Mind Over Matter: Race-Day Psychology

From pre-race nerves to the final kick, channel your brainpower into peak racing performance

Posted: 22 July 2009
by Alice Palmer


You've followed your training schedule to the letter, successfully dodged injury and illness in the run-up to the big day and all of a sudden you're lining up at the start. Get your head screwed on to make sure you've got the best chance of race-day success.

The Night Before

One of the keys to racing success is having clearly defined goals to aim for. Before you even pin your number onto your top, figure out what you want to get out of the race.

Most runners set time targets, but make sure your happiness isn't resting entirely on bagging that sub-3.30 marathon, or coming top in your club's league. Success is best measured in terms of progress towards your own goals – goals you can control. Dr David Fletcher, lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at Loughborough University says, "If beating people is the only thing you're interested in, then you're going to be in trouble.'

Dr Fletcher works with elite athletes, researching their experience of pre-competition stress. He says, "The world's best athletes set lots of different goals – if you go into a race with 15 goals, then you're sure to achieve at least some of them.'

Set a variety of goals to make sure you come away happy. You could set a mixture of performance goals (for example, a sub-3.30 marathon); process goals to track your technical process (such as running a negative split); and outcome goals (like winning the race). It's also a good idea to split your goals into three bands – a result you'd be satisfied with, another that'd be great and your dream result.

At The Start

You won't gain anything from time and energy spent worrying about factors you can't control. Faced with a strong headwind and heavy rain at the 2009 Lausanne Grand Prix, Usain Bolt still went on to run the fourth-fastest 200m in history.

Harness nervous energy – turn fear into fast times by overhauling your attitude to nerves. Rather than viewing nerves as a handicap, think of them as a sign that you're ready to perform.

Sports psychologists have a handy phrase for dealing with nerves: "It's not a question of getting rid of the butterflies in your stomach – it's about getting them to fly in formation."

So if you're quaking on the start line, order those 'butterflies' into line with a stern talking-to. Get ready for the race ahead with techniques like imagery – picture yourself running strongly at different parts of the course, and cruising over the finish line.

The Early Stages

The gun has gone off, and you're away. You might think that it's too late to influence your performance once you're racing, but you'd be wrong. Even tough long-distance races, or testing time targets, can seem more manageable if you split the race into sections.

Roger Bannister viewed his famous four-minute mile as a set of 400m reps, and you can apply the same technique to make your targets feel more achievable. Split the race up into sections – just use the mile or kilometre markers on hand in most races – and the race becomes a series of smaller tasks rather than one insurmountable objective. Ticking off intermediate goals as you go along by finishing bits of the race on time will make the race ahead less of an unknown quantity and boost your confidence.

Once you get going, keep your focus on maintaining a steady pace. Dr Fletcher advises, "Once you're in the race, switch to auto-pilot and just do the job. Rhythmic breathing and counting strategies are useful for dissociation from any pain you're feeling.'

In The Middle

Unfortunately, even with the best-laid plans, the unexpected can happen and your PB dream can quickly turn into a nightmare. But with a little brain training away from the track, you can prepare yourself for any eventuality.

Dr Fletcher says, "Preparation for a race should begin with imagery. Top athletes spend hours imagining different scenarios and what they would do in those situations. If you find yourself at the front – or the back – of the field, you need to already have the tools in your mind to deal with it, ready to remind you what to do.'

Studies by sports scientists have shown that thinking about a specific movement produces exactly the same brain activity that occurs when the actual movement is performed. It's possible to 'train' effectively for a race without moving a muscle – a skill that'll come in especially handy if you're struck down by injury or illness in the run-up to a big race.

You can use this skill to cope if things go wrong. GB marathon runner Liz Yelling was on set for a PB in the Beijing Olympics, when she was tripped up by another runner. A second's stumble may have hampered her medal chances, but she got up, kept running and eventually finished in 26th place.

Even if everything's on track, long races could bring you face to face with another enemy: boredom. Marathon runners can be out on the course for hours at a time, while Ironman triathletes push on from dawn until dusk. Counting, or playing games like I-spy along the course will keep a wandering brain occupied. In the later stages of the 2007 New York Marathon, eventual winner Paula Radcliffe thought about her baby daughter waiting at the finish. She said at the time,"It was tough – my legs felt very tired. I just kept repeating to myself 'I love you Isla' to keep my rhythm going."

The Final Kick

The finish is in sight and your work is nearly done – but you still need to pull a vital final push out of the bag, and calling on your mental reserves could be the key to pushing on even when you're exhausted.

If you're plagued by aches and pains, the best thing you can do is take your mind out of your hard-working body. You could pick a runner ahead of you and focus on catching them, or as Dr Fletcher suggests, remind yourself that the real hard work is already over. "If it's feeling tough, just remind yourself of all the tough training runs you've done – the discomfort in one race can't be as bad as all the pain from those sessions put together.'

If you devote some time to visualising your race beforehand, make sure to put a special emphasis on the final quarter of the race. As he explains in The Lore of Running, what Tim Noakes calls the "stopping thoughts" – that little voice telling you to give up – begin during the final 25 per cent to 35 per cent of a race. The more information about the course you give your brain beforehand, the more accurately it can anticipate the challenges ahead to help you maintain your pace and effort.

If the fatigue and pain feel like just too much, forget the whole distance ahead and just focus on the kilometre or mile you're in. However tired you are, you can be confident of running a single mile. Those miles will soon add up – and take you to the finish. Once you're near the finish, you'll be able to estimate how much longer you'll have to run, giving you a finite and short amount of time left on your feet.

The Debrief

If a big race doesn't go your way, don't be downhearted – with a little thought, you can channel your disappointment and move on stronger. But before you plan your comeback race, take a step back and reassess your running. Dr Fletcher says, "The very best athletes are distinguished by their ability to maintain perspective. Athletes who get too emotionally wrapped up in their performance are prone to burnout, and when they're less successful they're likely to drop out. The Kipling poem If is above the door of Wimbledon's Centre Court for a reason."

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Discuss this article

I suffer from being anxious especially if I know I am doing well during a race. I had the most excrutiating pains from stitch in a 10km run that I did this year. How can you fight the stitch demons as I have never had pain like it!!!
Posted: 23/07/2009 at 08:25

Breathing slowly and deeply cures any stiches I get, maybe try making a concious effort to control and make depth breaths?, this may also help with the anxiousness.
Posted: 23/07/2009 at 08:37

How do you get a stitch???
Posted: 23/07/2009 at 08:41

Don't think there is a definative answer TBH, but from what I have read in the past, its done to breathing too short and quickly.
Posted: 23/07/2009 at 08:57

Just wondered as my son complained of a stitch after junior GNS run this possibly why has he took of like a whippet lol!
Posted: 23/07/2009 at 09:00

I find that if I get a stitch (which if not often, fortunately), if I breathe OUT really, really hard, until there is absolutely no air left in my lungs, that helps get rid of it.

Do that two or three times, and it's usually gone.

Posted: 23/07/2009 at 09:13

I pinch the area and massage it which helps to get rid of it.

Some people say it is a form of cramp. 

Posted: 23/07/2009 at 10:40

This wasn't just a normal stitch though it was so painful and it slowed me for 3km, I still did a PB but I thought I had lost it because I found it so hard to run through. I do have a good breathing technique so it's not short breaths which are no good I do realise but I think it was brought on by anxiety. I only get this if I'm being competitive!

Posted: 23/07/2009 at 10:44

I have had stitches from time to time. I went through a period a month or two back were I got a stitch on every run.

I stop and control my breathing, it really helps with the pain so I can run on. Very similar to most of the other responses, try and control your breathing.

If you are feeling anxious your breathing will become shorter and sharper. You'll be taking much smaller, shallower breaths. Breathing like this will increase your feelings of anxiety. Often a firstline of defence for anxiety or panic attacks is to breath deeply into a paper bag.

Maybe the best thing to do, race or no, is to stop and control your breathing, this maybe more efficent than trying to run through the pain.


Posted: 23/07/2009 at 13:29

In my experience most people get a stitch on their right side.  A stitch on the left side is normally caused by eating or drinking too much or too close the commencing running.  Either way, concentrate on breathing out as the opposite foot to the side of the stitch hits the ground. Best to aim for alternate strides otherwise you'll be panting!  So, for the more common right-side stitch breathe out as the left foot hits the ground on every other stride.Try it - it works! 
Posted: 24/07/2009 at 17:22

Now, I'm not a sports scientist, only a health-related fitness instructor, so we're talking GCSE - level anatomy and physiology here, but my (layperson's) understanding is that stitches are sustained, excessive contractions (spasms/ cramps)  of the muscles between the ribs (the intercostal muscles).

My strategy therefore is to consciously breathe into the cramp and , if it's particularly intractable, to add a stretch - usually raisng the same -side arm verically above my head; occasionally adding in a chest stretch (arm horizontally behind) . I can't think of a time when one or other hasn't worked. Good luck.

Posted: 16/08/2009 at 20:24

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