Over the years I have learned a lot from thousands and thousands of training miles and hundreds of races. As a top level competitor, I put meticulous planning into my training and racing plans and strategies. Some of those things, well….you keep a secret. You want the edge over your teammates and the competition. My fastest days are behind me now and I look forward to finally sharing my “training and racing secrets” in this blog.
My first secret is to put just as much training and time preparing your mind as you do physically working out. Coaches way under address and educate runners on sports psychology. Your brain is a muscle that can work hard for you or against you in training and in races. The battle to overcome negative thoughts, pain, and problems you encounter will be your greatest obstacle. Fear, our nerves, and past memories of races can get the better of us if we are not trained to be overcomers and have command over our mind and thoughts. Stress in life and stress in training or races can either showcase the best in us or cause us to tighten up and fall short of everything we are capable of. Also, be aware and do not under estimate the power of how your daily lives affects training and race day. Daily stresses, hardships, and relationship problems can drain your strength, energy, and motivation. A compromised mind can lead you to illness, injury, and performance barriers.
Let me give you a couple of examples of how life and our minds can negatively affect us. In college I had a girlfriend (who is now my wife) break up with me the night before an indoor nationals track meet. My heart was broken and my spirit devastated! I honestly ran as hard as I could for my teammates on the 4X800 relay but still ran 12 seconds slower in the 800 meters than I did the previous week! I had a good lead as the anchor but got swallowed up and we ended up finishing second when we should have finished first.
Are you one of those people convinced you’ll probably need to “poop” in the middle of every marathon you race? I have run a lot of marathons, ultras, and even 100 mile races and not had to stop to poop. You can train your body to work for you and not against you. Granted, there may be that rare occasion or maybe you do have a special condition where you can’t help needing a major bathroom break. We are all human, sometimes our digestive system is compromised by nutrition or other circumstances but the general concept I am trying to relay for the majority of us is that your mind is the gateway to getting the rest of your body in sync with what you are trying to accomplish. If you think about it too much, yes, you are probably going to need to go. Learn to redirect your mind to other thoughts in training and in races. Secondly, spend a good amount of time “visualizing” the positive goal outcome of your race. Can you see yourself on pace, strong and smooth up those hills, relaxed and confident in the later miles, and flying into the finish line? Seeing it in your mind, believing it with all your heart, and doing this repeatedly over and over and over again is important before race day.
One of the tricks I use to help convince myself I am ready to do well in a race is to go over my training. Reviewing and remembering all of those “solid” workouts where I did it! Secondly, I try to hit as many of the little goals that I can in a training cycle. I use small goals to accomplish major things. There are lots of little things you can control that can add up to serious reasons as to why your race day will be a success. For example, in one of my marathon races in the past I new I could shatter the previous time I had run because: 1. I ran overall more mileage most weeks 2. Not only did I accomplish running more mileage but I was more consistent in my strength training 3. I got to the start line 5lbs lighter. 4. I had nutritionally eaten better and hydrated better through the course of my training and race prep. 5. I had on lighter and faster gear like an upgrade in my shoes 6. I had the advantage of seeing my previous marathon splits and could plan to “pace” this marathon much better so that I had more in the tank in the second half. 7. I did a better job of knowing the course this time around and visualizing myself running it time and time again. Do you see what I did? Give yourself reasons to believe! Then go execute!
In high school and college one of the mental advantages I always gave myself was “I know I have worked harder than my teammates”. If coached asked us to run certain routes, I didn’t take any shortcuts. Some of my teammates did. When coach asked us to hit the weights, I did it faithfully. A lot of runners put in the minimum days and time in the weight room or in any strength training or core exercises. If everyone else did 100 pushups…I did at least 150 or an extra set. Sure, most runners don’t like push ups or burpees. Take what you hate and be good at it. That is what sets the best out from the rest. Be the first to practice and the last one to leave. On the weekends, in the unsupervised summers be consistent. If I heard wind of what my competition was doing for training..well… I would take it to another level! Now, I didn’t do this all the time. Sometimes you have to know when your body needs rest or when you are over doing it but over the years I have trained myself to push harder and longer. Give a little more. It’s what has consistently helped me get to the finish line faster. Make it a habit and it is easier to harness the extra gear on race day mentally and physically.
Split it up! Don’t do all your training in one session. One of my advantages was to save other parts of the day or week to get extra work in. Some runners put all their work in at one designated time of the day. Sometimes it is best to come back later because sometimes we rush to get things in before school or work. Do quality training. Sometimes just a few hours of rest will give your legs more strength and pop to have a better training session than trying to fight through the miles all in one setting. I am not saying you have to run twice a day every day. I don’t do that. I do run twice a day maybe once or twice in a week during a serious training cycle. Meanwhile, maybe do some core and strength training exercises right before bed. Do a few lunges, squats, push ups and stretches at lunch time. Practice some breathing exercises in the car. If you can add in these things throughout the day they add up.
Remember how I emphasized “psychology” early on in this blog. When you are racing think about this and how you can use this against your opponents. When I go to pass people, I do it with confidence, speed, and my body language needs to communicate that I am strong and have a lot in the tank. This can deflate your opponents when you pass them with authority and conviction. I get my breathing under control and I sometimes will say something “encouraging” as I pass them. Especially if they are struggling. I want to be genuinely encouraging but at the same time anyone who can talk while running can be interpreted by an opponent as someone who is comfortable with the pace. It usually breaks a person and they won’t even attempt to pick up the pace to follow you. If you find someone that does respond and surges back in front of you, then be patient. I will ride right behind their shoulder and let them know I am there. This can be draining mentally for them as you draft and wait for a prime opportunity to surge again. I look for signs of weakness in my opponent and then surge. For example, laboring breathing, their form starting to fall apart, or they give feedback to coaches and teammates about how much they are hurting. I never talk about my “hurt”. I don’t want to give away my condition to competition and I also don’t want my mind lingering on the negative. It’s better to focus on counting numbers in your head or pick out a spot up ahead and run to it without slowing down and then restart the process again. Instead of thinking about what hurts, try different things like trying to take a few deeper breaths and focus on breathing patterns or focus on your cadence/turn over. Shake out your arms and try relaxing every part of your body.
One of my tricks in racing is to not throw in a lot of surges early on in a race. In fact, most of my surges are usually placed in the later half of the race. I usually divide my race out in two halves. In the first half of a race I am looking for a clean and steady start while trying to get into a nice rhythm and pace. If other people around you are throwing in major surges, let them. If they want to push lactic acid into their legs they will regret it later. If there are hills in the first half of a race, I try to go up them gently followed by a natural increase in pace caused by any decline in elevation. Again, I only really push up hills if they are in the last few miles or last mile of a race. Mentally thus physically, you will respond better if you are passing more people in the back half of a race than people passing you. Imagine, lots of runners passing you by in the last mile. It is discouraging. On the other hand, when you pass someone, and then another, another, another, another….that type of mental and physical momentum helps propel you to the finish line.
Lastly, find a mantra or reason to run. A mantra can be something as simple as a short phrase you repeat to yourself as you run that helps you. An example is “I am a machine” or “For God’s Glory”. Often times what helps propel me through my training or races is someone I’ve dedicated my run to. For example, I have run for friends who couldn’t and for orphans. When you think of these people, it can give you strength in times you want to slow down or stop. Yes, you can run for selfish and individual reasons. A lot of runners do. Maybe you want medals, recognition, and PR’s. Those things do motivate to a certain degree for many. Yet, I have found something much deeper and therefore more powerful when you connect with others. Fighting for others and their needs or causes is somehow even more powerful. This is probably why many of the fastest times people run are on relays when you aren’t just running for yourself. In cross-country I would remind myself constantly of my teammates needing me to finish at my best because the final score is in jeopardy. I may not win the race but I may be the person that gets us a lower score for a better team finish.