the last minute. When I ran the Lake Sammamish Half in 2017, I anticipated cold temperatures and a chance of rain or snow. The weather ended up being perfectly mild and sunny. Any nerves about bad weather were simply wasted mental energy.
You cannot control the weather. You can control how you respond to it, by dressing appropriately and not letting it stress you out. So focus on exactly that – what you can control. If you are traveling for a race, pack multiple outfit options and include layering pieces such as arm warmers and decide on your exact outfit race morning. If the forecast calls for rain, dress for wet and possibly chilly conditions.
Once you are dressed, stop worrying about the weather, because stress won’t change the weather, but it can mentally tire you out before your race even begins.
Negative Mindset: Race Day Doesn’t Go as Planned
Adjustment: Be Able to React and Adapt
A sound race strategy can help you run a PR; however, race day does not always go according to plan. Have contingencies for how react to what the race presents you. Do not be a slave to your watch or, even worse, a pace band with every single split calculated down to the second.
I will use an example from my own race experiences: At the 2017 California International Marathon, I went into the race with the same strategy that worked so well for me the previous year: slower than goal pace for the first 5K, at goal pace through mile 20-22, and then a fast finish. I was hoping for somewhere around a 3:25-3:29 finish.
Race day threw a few unexpected things my way: I had pelvic pain and some GI discomfort, my knee began to ache at my 10, and I wasn’t quite as fast as I had hoped through the middle miles. Now, we’re talking just a matter of seconds per mile, but enough to know that a 3:25 was out of the cards.
But rather than despair and sink into negative self-talk, I reacted to what the race presented me. I focused on sustaining my current pace for that given mile and gave myself permission to diverge from the plan for a negative split. If I had tied myself to a strict race strategy of hitting a 3:25, I probably would have had a bad race with a crash and burn in the later miles. By reacting to the circumstances of the day and adapting, I still nabbed a finish time without my goal range of breaking 3:30.
Being able to adjust and react to the circumstances of race day is more powerful than the best laid race plan. You should still stick to a general strategy at the start – avoid the common error of running too fast in the first mile. But after that first mile, listen to your body’s signals, assess how you feel, and be willing to rein it in – or push harder – based on that feedback.
Negative Mindset: Worrying about Hitting Goal Time
Adjustment: Detach Yourself from Your Finish Time
Your finish time does not define you as an athlete or as a person. It’s really quite that simple. What does define an athlete is the ability to work hard, to push your limits, and to find joy in the sport.
In a race, detach yourself from your finish time and focus on racing to the best of your abilities: pacing smart, reacting well to mental or physical obstacles, adapting when needed, and pushing hard when the pain of racing settles in. The finish time alone does not define how well you raced, especially if you were racing a challenging course or in less-than-ideal weather. You may finish within a time that your training indicates, you may finish slower than you hoped, or you may surpass your own expectations. What does define your race is the effort you put into it and how you gave your best for that particular day.
Negative Mindset: Defeatist Attitude
Whether you are dealing with inclement weather or struggling to hit your goal paces, succumbing to a negative mindset and giving up is all too easy. The transition from “this is hard” to “I can’t do this, why even try” is not a far leap. So what can work? Smiling.
Studies have linked smiling to a reduction in perceived effort – when you smile, running feels easier. Part of this effect is due to a simple psychological trick – if you smile, it’s hard to dwell on negative thoughts. When you wave at spectators and thank volunteers, it’s difficult to remain stuck in a negative headspace. Smile, wave, thank volunteers, cheer on other runners – any sort of positive engagement will pull you out of our own head and boost your mood.
Do you struggle with a negative mindset on race day?
How do you deal with negative thoughts during a race?