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Strategies to Help You Develop Mental Toughness During Races

As triathletes and runners, we’re always looking for that extra edge in training to make us faster and more consistent on the racecourse. Understandably, most of our efforts to improve are geared towards the physical – lowering lactate threshold, increasing muscle power, improving form. Enhancement to any of these physiological systems is going to result in faster race times and should be the main focus of your training plan.

However, almost any coach in the world would agree that the mental aspect of racing is also critical to racing your best. But when asked how much time they spend coaching the mental aspect of the sport, few if any would say that it is a top priority in how they coach their athletes. So, the question is, how can you prepare for the mental and emotional rigors of race day during your workouts and in your mind?

Sports psychologists recommend adding a technique called visualization to your race day arsenal so you can toe the line feeling confident in both your physical and mental strength. But does visualization really work? If so, how exactly can you implement it into your training? In this article, we’ll outline how visualization works for some of the best triathletes and runners in the world when you should implement it in your training, and outline a step-by-step process for helping you easily add visualization to your training repertoire.

Does visualization really work?
Some of the world’s top athletes, from professional golfers to Olympic Track and Field medalist, practice mental imagery and visualization in their training. When hearing of visualization techniques, a lot of athletes think it’s a bunch of hocus pocus to help those that aren’t “mentally tough” enough. However, after hearing some amazing success stories from very well-known and mentally tough triathletes and runners, they realize it really does work. What do you think? Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the power of mental imagery is the gold-medal performance of Mark Plaatjes at the World Championships marathon in 1993.

Plaatjes had received some pictures of the marathon course in Stuttgart, Germany, and used these images to extensively practice visualization techniques, so much so that he knew every undulation on the course and had “run” every possible scenario of the race before he arrived in Germany. When the real racing began, Plaatjes was able to summon his reservoir of confidence and mental preparation over the final miles and snatch victory just 3 minutes from the finishing line. Mental training and visualization clearly works for high-caliber athletes. But how can you make it work for you?

Here are some specific visualization and mental planning tips and strategies you can implement to improve your performance:

How to visualize in training
The most effective way to use visualization is to help you be prepared for anything on race day. Any sports psychologist can tell you that to the human mind, there is no difference between an actual experience and an imagined one. This means that your mind cannot tell the difference between a race that you run in-person and a race that you run with your mind’s eye. Just as an actor must rehearse every line and gesture of an upcoming performance, the runner should prepare for each scene and situation that can happen on race day.

Step 1: Be specific and detailed
In order to properly visualize the way your race day will play out, it is important to do your homework. Focus on building a complete mental picture, covering all five senses. Imagine yourself at the starting line, surrounded by thousands of other high strung triathletes or runners – is it hot, is it cold, what are you wearing? When the gun sounds, envision the acceleration in your heart rate and the claustrophobic feeling as the stampede begins. By conjuring up these emotions, sights, and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm, collected, and execute your race plan in a chaotic environment.

The more specific you can be with the sites, sounds, and emotions, the more calm and confident you’ll be on race day. Here are some important elements to consider:

Weather. Will it be cold on race day? (how cold impacts race times) Will it be warm? (how heat impacts race times) Will it be humid or raining or even snowing? Find out this information by looking online at average weather temperatures for the area as well as the actual forecast closer to race day.

Course. Will the course have hills? If so, how many and at what point of the race? Research how to attack hills during a race. Also, pay attention to courses with many turns that can break rhythm and courses that feature heavy spectator cheering that can push you too hard during the early stages of the race. Many major races feature both course maps and elevation charts on the race website. Some even feature a terrain map if the course is not entirely on one surface.

Population. Find out how many people run the race each year as well as what the starting situation will be. Preparing yourself to stand in a crowded race start with thousands of people is beneficial for athletes with nerves that fray easily. Scenery. Find out what you will be looking at during the race. Are you running through a town or on flat farmland roads? Will, there be crowds along the way or will you have to be your own cheerleader?

Step 2: Don’t just visualize the positive – expect the unexpected

Likewise, visualize positive and negative scenarios. Let’s face it, no matter how fit you are, a race is going to hurt at some point. Imagine yourself working through those bad moments during the race. This way, when they inevitably occur, you’ll know exactly what to do and be confident you can work through them. Furthermore, visualize what you’ll do and how you will feel should something go wrong. What if you get a puncture, or your shoe comes untied or you have to go to the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you’ll have a specific plan in place and instead of panicking, you’ll be calm, cool, and collected. Before a big race, grab a pen and paper and write a list of the things that are not foreseeable. Here are some examples of unforeseeable events:

Cramps
Racing by yourself
Racing with a group
GI issues
Blisters
“Bonking”
Wardrobe malfunction (shoes coming undone, chafing, etc…)
Fueling malfunctions ( missing a water stop, losing a gel, etc…)

Step 3: Boost your self-confidence

Another advantage of visualization in training is the opportunity to boost your confidence. It’s been well documented that high confidence correlates to an increased level of performance. By visualizing yourself succeeding, you can subconsciously improve your belief in yourself and your abilities. To enhance your self-confidence, try implementing self-affirmation and self-talk into your daily routine.

Spend 5 minutes each night before bed standing in front of the mirror repeating specific, positive messages to yourself. The mirror helps engage the visual receptors in the brain and helps internalize positive messages. Phrases such as “I am fit, I am fast” tend to work well. Yes, you may feel silly in front of the mirror, but I’ll take that in return for racing better every day of the week! Create your own self-affirmation phrase and spend 5 minutes repeating it to yourself. Before you know it, there won’t be a doubt in your mind you’re going to perform on race day.

Visualization before the race
As race time approaches, you can’t help but get nervous. After all the hard work you’ve put in, you don’t want it to go to waste. Luckily, you can implement the visualization techniques you used in training to reduce these pre-race nerves.

Recollect all your great workouts
If you find yourself getting nervous before the race, start thinking back to all the great workouts you had during your training. Think back to that great tempo run you had where you floated effortlessly over the road, the fast bike interval when you nailed your speed or visualize your last successful race and begin to conjure up those same feelings of accomplishment.

Focus on what you can control
We get nervous when we don’t know the outcome of things, like when the killer is going to jump out of the shower in a scary movie or how we’re going to feel halfway through the race. Take the focus off those elements of the race you can’t control (your finishing time, your opponents, the weather) and direct them to outcomes you can control. Visualize yourself executing your race plan, going through your warm-up routine, and even focusing on your breathing. By directing your thoughts to those physical and mental aspects you can control, the nerves will dissipate and you’ll increase your chances of success.

Visualization during the race
Racing is tough, there are no two ways about it. At some point on your way to a great race or a new PR, you’re going to hurt and you’re going to have self-doubts. Letting negative thoughts creep into your mind is one of the easiest ways to derail your performance.

Stay positive with self-affirmation and self-talk
Before you begin the race, decide on a few easy to remember mantras that will help you gain confidence and persevere through any rough patches during a race. Make sure that all the words in your mantra are positive. For example, use “I am strong, I can do this” as opposed to “push through the pain, don’t give up”. The second mantra elicits negative connotations with the words “pain” and “give up”.

Implement mental cues
Likewise, you can employ mental cues to remind yourself to focus on proper form when going up a hill or when you start to get tired. I like the mantra “relax and go” in the last km of a race to remind myself not to tighten my face and shoulders as I get tired. Find your positive mantra and use it when the going gets tough.

How to implement visualization
Relax! Choose a quiet dark place with no distractions, and begin by relaxing your entire body, from your head to your toes. Think of a beautiful, quiet place, this can be personal to you, a garden, the beach of a forest, for instance. Once your mind and body are at peace, begin the visualization. Set the scene. Using your list of race scenarios, see the starting area with your mind’s eye. Feel the breeze on your skin, hear the noises of the crowd or the music in your headphones. Develop a mental picture involving all 5 senses before you begin the race.

Focus on emotional and physical sensations. Feel the doubts and nerves of the starting line but use positive language to overcome them. “I AM an athlete, I CAN do this, I AM supposed to be here.” Once the gun goes off and you begin the race in your mind focus on calming and relaxing, not starting too fast, and establishing a solid rhythm. Visualize the pain of the race and with your mind’s eye look at the other athletes around you, tell yourself that they are experiencing the same pain that you are. See a positive outcome. Imagine the finishing time that you wish to achieve displayed on a giant clock above you as you soar across the finish line with arms outstretched, imagine the feeling of joy as all of your hard work pays off. Imagine your family and supporters rushing toward you, filled with pride. Even imagine that well-earned post-race beer!

Repeat. Insert a different situation from your list of possible race details (different weather, different possible physical difficulties, etc…) and repeat the process. Make sure to visualize at least 1-2 nights each week in the month or two leading up to the big day. Granted, no amount of mental imagery and visualization during training and racing will compensate for a poor training regimen. However, if you’re already pushing your physical limits and want to take your race performances to another level, incorporating visualization techniques into your training and racing can provide the advantage you need.

If you want to learn more about the mind-body relationship in running, I highly recommend the book Running Within by John Lynch. Written from an article taken from RunnersConnect

Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).

Contact Stuart at rdytotri@gmail.com

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