Sports Psychology: Mind over matter

Having the right mindset can play an important role in improving your running performance. This blog describes how you can ensure you optimise your weeks of training and race day performance.  

Reading this you may well be into weeks of physical training for Run Gatwick half marathon or 5k races. Following a schedule for training, improving stamina and technique as well as keeping on track in terms of nutrition are vitally important to reach optimal physical fitness. But have you thought about your ‘mental fitness’?  

In the last few years there has been a swing in applying sport psychology to achieve peak performance. Mindset can impact performance both positively and negatively and can make the difference in motivation, confidence, motivation and being focused come race day.  

Sports psychology: Here are 10 ways to channel your brain to optimise your training as well as race day performance.

  • Select a range of goals for race day – Some goals you may consider can be your race time and finishing position. However, at the start of the race these can be daunting and awfully far away. To improve focus and motivation throughout the race, these larger goals can be broken down into ‘process goals’ which are smaller stepping stones. This can include completing 3 miles within a certain way or timeframe, or goals around breathing, technique or trying to stay with the pacer. It could even include enjoying the scenery! These process goals will not only make you satisfied with your performance but increase your chances of enjoying the race.
  • Identify why you’re running – When things may get tough, whether during training or on race day it is important to remember why you wanted to take part in the first place to give you that extra boost. Consider what got you motivated to put on those running shoes – be that a special cause, person, to make your family proud or simply the satisfaction to cross the finishing line. Know why you’re there and use this to support you. 
  • Don’t try to control ‘uncontrollables– There are a number of elements in training or race day that you will be unable to control. It could be an injury reoccurring; the weather is wet and windy or a busy work schedule gets in the way. If you are unable to control these, you must accept the situation and focus on something you can control. It is unrealistic to achieve perfection, nor is it needed to complete the run! 
  • Do however plan your ‘controllables That old saying ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ rings true here. Having a plan in the build-up and on race day will not only help you feel in control but confident in the outcome. Whether it’s organising your dinner the night before, checking the course or packing your kit, these are all areas to plan so that you are ready to run when on that start line. 
  • Recognise your sources of confidence You may consider self-reflecting on previous runs and competitions to find what made you feel confident? This might anything from a great training run, warming up well to surrounding yourself with helpful people. Once these sources are identified they can be put into place for race day and you take ownership of your confidence.  
  • Rehearse your ideal performance – Imagery is a great way to rehearse mentally for how you want to approach and react to challenges that you might face during the race. When we imagine performing an activity (such as running up a hill) scientists have identified similar brain activity occurs as when physically performing that same activity. Essentially, imagery creates a ‘mental blueprint’ that primes our reaction to a real-life situation. You can use imagery to form strategies, such as imagining how you will react if you find yourself at the front, middle or back of the field at various points of the race. 
  • Reframe the pain  Negative thoughts can make your shoes feel heavy! What’s more, wishing pain or fatigue away can draw more attention to it. It can be important to build your awareness of your ideal pace and how your body responds to it in training. Of course, it is likely your body will feel discomfort at times but acknowledging these physical sensations during the race can be helpful feedback that such as “This is my bodies way of telling me that I am running at my pace”. Once these physical sensations are reframed as feedback, you can disconnect from them and shift your focus to other things such as your race plan or helpful head chatter. Of course, I refer here to the normal sensation of discomfort that comes with prolonged exertion, which should be distinguished from injury pain that needs attending to. 
  • Break the race down – If fatigue starts to occur during the race, it can be useful to breakdown the miles in smaller chunks. Just focus on the mile or kilometre you’re in. However tired you become, you can be confident of running a single mile and they will start to add up and bring you closer to the finish line. 
  • Encourage yourself – Consider what encourages you the most. Would you rather have a friendly, cajoling ‘inner voice’ praising your progress, or take a straight-talking taskmaster approach? This preference can influence what self-dialogue you use throughout the race to motivate yourself, also known as your ‘helpful head chatter’. During your training runs, experiment with different words or phrases to keep you in a motivated and focused mindset, such as ‘Yes I can”, “What goes up must come down”, or power words such as ‘tough’ or ‘strong’. Gradually, you will find various helpful phrases or words that you can plan into your race. 
  • Debrief – Chances are, the positive experience you have throughout the race outweighs the negatives and you will be back for more! An essential part of debriefing in both training and competitions is to recognise (a) what went well, and importantly why (what were your ingredients for success); (b) what your improvement points are, and; (c) an action plan for your next training session or race (what do you want to repeat or change in order to improve). These reflection points help you to recognise success, are great motivators and, importantly, can fast track improvement.