Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Running a race can be a scary thing. Whether you’re toeing the line for your first 10K, or an elite level marathoner trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials, knowing that you’re about to push your body’s limits is reasonable cause for anxiety at any level. How do you mentally prepare for the coming pain and effort of the race? Longer long runs and faster track workouts may increase your lung capacity and your leg strength, but how can your brain make the most out of all the work you’ve put in?
Here are five tips from top coaches and sport psychologists on how to mentally prepare to race your best when the gun goes off.
1. Boost your confidence through visualization.
“The human brain is strange in that instead of always looking to build up confidence, we seem to have a tendency to focus on the negative. Runners often can have 100 good workouts and one bad [workout] yet they will focus on that one bad one and let it erode their confidence for race day,” says coach Greg McMillan, founder of McMillan Running. “Successful athletes develop strategies to boost self-confidence, defeat negative thoughts and keep the positive ‘I can do it’ attitude more often. Formulate a picture of success on race day. They then replay this scenario over and over across the training plan and even come up with how they will deal with other scenarios that may come up so that race day, they are prepared for anything and can have a successful race.”
2. Find the optimal zone.
“When it comes to mental preparation before a race, I’m a firm believer that everyone benefits from identifying their optimal zone of arousal. Some people may need to be extremely relaxed before a race whereas others might need to be really pumped up,” explains Dr. Jen Gapin Farrell, a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “You can find your optimal zone by reflecting back on previous performances and gaining awareness of what you were physically and mentally doing before races in which you ran well and those in which you didn’t run so well.”
If you need help relaxing to find that optimal zone, Farrell recommends techniques in deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Deep Breathing: “Inhale slowly through your nose, drawing air deep into your lungs. Hold your breath for about five seconds, then release it slowly. With each exhalation, imagine that you are getting rid of any stress or fatigue that might prevent you from performing your best. Focus only on each breath. Repeat the exercise five to 10 times. Repeat ‘energy in’ while inhaling, and ‘fatigue out’ while exhaling.”
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: “Isolate and contract muscle groups, creating tension for 8 to 10 seconds, then relax the muscles and let the tension go. Concentrate on the feel of your muscles, specifically the contrast between tension and relaxation. In time, you will recognize tension in any specific muscle and be able to reduce it. Use words and phrases as you progress through the muscle groups like ‘relax,’ ‘let go,’ ‘release,’ ‘stay calm,’ and ‘feeling fresh.’ Commonly-used muscle groups are the legs, shoulders and neck, and face.”
3. Accept negative thoughts and then say goodbye to them.
“The top athletes have an acceptance-commitment mindset, which accepts thoughts are just that. They are not reality,” says John Coumbe-Lilley, a Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Studies & Clinical Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Nutrition at The University of Illinois at Chicago. “A runner can have a negative mindset approaching a race, but their strategy is that they are aware and know their thoughts are harmless. As they approach competition they accept them and say goodbye to them, shifting their focus to the approach they need for the race.”
4. Begin your mental race preparation routine early.
“For many athletes, a successful routine doesn’t begin on race morning, but can encompass elements of travel, pre-race routine or the hours leading up to competition,” says Drew Wartenburg, head coach of the Sacramento-based NorCal Distance Project. “Like most race-day behaviors, relaxation techniques should be practiced in advance. The sports psychologist that our team uses helps introduce a variety of techniques from breathing exercises to visualization and mental cues for our athletes to experiment with as they refine their personal routines.”
5. Enjoy the moment.
“On race day, rather than stressing out about the end result or trying to impress others, focus on the process of racing your best and use the love of the event(s) and the joy of competition as your primary motivation,” says Dr. Jim Afremow, a leading mental performance consultant and author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive. “Feel like you’re smiling broadly on the inside because of how hard you’ve trained, how much you enjoy racing, and having this golden opportunity to discover how good you can be.”