Preparing Mentally To Run Your Fastest Race
Most articles and blogs about running your best race give similar advice: Make sure to get there early, don’t go out too fast, carbo-load, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, taper your training, lube up your nipples and thighs, etc. And if your goal is simply to enjoy the race and the atmosphere, then that advice is really all you need. Maybe bring some extra blister pads too (and I might point you to my previous blog containing Mental Conditioning Tips For Runners). BUT, if your goal is to run as fast as you can, you are missing a crucial piece of advice. In fact, you may be setting yourself up for failure by over-preparing in the hopes of making the race a completely smooth and pleasant experience.
The hard truth is that if you want to run your fastest time you are going to need to fight for it! No amount of nutrition, hydration, blister pads, and Vaseline is going to save you from the inevitable struggle that comes with pushing yourself to your limit. The question then becomes, where is your limit, and is there any way to prepare mentally that will help push that limit farther? Many runners call this limit, “the wall.”
Research on the psychobiological model of endurance performance proves that while hard physical limits on human performance do exist, no athlete really reaches them because the psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is always encountered first. As Matt Fitzgerald, an acclaimed endurance-sports writer and authority, puts it in his book, How Bad Do You Want It, “the seemingly inexorable slowing that occurs at the approach to exhaustion is not mechanistic, like a car running out of gas, but voluntary.” In other words, you run as fast as your mind can tolerate, which is always less than your true physical limit. It is the perception of effort, rather than the effort itself, that determines your limit.
Practically, what this means is that going into a race with the expectation that you are so prepared that you are going to breeze through it, is never going to get you to your fastest time. In fact, it will have the opposite effect by lowering the limit of perceived effort you are expecting to need. While it is clearly helpful to prepare well and pace effectively to race your best, it is at least equally important to show up on race day expecting, and even looking for, that battle between mind and body where you will need to make the choice about when you’ve reached your limit. My point is here is that if you want to race your fastest, you need to prepare to push your limits, not pretend you won’t need to.
According to Fitzgerald, “There are two ways to win a race. You can win by bringing greater physical capacity to the race, or you can win by utilizing a greater portion of a slightly lesser physical capacity within the race. Rarely do champion endurance athletes credit their physical capacity for their success. More often, they insist their advantage lies not in having more to give but rather in being able to give more of what they have. Past generations of exercise scientists have dismissed such talk as magical thinking. But the psychobiological model of endurance performance gives credence to the wisdom of the champions and suggests that the ability to actuate physical capacity is no less important than physical capacity itself.”
I would add that it is not only champion endurance athletes trying to win a race that benefit from this ability. Learning to get more out of what you have to give is valuable in far more than endurance racing. And to me, this is the true value of endurance sports. So, hydrate, carbo-load, and lube-up, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s going to be easy to post that new PR. After all, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun!