When you’re racing long distances, inevitably you’ll enter that dark place which many runners refer to as the “pain cave.” In addition to averting a physical collapse, you’re probably battling the siren-esque voice in your head that’s tempting you to slow down, let other runners pass, or even drop out completely. The mental strategies I’m going to share may not, and probably never will, turn off the negative chatter completely. However, I hope they can help you reduce its volume to mere background noise. Here are three techniques that I use in races, and practice in training, to help me endure the most painful, spirit-crushing moments of competition.
1. The Power of Mantras: I’ve been using this first technique for so long that I can't recall which coach or individual I learned it from. Essentially, I create a three word mantra that I repeat to myself in my head throughout a race. While I have occasionally swapped out words depending on the race situation, my go-to mantra is “Strong. Confident. Relaxed.” When the excitement of the race day crowd tempts me start out too fast, I gently remind myself, “Strong. Confident. Relaxed.” When my form gets sloppy in the homestretch or my breathing becomes so labored that I feel anything but strong, confident, relaxed, I tell it to myself anyway: “Strong. Confident. Relaxed.”
Kara Goucher uses a similar technique which she refers to as “power words.” In her recent book “Strong,” Goucher explains how she picks a word at the start of a new training block - a word that describes how she wants to be in her goal race. For instance, she chose “fighter” as her power word when training for the 2008 Olympic games and “courage” later that year as she prepared for the New York City Marathon. She describes the technique further n a recent interview with womensrunning.com:
“As I trained for the 2008 Olympics, I constantly repeated the word “fighter” to myself. I repeated it during hard sessions, on recovery runs. On days when I thought I could not go another step, I’d whisper it to myself and will myself to continue. It became ingrained in my mind. Whereas in the past doubts would creep in, now “fighter” would come to mind instead.”
Other prominent marathoners such as Sarah Hall and Jared Ward have revealed mantras that they use to get through race day. If you know any well-known trail runners use this strategy as well, please share below.
2. Dedicate Your Miles: I adapted this second technique from motivational speaker, business consultant and devout Catholic, Matthew Kelly. In his book, “Resisting Happiness” he suggests praying for someone you love on the hour, of each hour during the work day. By calling to mind those you hold dear, he argues you can inject incredible meaning into even the most mundane tasks of your profession. In longer races such as a half marathon and up, I dedicate certain miles to an important person or group of people in my life. In a full marathon for example, I might start this after the halfway point. I’ll start by recalling high school friends, teammates or college roommates. As soon as I run by a mile marker, it becomes that person’s mile. I’m still focused on the task of racing, but when negativity or pain creeps in, I’ll recall a funny story, memorable experience, or kind words I’ve shared with that person. I’ll even go so far as to picture this friend or family member alongside me in the race. Then I’ll imagine what quip or phrase he or she would yell at me to get me motivated. I typically save those closest to me, such as my parents, significant other and deceased family members for the final miles. It’s amazing how much strength I can draw from these people even when they’re not physically present.
3. Focused Attention: My third and final technique is yet another practice I borrowed and adapted to make part of my race day arsenal. I’ve been meditating on and off for the past few years using various guided meditation apps. While some of them have monthly or annual fees, I believe they’re well worth the money: the top two I’d recommend are “Insight Timer” and “Headspace.” Anyway, the Headspace app has a series of guided meditations geared towards athletes and athletic competition, which I really enjoyed.
The narrator, Andy Puddicombe, describes a technique called “focused attention” which is all about having an “anchor” to return to during competition or training when your mind wanders. The most common thing to focus on is the breath, although I rely less on this during races. Other anchors such as sights, sounds and even images you picture in your mind will work too. However,I have had success using physical objects from my surroundings as anchors. Essentially, if I’m lost in thought during a race I’ll bring my attention back to the present by selecting an object and focusing on it intently for just a few seconds. For example, I may zero in on the fabric of a competitor’s race singlet just long enough to glimpse a bead of sweat trickle down. I might pick out one spectator from the crowd and note the facial expression or take an extra second to appreciate the artwork on his or her homemade, motivational sign. It could be as simple as noting the spray painted arrows on the course or a uniquely shaped tree that stands out against the horizon. In my opinion, trail running makes staying present during competition so much easier because you can (literally) lose yourself in the scenery. As Puddicombe describes focused attention: “Having a place of focused attention gives you something to come back to when your mind has wandered off. We’re not trying to escape thoughts or shut out the world around us, instead it provides a stable point of reference to come back to.”
I use focused attention during races as a gentle reset for the mind. It seems to bring me a brief moment of clarity when I might otherwise be obsessing over splits, placing or when the next aid station is coming up. It’s quick, simple and you can perform this mental exercise as many times as needed. I would recommend trying it out in workouts beforehand to see if it’s something you’d like to employ on race day.
These mental tricks might not work for everyone, but I’m hoping there’s one tidbit you gleaned from this article. Or perhaps, like I did, you can adopt a few elements of these techniques and then make them your own. I’m fascinated by the field of sports psychology, so please share any other mental strategies that you have found helpful. Happy training, gangstas!
*Ruairi is a creator and co-owner of Trail GangstAZ. He ran competitively for St. John’s University, a DIII school in Minnesota and coached high school cross country and track in Goodyear, AZ for five years. He now lives and trains in Flagstaff and has a 2:23 personal best in the marathon.