A month before….
To counter our negativity bias – where we give our negative traits greater weight in our evaluations than our positive ones we need regular reminders of our efforts and achievements. One way to do this is to record all our achievements physically in a Confidence Jar. This jar then acts as a visual reminder of how good we are and how hard we have worked. Leave the jar by the side of the bed – then when you ruminate about your fears evidence of your successes are within reach.
You need a jar and 24 thin strips of paper. Write down:
- Anything you are proud of achieving.
- Anything you worked hard towards that was successful.
- Any strengths you have identified.
- New skills you have learnt.
The first time we do something it is scary. Each time we do it after it gets easier. So if we can become familiar with run courses we feel far less panicked or scared. Familiarisation training helps us feel more comfortable, less intimidating and more in control on competition day. Two specifics for this: the course and the weather.
The course: Sounds simple (and it is) but it is all about doing the course in advance. Either in one go if short or in chunks if a long race. If the venue is open to anyone or is on open roads or land then build some time in your plan to visit and train on it. Something which can work well is naming parts of the course. The names don’t have to be sensible and ones which make them smile will build the comfort. Ones previously used by athletes include; Puddle Corner (there is always a big puddle), Jazz Bend (a guy was playing the saxophone there) and Windy Way (big cross winds).
The weather: Practice in everything. When the treadmill is looking tempting purposefully go out and run. When you look out of the window on race day and there is a storm, or hot weather then you’ll know you’ve already conquered that weather – and survived.
There is a prime level of arousal for each athlete when it comes to being in the right mental and physical place for performance. If we are not at the right level by the time we get to the race we either need to amp it up or tone it down.
To amp up… Music
Music used in the short period before competition can help athletes get to their optimal arousal zone. To use music effectively think about the purpose of the music then start with a long list of familiar tracks that cover their musical taste and then whittle them down taking into consideration tracks which:
- You love and that get you fired up and ready to go
- Have meaning or inspirational words which ‘talk’ to you and make you want to go out and perform at your best
- Use strong rhythms
- Invoke some positive memories or feelings.
Once you have your playlist put shuffle mode on. When you listen to a playlist too often our brains can anticipate what comes next and we start to lose the dopamine benefit.
To chill down…Colourful Breathing
We usually breathe about 12-18 breaths a minute – slowing this down is an effective way of controlling our body. Breathing is a particularly important element in competition because everything our body does physiologically feeds back into our brain, giving it signals as to how we are feeling. Our brain then responds to those signals. If we are take shorter sharper breaths we are signalling to our brain that we are panicking and are in difficulty. This stresses our body, makes us tighten up, puts us on alert and gets our heart beating much faster. Colourful breathing helps us control our heart rate and slows down our breathing level to only five breathes a minute.
Pick two colours you love. Here we will use blue and red.
- Start with thinking about your breath as being held gently just behind your belly button.
- Draw air in through your nose for a count of 4 – as you do this think of the air going in as hot red.
- Hold the air behind your belly button for a count of 2.
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 6 – as you do this think of the air leaving their body as cool blue to build a calmer feeling.
- Repeat until feel calmer.
Early in the race
Smiling is such a simple strategy yet increasingly research is finding benefits in doing so whilst in competition, especially in endurance sports. Two great pieces of research find that smiling helps you run more efficiently and reduces your perception of effort. The thought is that it relaxes your emotional state – so you get an improvement in speed for the same effort.
- Study 1: Runners who purposely smiled when struggling on a treadmill test found their oxygen consumption and their perception of effort was lower.
- Study 2: 13 riders on exercise bikes in a lab and asked them to ride for as long as possible and while riding had happy or sad faces subliminally flashed onto a screen. The cyclists weren’t aware of the intervention and didn’t know there were faces were being flashed but those who saw the smiles increased their endurance by 12% compared to those who were shown frowns.
So, smile when you feel you are struggling as a personal boost. Seek out those smiling at you in the crowd to feel more positive. I use the phrase ‘Smile every mile’ as it is easy to remember and gives me a task focused activity to do regularly.
A mantra is a short word or phrase to focus the mind which can help us maintain motivation when we start to struggle. It works best when:
- It is really personal to you and resonates deeply
- It is positive
- It is short
- It is purposeful
- Three words seem to work best
When it gets tough
Athletes tend to split as to what they prefer. Some runners love to focus, others to distract. Both types of strategy can be used (especially over a long long race) but studies have found elite athletes tend to use more focused strategies and those looking to complete rather than compete use more distraction ones.
Body checking is really popular. You monitor your body and adjust pace, strategy or movement. It helps you become hyper aware of your bodily actions and functions; heart rate, muscle tension, breathing rate and ensures you keep on top of the information you need to manage your race tactics. To body check you need to mentally think about each section of your body part by part and focus on good technique in each part. This could be:
- Monitoring your foot strike and stride pattern
- Ensuring your arms are swinging forwards and backwards rather than side to side
- Sticking to specific breathing patterns.
- Counting can also be good – it distracts from pain but keeps you focused on rhythm & pace.
This is where you find ways to distract yourself from the way you are feeling during a race. You mentally focus on something other than your body and how uncomfortable you are feeling. It helps pass the time, reduces the level of boredom and keeps you racing. There are hundreds of ways to distract ourselves – you need to find the one which works for you. Other runners have used:
- Doing maths and equations in their heads about the distance or time left till the finish.
- Counting how many other athletes they overtake.
- Counting up to 100 and back down again.
- Repeating a mantra in another language.
- Writing a competition report in their head.
- Thanking every volunteer or marshal.
- Thinking of the perfect tweet to summarise their competition.
- Planning their post-competition treat.
- In a race finding someone going the same pace as them and chatting to them.
- Making up the story of the person in front of them.
- Creating a competition in their head for the best banner or supporters sign spotted.