When it comes to endurance, being mentally fit is just as important as physical fitness. Like everything else, competing in a race starts in your head, and having a negative outlook or mental fatigue can have a definite influence on your performance, come race day.
A recent Runner’s World article cited experiments done at the University of Cape Town, during which researchers found that the brain may decide to “shut down” the body, even if it still has more to give. Participants were asked to perform high-intensity exercise for as long as possible. When they stopped, researchers stimulated their muscles. Despite feeling drained, their muscles still contracted with great force, proving that the phrase “mind over matter” really does ring true.
Luckily, you can use your mind as a motivational tool and stop it from being something that hampers your race. Here’s how.
The practice of visualisation isn’t new among athletes, but it is something that you can certainly do before and during the race to keep your mind from thinking that you’re too tired to carry on. Before your next race, try this. Visualise the entire race during training sessions, and formulate a race plan to follow on the day of your race.
Think about the route, the uphills, the downhills and the technical bits, and end off by visualising the finish line. Many athletes literally throw their hands in the air once they reach the “end” of the race, and even if it seems ridiculous, this visualisation will be something to hold onto during the actual race. When you ultimately do throw your hands up in victory, the race is simply a culmination of something you’ve “seen” happening many times before.
2. Say “thank you”
It doesn’t matter what distance you’re running, when the deep burn sets in during the middle of a race, finding motivation is difficult. However, if you’re an athlete who has experienced injury before, you’ll know that the act of running is, in itself, an immense privilege.
When the going gets tough, say thank you. Take some time during the run to be grateful for a chance to be able to take part in a race. Say thank you to the people that have supported you. Never take the opportunity of running in a country with landscapes as mesmerising as ours for granted.
3. Meditate and use a mantra
There is plenty of scientific evidence that supports the idea that meditation has an influence on pain management. According to studies, the anxiety associated with pain significantly lessens in people who meditate regularly. Start by taking 5 or 10 minutes a day – perhaps after training – to sit comfortably and focus on your breathing. When race day comes, have a personal mantra at the ready to quietly repeat to yourself when you feel like you can’t go on. This can be anything from a word or phrase that motivates you, to a motivational quote that resonates with you.
4. Distract yourself
In the end, what you want to do is to distract your mind from thoughts of pain and fatigue when you reach the mid-race slump. You can do this in many ways.
Focus on your form. Trying to create muscle memory of your running form is an important part of pre-race training, but can also help to keep your mind somewhere else. When your form breaks down, your running becomes inefficient and slow, and it can also lead to injury.
Another way to distract yourself is to take a page from record-setting marathon runner Paula Radcliffe’s book. Radcliffe has stated that she counts during rough patches of marathons, as it not only distracts her, but also gives her a sense of the distance she is running.
5. Think about the finish line
There are few things that can match the euphoria of reaching the finish line of a race. Think about all the sacrifices you’ve made and all the hard work that has led you to this point. Keep the end goal in mind and focus on the feeling waiting for you at the finish line. We run because we enjoy it and want to finish, so this may very well be the best way to keep yourself going when you feel like you just can’t anymore.