No matter how many miles you log preparing, there’s no escaping that point in the race when your breathing becomes more difficult, your legs feel heavier, and your ability to keep pace feels, well, completely out of reach. Slowing down seems inevitable — but it doesn’t have to be. What you choose to do in this moment is completely within your control.
For most, the goal of training is to develop the cardiovascular and muscular systems in preparation for the physical demands of running. However, runners are much more than lungs, heart and muscles. There’s another system, with perhaps a bigger role, signaling your lungs to contract, your heart to beat and your legs to move: your brain.
Racing at your absolute physical limit involves a lot of mental perseverance, the ability to disregard pain, discomfort and negative thoughts. Below are mental strategies to employ to get through those tough times.
1. Accept the race will be painful well before race day.
This may seem obvious but it’s important to understand that racing at your limit is painful. There’s no escaping it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an elite runner, racing hard is painful. The key is to accept that it will be painful so that, come race day, when the going gets tough, you’re not caught off guard.
There have been studies where researchers have asked people who are about to undergo a painful experience if they expected it to be painful. The participants who thought it would be painful perceived it to be less painful then those who thought there would be no pain at all. The takeaway: By accepting the race will be painful, you’ll perceive it to hurt less, because you’re ready for it. Plus, it’s nothing you haven’t done already; day after day, for weeks and months, you’ve been doing hard, painful workouts.
2. Learn how to effectively bargain with the voices in your head.
Most of us have internal conversations in our heads when we run, and when the running gets uncomfortable, there’s always that voice in your head urging you to slow down. It tries bargaining with you, saying something like, “Just slow down for the next mile and then I’ll feel better and make up the time.” The problem is, if you listen to it, odds are you’ll never make up that time. At this point, the mental battle is lost. You need to take control of the voice if you want to race at your limit.
The first step is to acknowledge that the voice in your head urging you to slow down — don’t deny it. The second step is to start bargaining with the voice. This is where you use something called chunking to bargain and help push through the pain.
Chunking is a mental technique that involves breaking a larger task into smaller, more manageable pieces. Runners can use this technique to help deal with the pain of running near their maximum ability for extended periods of time or distance. Break the run, workout or race into smaller more manageable efforts. Ideally, you want to aim for three or four smaller pieces. Then, approach each piece or “chunk” with a different attitude and plan your approach to each piece. Identify which chunks will require the most physical and mental effort and, therefore, will be the most difficult.
Here’s an example of chunking a 10-mile race. Break it into three chunks: the first five miles, the middle three miles and the last two miles. Now here’s your game plan: The first five miles will be the easiest of the three chunks and will require the least mental and physical effort. Think of it as a fast warm-up and not part of the race. Stay relaxed, comfortable and enjoy the sights.
Now you’re left with two chunks totaling five miles. This is the meat of the race. And, hey, racing five miles sounds a whole lot easier than racing 10 miles, right?
So your race really starts at mile six. Fatigue will start to set in and your pace may begin to slow. This is when you should start tapping into your mental power to avoid slowing. Use visualization to stay relaxed, but fast.
The last two miles will be tougher physically then mentally. At this point, your mind knows the finish is close and will start to lift the breaks. Think of it as a two-mile race now, and give it your all.
Running at your limit is a balance between peak athletic fitness and a strong, focused mind. On race day, when you line up at the starting line, replay in your mind all the long runs, hard runs and workouts you’ve pushed through. Physically, the work is done. Just remember when that cynical voice in your head tells you to ease up (and it will!), don’t listen to it—you still have gas in your tank.
Cory Smith, a Philadelphia based running coach, shares his expert advice as an American Cancer Society DetermiNation running coach; founder of Run Your Personal Best, a private running-coaching business; and head cross country coach at Penn State Brandywine. He is a USA Track and Field-certified coach and a 4:03 miler. As a student athlete at Villanova, Cory was an NCAA Division One Regional and National Championship qualifier. Contact Cory at email@example.com. Read all of Cory’s posts for Be Well Philly here.
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