By Shawn McDonald
The mental abilities and skills a runner develops can have a big impact on their racing performance and even whether they finish a given race. In the article this month, we will review two of the key mental skills that can be practiced as a complement to your physical training. Your ability to use affirmations and visualization (imagery) will improve with practice as in other mental techniques and you will learn which particular sayings and routines work best for you. Strong mental abilities give you another tool to improve your confidence, monitor body signals, overcome tough patches in races and decrease anxiety prior to a race.
Benefits of visualization
Visualization is the process of imagining a future event as occurring in the present. You remain in control of the action, in effect being the “director” of the movie as it plays out in your mind. One key is to imagine the action as you would see, smell, taste, hear and feel it from inside yourself, and not from the point of view of a spectator or a bird flying overhead. Visualization should be practiced on a regular basis during the training period, including in the day or two prior to each long training run. Start with a few minutes of visualization at first and work your way up to visualizing the entire race about two or three weeks before the actual run. Your ability to relax and imagine powerfully will improve as you practice.
Visualization provides a number of benefits to a runner. Confidence can be improved in the last weeks before a race as you get a better sense of what is likely to occur during the event through your visualizations. In effect, you have already run the race a few times – the “pressure” to perform is off and the what-ifs are answered. Visualization can also help you work out (in concert with using affirmations) where to put your focus during the race. Distractions will fade and you will become better at monitoring signals from your body such as breathing rate, heartbeat, and leg fatigue. As you imagine various portions of a race, you are training neurons which control your muscles. The ingrained neurons will be able to control your body with better precision and good form during the actual race. Using imagery is also a way to deal with the unexpected during a race. You will know ahead of time what you will do if confronted with a bad stomach, blisters, a lost drop bag, a hot day, etcetera and how to react in a calm, positive manner. Staying on an even keel helps keep these issues from spiraling out of control and either slowing your running pace significantly or leading you to drop out of the race.
Relaxation and breathing
Tension in muscles hinders running form and efficiency and causes you to use extra energy to fuel antagonistic muscle groups (those not used in running). Aim to keep muscles in the neck, face, shoulders and hands limp and relaxed as you run. Use progressive relaxation routines before training runs and races to work out tension and enter a relaxed state. In these routines, you tense particular muscle groups one at a time for 15 to 30 seconds and then release them, working from head to foot or doing the extremities first and then trunk muscles. Start first with a minute or two of deep belly breathing prior to any progressive relaxation routine to quiet your mind and fully oxygenate your body. Continue breathing deeply as you tense and then release each muscle group. Relaxation exercises should also be completed prior to any visualization routines. You need to be in a positive, relaxed frame of mind before starting imagery work. Choose a quiet area of your home and do five or ten minutes of belly breathing combined with shoulder shrugs and maybe some short affirmations. You can also use relaxation routines and deep breathing in the last day or two before a race, for a few minutes before you go to sleep, to reduce anxiety and help you get into a deep sleep.
Making it real
Visualizations are most effective when they are realistic and you use all your senses. After completing a relaxation routine, try to move through the course of the upcoming race starting from the last minutes prior to the start, moving to the early miles, then the middle segments, the later miles and the finish line area. Imagine what you will see, taste, smell, hear and feel/touch as you move along from hill to hill, through aid stations, and nearby fellow competitors. Imagine yourself monitoring the signals from your body: breathing rate, sensations in your legs, if you are hungry or full, or having a negative patch. Use past good performances as a basis for how you will feel and what you will do during the visualization. Practice using visualization prior to some of your long training runs. After the run, compare the visualization with the actual run and adjust the parts that were off-base when you perform future visualizations. One way to help make visualizations more realistic is to do some training on the actual race course and note as many sights, smells, sounds and other details as you can as you run along. Make mental notes of key landmarks, aid station locations, key climbs or descents, the weather and the condition of the trail or road as you run along.
Affirmations are statements about yourself as a runner that relate to the upcoming race. The statements should be personal, easy to remember, and be repeated over and over during training runs and relaxation or visualization sessions. Change the statements you use as you train week to week to give yourself several affirmations that are effective by race day. You can write down the affirmations, view them daily and read them as you listen to music, brush your teeth or eat each day. Some sample affirmations include: I am running strong and fluid; I feel faster with each speed session; I am going to break X hours in the 50-mile race; I am getting calmer as the race gets further along; I am going to beat my training partner in the upcoming ultra.
Use affirmations during your pre-race routine, during races to release tension and avoid becoming anxious, during training runs as practice for use in races, and during visualizations, which are rehearsals for your key race. Affirmations can be rhymes or famous sayings and should be brief, which aids with recall late in races when you are tired. Affirmations are self-compliments about your mental and physical abilities and preparation; they are particularly useful for getting through bad patches in races and for relieving tension. Having several statements grounded in your recent training and past racing accomplishments gives you a multi-pronged tool to combat self-doubts, anxious thoughts, negative moods, and loss of focus as they pop up during a race.
The last hour or two before a key race is a great time to use mental tools to get into an ideal frame of mind for racing. As you complete any tune-up races, develop a routine that works well for you and calms your pre-race nerves. Include some relaxation exercises, affirmations, and a bit of brief visualization about the early part of the upcoming race. Avoid trying to visualize the entire race in your pre-race routine as this can leave you flat emotionally and actually increase anxiety. You can relax by stretching lightly, listening to music, doing some deep breathing exercises, or having a fun conversation with other confident, calm, strong-minded runners. Your aim in completing the routine should be to become physically and mentally relaxed, to have good focus on the present and your racing goals and sub-goals, and to have a positive, confident mind frame. Remember that each person has their own individual optimal arousal (psyched) state that will lead to a great racing performance, and that what works for a training partner may be too much or too little for you to use as a routine.
Runners often overlook mental abilities in their preparation for racing. The techniques of visualization, relaxation and self-affirmation can be practiced in training runs and in the last weeks prior to a key race, to arrive at an optimal mental state for competition. These mental tools help the athlete improve their focus, freedom of movement, mental outlook, and confidence and reach the goals they have set for the race.