It is the week of London marathon, one of the world’s largest mass participation events and a true spectacle that I’ll be running once again. Yesterday, I traveled up to London for the expo event and the Excel centre. It is where you pick up your race number and timing chip for the race and I got to catch up with a number of friends. It is a fabulous event, everyone is very appreciative of each other and the running community are very friendly and kind. It really gets you in the mood for race day and reminds you of how hard you have trained up until now.
I managed to have some conversations with people that I know and others that I have encountered online but not met before in real-life. Everywhere I went, runners were smiling at each other knowingly and provided the sense of community that I have always loved about running.
At this stage, regarding London marathon, everyone has (or ought to have) trained hard, and is well into their taper and readying for the race itself. My news feeds on various social media outlets are filled with excited runners looking forward to the race and also lots of tips and strategies for race day. Throughout the last 15 years that I have been running marathons, I have developed my own routine for preparing for them and honed things to how I like them, and many aspects of my preparations have come from articles and advice as well as through trial and error from my own experiences.
There is usually very little advice offering up anything that really addresses race day psychology. So I thought I’d compile a list of what I consider to be the most important psychological tips to use on race day. I know not everyone who reads this runs marathons, but if you run any event, or run at all ever, or if you engage in any kind of physical activity or exercise, there is something here for you.
1. Use your cognitions well:
Be aware of the thoughts you think in the lead up to the race and throughout the race itself. Think positively, realistically and be encouraging and supportive with your thoughts. Encourage yourself in the same way that you would encourage a loved one; with the same intention, language and tone. Rather than ruminating about potential problem scenarios or doubt, remind yourself of how you have trained and know that if problems occur, you are very capable of dealing with them effectively.
For more information on how to use your internal dialogue effectively to advance running performance, you can read this article here: The Runner’s Internal Dialogue.
Whether we like it or not, we cannot not communicate with ourselves when we run, so we may as well communicate effectively with ourselves. If you’d like to learn about how to effectively encourage yourself when running or engaging in any other sport, then read this article: Self-Encouragement on Marathon Day.
2. Manage your intensity levels:
Many people interpret their feelings as an accurate reflection of reality, which could be misleading. We all have some adrenaline and healthy concern prior to a race. It is important for us to interpret it in an accurate way and recognise our feelings for what they are.
Do not let those natural race day feelings lead to worrying or problematic thoughts and learn how to control your intensity levels. This could involve learning basic relaxation skills, breathing exercises or other specialist techniques to help.
If we get too anxious, nervous or apprehensive before a race, we might run off too fast at the beginning of the race and burn ourselves out, or we might expend too much energy before we have even begun. Being able to control over-intensity is very useful indeed. You can read more about managing your intensity levels with this article here: Managing The Runner’s Intensity Level.
3. Work your plan:
You may well have started with a certain goal, a desired outcome that you wished to achieve. You are very likely to have trained with a particular outcome for the race in mind. Race day is not the time to start tinkering with your plans!
You will find comfort knowing that you have trained for the event in a systematic way, and you can benefit from having structure on race day. If you have trained to complete the marathon in a particular time, then know the pace you are going to run at and stick to that pace. You might also consider familiarising yourself with the course of the race and tell yourself that as you reach certain milestones, you are making progress; use those things to motivate yourself and encourage yourself in a healthy fashion.
If you feel really good on race day and want to push yourself harder than planned, ok. Just be considered rather than reckless and know that it is a tall order to attempt to perform to a better level than you have actually trained for.
4. Have a contingency and behavioural flexibility:
Sticking to your plan gives you reassurance, but also be open to changes and challenging circumstances. All kinds of things can happen; I have had to deal with adverse weather conditions at races, travel issues prior to races, faulty gear, illness, poor preparation and just day-to-day adversity that can arise on a race day. Not everything is going to go exactly as you’ve planned. Accept that. Sometimes a PB effort may have to go on the back burner for now as you focus on enjoying the occasion ready to fight for a PB on another day.
Therefore, have an idea of what you’ll do if challenges arise. Maybe even engage in mental rehearsal of what potential issues may arise and ensure that you feel confident of dealing with it if it occurs. Don’t expect things to go wrong, but know that you are capable of dealing with it and have a plan in case things do not go exactly as you’d like.
5. Dissociate at times:
At times, it can prove valuable to distract ourselves and dissociate from how we are feeling and detach from our thoughts for a while. You can pick points to look at, notice the environment, architecture or some people listen to music (though music will detract from the wonderful atmosphere you get at races and I don’t really use it), imagine other things or being in other places.
You may use cognitive strategies to dissociate; for more information about using dissociation strategies when running, read this article here: How to Use Dissociation When Running.
6. Associate at other times:
A problem with dissociation is that we lose track of how we really are. Therefore learning how to be mindful when running and being able to tune in o how we are is important. We’ll know how far we can push ourselves or if we need to ease off at other times. Elite athletes tend to use associative strategies to tune in to how they are. You can red more about associative strategies here: Using an Associative Cognitive Strategy When Running.
Association does not just have to be about tuning into how we are while racing, it can be used as a means of focusing too. At times during the race, consider focusing internally at times. You might choose to focus in on your breathing, the rhythm of your body, the pace of your steps, for example.
If you’d like to use mindfulness while running, then read this article here: Mindfulness Meditation When Running.
7. Have your running mantra at the ready:
There are many, many inspirational quotes out there in the world, and so many that are relevant to us as runners. If you have a favourite quote that inspires you, use that. If you have favourite or inspirational figures, use quotes by them (and even imagine them saying the words to you). If you have favourite phrases, or passages from books, these can be used. Here are some of my favourites that I use:
“Get busy living or get busy dying”
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” Steve Prefontaine
“Conditions are never just right. People who delay action until all factors are favorable do nothing.”
“Enjoy your pain, you’ve earned it.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“Just because your muscles start to protest doesn’t mean you have to listen.”
“Champions are made when no one is watching.”
“I do today what you won’t so I can do tomorrow what you can’t.”
“Man imposes his own limitations, don’t set any.”
“There will be days when I don’t know if I can run a marathon. There will be a lifetime knowing that I have.”
“Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”
“Running is different from other sports, all the others require just one ball”
“Every man dies, but not every man really lives.”
“Mental fortitude is more important than physical endurance.”
“Nothing worth having is easy.”
If you want to read in more detail how to properly develop and use a mantra or running affirmation to use effectively on race day, then read this article: Advancing The Runner’s Mantra.
8. How will you deal with any demons you might encounter?
I say it often, one of the things I find a great deal of perverse pleasure in when running in races, is overcoming the adversity that we all encounter from time to time. For me, it is a time to test my psychological skills in real life and I love learning how to do that. I enjoy those challenging times. However, not everyone thinks the same.
There are inevitably times during races where we experience some adversity. How we respond and deal with that can greatly influence how we perform. As and when we experience these moments of challenge, use internal dialogue to encourage and support yourself, remind yourself of the reasons you are running (especially if it is for a charity, for example), think of those people who are going to be proud of your efforts (my wife and children are central to my thoughts when I am running), remind yourself that in a certain period of time, you’ll be finished!
As I mentioned in a previous point, have an idea of how you will cope if you encounter a challenge or something that might be deemed a difficulty. You can counter anxiety by engaging in relaxation skills. You can counter doubt with distraction and dissociation. You can counter discouragement with encouragement, mantra or progressive internal dialogue. You can counter discomfort with distraction and mental imagery (as long as you do it healthily). Do recognise that discomfort is not something to be afraid of and know that we are very capable of doing more than our body tells us. Learn the difference between your body telling you to stop because it is a bit tired and it telling to stop because it is injured.
9. Use mental imagery before and throughout the race:
Imagine your desired outcomes vividly. Think about that moment when you’ll cross the line. Think about being with friends and family celebrating after the race. Think about wearing your medal and being able to tell friends about your experience. Use sights, sounds, imagine smells, and bring your mental imagery to life to help inspire you and drive you onwards.
Use mental imagery to imagine yourself as a finely tuned machine striding to glory, use mental imagery to think of the people you are doing this for and use it to reinforce your posture if you find yourself slouching when you tire in the latter stages of the race. For more on how to use mental imagery to advance running performance, read this article: https://www.adam-eason.com/self-hypnosis-and-mental-imagery-for-enhanced-running/
10. Make it enjoyable:
You trained hard for this event. Life is too short to train hard and then not enjoy it. Work out the ways that you personally will derive more enjoyment from it. Adopt a fun-filled manner, smile and use your own demeanour to flavour the event from your own perspective (without deterring from your race performance of course). Be aware of where friends, family and/or your charity will be cheering you on so you can look forward to it and enjoy those moments.
Reward yourself. Plan a way to celebrate or reward yourself when it is all over so that you can really appreciate what you’ve done.
One way to really enjoy the event is to imagine that you are not going to be able to run again, using the Stoic notion of negative visualisation, you can read more at how to do that here: Using Stoic Negative Visualisation.
If you have a breadth and depth of psychological tools, skills and insights for when you run your race, the experience will be enriched and you’ll perform better for sure. The ideal scenario is to practice these processes long before race day, make them part of your ongoing training plan and schedule the skills development into your regimen.
If you are racing in coming weeks or at some other time in your life, I hope this serves you well and helps you get the most out of yourself come race day.
Once I finish London marathon, I am then away on holiday next week, so I’ll be back with a race report when I return. See you then and if you get the chance to watch it on the telly or on the streets of London, cheer me on!