Monday, June 01, 2009

Mental Preparation, Part One.

You’ve done a lot to prepare PHYSICALLY for 13.1 miles, but is your head in the right space to tackle 13.1 miles?

Prior to one of the biggest races of my life I WAS VERY FOCUSED. I WAS IN THE ZONE MENTALLY. I had already run the race several times in my head. I knew where the toughest parts of the course were and how I was going to deal with them. I reminded myself of all the hard work I had done to get there. My success was completely within my hands. I knew I was going to suffer a bit those last few miles, but I was prepared to gut it out. I didn't think I could conquer this race, I KNEW I COULD.

Sports psychologist Dr.Jerry Lynch asked a number of Elite runners what is most important: natural ability, diligent training, positive mental attitude, or good coaching. The key to success by an overwhelming majority was positive mental attitude.

If you enter a race (or run) in the same physical shape as another runner, most often the one who finishes first will be the one that's stronger mentally. Even if your goal is just defeating the clock, mental training offers benefits. So, how do we do this?

The Stimulus-Belief-Response System.

All behavior comes down to a stimulus producing a response. But, before you respond to something there is ALWAYS a 'brief' moment in which you think about it. During a race, things will happen. While you should try to mentally rehearse some of these things (a water stop is out of water, you accidentally stumble and fall at some point in the race, you get a cramp, etc,), it's possible something may come up that you hadn't anticipated or planned for.

You can control these events or let them control you. The key here is maintaining a positive mindset. This helps build a powerful belief system. So, when 'things happen', you won't let it derail you. You will believe you are capable of enduring and overcoming.


There's no way to overstate staying confident. There is a direct link between psychology and physiology. If you don't BELIEVE you are capable of doing it, your body probably isn't going to do you any favors. I've worked with personal clients before who train and do the work necessary to perform at a certain level, but when race day arrives, they just fall apart mentally. They don't BELIEVE they can perform at a certain level. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. BELIEVE in yourself!

Confidence also enables you to overcome obstacles on race day. I trained HARD for six months several years ago to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It was the focus of my life. Race day arrived and I felt STRONG. I ran the first 13 miles and everything went SWIMMINGLY.

However, at mile 14 my stomach started to complain. I gutted this out for about 2 miles, but was forced to take a pitstop at mile 16. I wasn't too concerned because I still had a shot at qualifying. I didn't let this minor setback derail me.

I got back on the road and was rolling again from mile 16 to mile 21. I was feeling some fatigue, but I knew I had enough left to finish and qualify despite the earlier mishap. Then, I promptly suffered the worst ankle sprain I'd suffered in years. After screaming a few expletives and hobbling about 200 meters, I realized the ankle wasn't broken, I had 5 miles to run, and I STILL had a shot at qualifying!

I adjusted the lacing of my shoe on the injured ankle to provide some additional stability/support and started running. It wasn't fun, it hurt, and it was probably the toughest 5 miles I've ever run.

But, 5 miles later I crossed the finish line and QUALIFIED for Boston! I attribute this performance almost EXCLUSIVELY to my CONFIDENCE and my ability to manage two events that I hadn't planned for.

Positive Affirmations and Self-Talk

Stuart Smalley (from SNL) said it best, 'I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh darn it, people LIKE ME!' :)

In all seriousness, negative thoughts are insidious and they can creep in at the WORST possible time. Learn to combat them! Develop a list of positive self-talk (aka-affirmations).

For me, whenever I'm hurting/struggling, I always remind myself that I've been through tougher workouts/races (which is pretty much ALWAYS the case).

If you have negative thoughts that regularly come up, write them down and see if you can turn them into positive thoughts. Rehearse this during your training runs and last remaining long run(s). These affirmations should be positive and in present tense-'I will run relaxed' versus 'I won't get tense'.

Creative Imaging

Sports psychologists often encourage forming creative images of what you feel like when running well. The idea is to combine the feeling of confidence with that of moving strongly and smoothly. Visualize 'running fast like a cheetah', 'gracefully like an antelope', 'smooth like an ocean stream', etc. I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but I've done this and it DOES work.

Pre-Race Anxiety and Arousal

We all feel it. It's just a question of what you do with it! It doesn't always feel good, but it's actually ESSENTIAL for a good performance. Think about when we were hunters/gatherers. If we didn't get anxious/aroused before hunting a mastodon, we probably would never have performed well enough to feed our families!

A lack of pre-race anxiety and arousal can lead to disinterest and suboptimal performance. Too much of this and you get overwhelmed by your own emotions. What we're shooting for is 'the perfect storm'.

We're looking for a balance (optimal arousal) in which you get psyched up for the big effort and become stimulated to do your best, but don't get overwhelmed by the emotions and have an 'anxiety attack'!

Start developing your mental toughness NOW!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this entry, Matt! This is actually the coaching I've been waiting for, as I did slightly lose focus mentally during my last long run, which slowed me down quite a bit. I've practiced cognitive-behavioral therapy and realize that your advice is quite similar. I'll definitely be practicing my positive thoughts during these last practice runs!

- Kate V.

Josie said...

thank you matt, very helpful info, and yes the picture of you is AWESOME.

Dr. Rosemary Vega said...

Love it! I am a Licensed Psycholgist in Private practice and your comments were motivating, encourageing and empowering.
We are what we focus on, so make sure it's a healthy thought.

-Dr. Rosemary Vega, Psy.D