The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

What's Running Through Your Mind?

Run your best race: know what you're thinking and how to handle those thoughts.

Jane, a woman in her late 30s and an experienced runner, wants to qualify to run the Boston Marathon. In order to do that, she needs to complete an upcoming marathon three minutes faster than she’s ever done. Her coach may offer some physical training tips, but as a sport psychologist, what would you suggest?

This question was posed during a recent sport psychology tele-consultation group meeting, and we all chimed in with some ideas.

Jane, as I’m calling her, has been thinking about the mental elements of her race. She knows that her physical training has been thorough. According to her training program and the charts, she should be able to manage her goal time.

She’s pinpointed a particular element that’s especially difficult for her. She’s realized that in the four mile stretch between miles 18 and 22 (a marathon is 26.2 miles long), she experiences a “mental slump.” She describes herself as crumpling, mentally, succumbing to all the negative thoughts that can well up in an endurance event. She says she gets down on herself. She starts thinking—and continues thinking—“I can’t make it,” even though, rationally, she knows that she has completed many marathons. She also is aware that both earlier in a race as well as in the final few miles, she’s fully confident about her capacity to complete marathon length. (Given how close she is to qualifying for such a major race, there’s also external evidence that she can run this distance—and run it well.)

Why this particular moment in the race? There’s good physiological reason: Around this distance the human body starts to run out of its natural energy stores. It’s the point that is proverbially known as “hitting the wall.” It’s not inevitable, especially if one is well-trained and doesn’t start out too fast, but it’s a very uncomfortable sensation. Legs feel like lead; energy is drained. (For an example of how I worked with this issue, as a member of a “psyching team,” see this post)

The human body and its natural reactions may be a place to start: It may be helpful for Jane to understand that her body is sending her mind some signals that, in the normal course of events, would be very useful to know: “I’m tired; this hurts; time to stop.”

But this isn’t a normal moment; rather, it’s one that she needs to get through. How does she shift this otherwise constructive chain reaction, so that she can experience it differently and not respond by slowing down?

What should Jane be thinking about—and when? She has lots of options.

In sport psychology, we often talk about the importance of being positive, re-working or re-framing negative thoughts so that they are constructive and supportive. If Jane tries thinking to herself, “this shows how tough I am,” though, one can imagine that this exhausted, overwhelmed aspect of herself could feel unsupported (by herself!) and get into a mental argument. “No I’m not/yes I am.”

Maybe, though, she could give her negative thoughts and reactions a different meaning. She could recognize that her body is being protective of her. She could mentally thank her body for reminding her of how difficult a marathon actually is. She could use this signal to then dig deep, to get through these very challenging few miles. “This is a familiar feeling; I know what it is; it’s hard right now; this is the time to push.”

This also might be a moment for using imagery that works for her. It’s going to be different for different people, of course. She might invoke the image of an animal, one that is both fleet of foot and exhibits powerful endurance. Perhaps it’s her friends that she can think of, imagining them cheering her on. They, at least, have confidence right now.

Imagery is a wonderful tool of the human mind. We can use it during an event; we can also use it in preparation for an event. Jane could practice these thoughts, whether during a training run or in her race review and mental preparation.

Breaking down the marathon into manageable chunks can also be useful. Perhaps she can override the 18-22 mile challenge by thinking of the marathon in three segments: a 10-mile race, another 10-mile race…and then “merely” a 10-kilometer race. After all, she’s done plenty of those! In turn, she can plan ahead for how she wants to address each of these “three different races.”

In fact, rather than think of having to cut out three minutes in the race, Jane might do some planning about how to shave off “just” one minute for each of the three segments. That possibility may feel less daunting. It may also decrease the pressure that she’s feeling. For a skilled runner, three minutes can be a long time.

Whatever she decides on, of course, mental practice is just as important as physical practice. Jane should incorporate her mental skills into her training runs. That helps insure they’ll be there for her on race day.

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I’ve just described a number of mental skills Jane can use. Can you think of others? I ask because, in this case, “Jane” is a real person, very willing to make use of people’s best suggestions. You can comment here, or send me a note through my website: www.theperformingedge.com

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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