Have you ever felt like crap prior to—and perhaps even during the warm-up of—a big workout or race only to have an incredible performance? If so, you’re in good company.
“I’ve undergone this many times,” says Dr. Michael Joyner, a world-renowned physician and physiologist at the Mayo Clinic who ran a 2:25 marathon during his prime. “Sometimes you start off feeling like wood and by the end of the workout you feel great.” Joyner speculates the occasional disconnect between how a runner feels before and during a workout is related to muscle temperature and the time it takes various energy systems to ramp up. However, there is no real data on the phenomenon and nothing explains its “completely unpredictable nature,” he says. “It’s a really mysterious thing.”
If how we are feeling before a workout or race does not consistently correlate with performance, what we are thinking almost always does. “You can definitely limit yourself by thinking, ‘I’m not going to do well,’ or ‘today just isn’t my day,’” says Dr. Michael Sachs, a professor of exercise and sports psychology at the University of Temple and author of The Psychology of Running. With these negative thoughts swirling around in our mind, “we are less likely to take constructive risks and we subconsciously hold ourselves back.”
Therein lies a common trap for runners: you don’t feel so great before a workout or race, so you tell yourself you aren’t going to do well and sure enough, you don’t do well. You blame your body and search for physiological issues when in fact all your body needed was a little more time to warm up. The real problem was your mind.
Once an athlete has prejudged a workout or race negatively, “the outcome is not going to be good,” explains Sachs, who, like Joyner, is an accomplished runner. “From my experience, physiological performance can be a puzzling, if not often surprising thing,” he says. “Don’t let prejudgment dictate what you get out of yourself.”
The next time you find yourself feeling off in advance of a key workout or race, keep an open mind and remind yourself that every time you lace up your running shoes is a new adventure. “Think back to previous times when you felt like crap but ended up doing great,” says Sachs. Heck, think about this article! In other words, remember that how you feel before a workout or race does not always relate to how well you’ll perform, but your mindset does. Try to stay upbeat, or at least neutral.
If you can’t stop negative thoughts from creeping in and you notice yourself prejudging the ensuing effort, Sachs recommends positive self-talk. Repeating something as simple as “surprise yourself” or “don’t judge” can be incredibly effective at quelling negativity.
All of that said, sometimes, despite even the most positive thinking, you are going to have a bad day. When this happens, “try to stay present, be in the moment, and work with what you have,” says Sachs. “It’s all about maximizing performance on that given day.”
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About the Author:
Brad Stulberg works in population health and is a freelance writer covering health and performance. You can follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.