Getting to the Guts of the Athlete’s Mind
Can you think of a time when your mental race preparation has gone great and impacted your race performance?
You were confident in your training, you were relaxed, you believed in your fuel, your nutrition.
Can you think of a time when your mental race preparation has derailed your performance OR simply ruined your life in the days leading up to a big race?
We all have these stories.
I am going to tell you three quick stories:
1987—I was 13, almost 14 and in the Eighth Grade. I was running the last and final race of my season in the Track Shack Grand Prix Series which meant I had toed the line in 5Ks and 10Ks in the Fall, Winter, and Spring probably 7 or 8 times by this race. I was a shoe-in to win my age category which had been my overwhelming goal at the beginning of the season, but now I was dreaming of much bigger things. Here I was, in bed, the night before the Winter Park 10K. I had run the Red Lobster 10K maybe three weeks before in a total breakthrough race for me—38 minutes. I had never dreamed of going that fast and the race was fairly easy like all great PR’s usually are.
From nowhere else but in between my own two ears, I had the weight of the world on my shoulders that I needed to set another PR in this last and final race. I had heard the course was faster than Red Lobster so it should have been easy.
The night before the race, I did not sleep a single minute. I ran 42 minutes, four minutes slower than a few weeks before, and I ended my season disappointed and exhausted.
I sabotaged my performance by forgetting my goals and being unrealistic and overly ambitious. Lack of sleep is not what really caused poor performance in this case.
2010—East Jesus, Maryland or West Virginia, seriously, I don’t know where we were. I was walking to the Walmart across from our RV on the blistering hot asphalt, on what had been about 10 hours of sleep over the five previous days. I thought I was going to die, throwup, passout, or worse from physical and mental exhaustion.
Yet, I rejected all those feelings, I got on my bike for probably the 40th or 50th time in the previous five days and executed the best riding of my life. Our Race Across America team had some major transportation glitches, meaning we only had one working van for the beginning of the session I am describing, which I could explain in great detail, but just take from the situation that I had to pull off some major team-leading decision making when I was probably on the verge of hallucination.
I relaxed, jumped curbs, dodged traffic, climbed various hills, and coordinated other bike riders to efficiently transition and ride to the best of their abilities. At the end of this two hour cycling pull, I passed out in the back of a moving van for what I was told was 45 minutes. There is a picture of me and I truly look passed-out or worse.
In the middle of an event, I just decided the best way to get to the end was to go faster and more efficiently.
2012—Wellness Center Super Sprint Triathlon. After a lackluster first attempt in 2011, I looked at the results and decided to enter the Pro Category based on my time predictions. I seeded myself last in the pool which was humbling, but appropriate. Rode a steady 10 miles on a borrowed tri-bike that I only had three rides on and that was about all the riding I did going into the race. Then, for me, the race started, and I ran a 17:36 split on a hilly Meadowmont 5K course. My only goal going into the race was to break 18 minutes for the 5K.
I set a small goal that I knew I could achieve with careful preparation and execution.
When I was 13, I was an unpredictable basket case going into races. Now, while I cannot always count on my fitness and injury-freeness at age 38, I can predict within a small window of uncertainty what my result will be before the gun goes off.
I have matured mentally.
If I don’t sleep the night before, I don’t sweat it. I know sleep is cumulative.
When travel has been rough, I know that my competition and teammates have endured the same thing.
I set goals within races that I can likely control and I always focus on the second half of any event which is where everything happens both physically and mentally. That’s true for 5K’s and Half Ironman events.
Basically, I am confident, and internally, borderline cocky. I got this. I own this race or at least this part of the race. This also takes great humility. Because there are time in every race when I will look like I am under performing. Usually, in the beginning. I can see on spectator’s faces, “You are going too slow.” I ignore it. Because I know more than they do.
When bad feelings come up as adrenaline rises, I control the demons with three to five deep breaths. John Parker describes controlling the ORB in Once a Runner. There is a roar out there that you need to get up “Up” for the race, but you have to be able to control it, call on it, and dismiss it when it comes around too soon.
I don’t have a magic trick for how to get mentally race ready. For me it was putting on a bib a few hundred times as well as a good deal of self-assessment and reflection. Are you writing down or filing away mentally what worked and did not work in your race preparation?
Repeat only the things that work.
As your bad self-loathing feelings come up share them with no one, this is just for race readiness, not for the rest of life. Remember, racing is just play. It’s just a game. Even if you were or are becoming a pro athlete, you need to approach these events appropriately based on the spirit of the sport. This means approach them with the intention of having FUN. Fun and playful is loose and fast.
You can be serious if that is your personality and it is mine, but have fun, and you will exceed your expectations.