When you wake up on race morning, you’re either physically prepared to achieve your goal or you’re not. There is nothing you can do to change your fitness level in the final hours before the gun goes off.
Your mind is another matter. Recent science has demonstrated that the thoughts and emotions a runner experiences immediately before and during a race strongly affect performance and outcomes—for better or worse. As a runner, you want to control your race-day thoughts and emotions in ways that produce the best possible results.
Here are five specific science-backed mental strategies to use in your next race.
The direct limiter of performance in distance-running events is not physiology but something called perception of effort, which is a runner’s global sense of how hard running feels at any given moment. Every runner has a maximum tolerable level of perceived effort, just as every person has a maximum pain tolerance. But certain factors can increase this limit and thereby boost performance, while other factors can enhance performance by reducing the level of effort a runner perceives at any given pace.
One of these factors is expectations. Runners tend to be less bothered by a high level of effort and less likely to slow down in response to it when the feeling does not exceed the effort level they expected to experience at that point in the race. So one way to harness the power of your mind to your advantage on race day is to consciously expect the race to be very hard—a strategy I refer to as “bracing yourself”.
Psychological experiments have demonstrated that when people tell themselves they are excited rather than nervous before a challenge such as speaking in public or taking a math test, they perform better. This technique has not yet been tested in an exercise context, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would work just as well before a running race because anxiety is known to increase perceived effort. And even if it doesn’t make you run faster, turning anxiety into excitement will make the pre-race experience less unpleasant for you.
Perceived effort is distinct from pain, but similar. Many factors that increase pain tolerance or reduce pain sensitivity have similar effects on perceived effort during exercise. For example, studies have shown that people who adopt an attitude of acceptance before experiencing a pain stimulus (“I know this will hurt, but I can handle it”) are able to tolerate the pain better than people who adopt an attitude of resistance (“I hope this doesn’t hurt”).
Psychologists use a technique known as acceptance and commitment therapy to teach people to embrace the unpleasant aspects of pursuing behavioral change and goals. In a 2014 study, Elena Ivanova of McGill University found that teaching beginning exercisers to accept the discomfort of exercise through this method resulted in a 55 percent increase in time to exhaustion in a high-intensity endurance test. These subjects weren’t any fitter than before; they simply had a higher tolerance for perceived effort because they embraced it. Do the same in your next race!
There are two directions in which you can channel your attention while running: internally and externally. Generally speaking, when your attention is focused internally, you are concentrating on how you’re doing, and when your attention is focused externally, you’re focused on what you’re doing. Studies have shown that runners experience a lower level of perceived effort at any given pace and perform better when they keep their attention externally focused, on the task at hand.
How do you do this? Try concentrating on task-relevant stimuli such as other runners (e.g., put a target on the back of the runner in front of you) and your pace (e.g. check your watch at regular intervals and make adjustments as necessary to stay on track toward your goal). When you find your attention turning inward toward negative feelings (discomfort) and emotions (self-doubt), make a conscious effort to shift it back to the task at hand.
When experiencing discomfort during a race, it is normal to think negative thoughts such as, “I’m going to hit the wall!” But some runners consciously arrest these thoughts and replace them with positive substitutes like, “Just be patient.” A 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent demonstrated that this practice, known as positive self-talk, reduces perceived effort and enhances endurance performance.
The next time you find yourself entertaining negative thoughts during a race, quickly replace them with a more helpful alternative. With a little practice you will find specific phrases that work especially well for you. Among my personal favorites are “Relax, you’ve been here before” and “How bad do you want it?” (which happens to be the title of my new book on mastering the psychology of mind over muscle).