Before the triumph of crossing the finish line, runners deal with periods of physical discomfort and mental fatigue.
Pain and doubt are just a part of racing. But how effectively you deal with these challenges can mean the difference between a sluggish finish or a personal record.
There isn't one right approach. Your personal strategy to handling the discomfort of racing is unique to you; it's your own "mental toughness fingerprint." Success on race day begins with understanding how you handle pain and doubt. Do you accept or avoid it?
During a distance race, if an athlete uses energy and effort consistently and correctly, the perceived effort will increase throughout the race. Take a look at any race photos taken near the end of a race; you'll see effort and exertion etched into the face of almost every competitor.
Runners who head into a race not only anticipating pain, but wanting to make it happen, are athletes who acknowledge that pain is an integral part of the race and strive to see it as a necessary obstacle to face on the way to their goals.
A certain amount of acceptance is helpful during a race. However, you can take this strategy too far. Runners who focus too much on the pain of race day run the risk of missing out on the enjoyable parts as well.
Practice accepting the pain before the race to strike the right balance. Lay out a plan to mentally relax in the first part of the race. Repeat positive mantras to yourself, focus on your form, and enjoy the race-day environment.
Then, at a predetermined point in the race—perhaps in last miles of the race—switch into pain acceptance and put yourself into attack mode. Visualize this strategy before the race when you have some quiet time. If you practice it enough, you should be able to put your body on autopilot during the race.
Runners who strive to run a race comfortably from start to finish and force themselves to think positively and run "easy" are athletes who avoid thinking about the pain that sets in during a race or hard workout. These runners use the power of positive self-talk to balance the negativity that often accompanies pain.
While avoidance can be a useful tool, there's a point in every distance race where the runner needs to embrace the pain and dig deep for the finish. Competition is a wonderful opportunity to test your fitness. In order to truly run as fast as you can, that means going through some physical discomfort.
To use positive avoidance to your advantage, write down specific mantras to repeat to yourself during the race when you are tempted to be negative. A few examples are:
"I am having the best race of my life!" Even if you are not, telling yourself this over and over will help you to believe it and to race as though you are going to run a personal best, full of adrenaline and confidence.
"This feels easy!" If you repeat this enough times, you will start to believe it. Even if the pace you're running is difficult, telling yourself that it feels easy will help your mind handle fatigue.
"I am smooth and relaxed." This mantra will help you to run upright and focus on taking long, efficient strides and deep, steady breaths.