The Complete Guide To Not Wigging Out About A Race

Follow these brain training tricks from sports psychologist and space physiologist Julia Attias, and get your mind on track to ace your race

PIC: Kenny Louie

Starting a new physical challenge can be daunting, and a true test of your mental strength. In fact, research suggests that these events are often more feats of mental than physical endurance, particularly when it comes to long-duration events.

Julia Attias, sports psychologist and space physiologist

Why, for example, do you think that marathon training stops at around the 20-mile point? Simple: because if you can physically run 20 miles, then you can physically run 26. The real key lies in preparing your mind.

There are plenty of ways to keep your brain in check when attempting a new challenge. And these user-friendly, easy-to-implement tips from top sports psychologist and space physiologist Julia Attias will help you mentally prepare for a race.

You’ve Just Signed Up For An Event. So Now What?

First of all, you need to accept that, as with anything in life, you’ll have your ups and downs with training. And secondly, you need to ensure that this event doesn’t become so all-consuming and important to you that it shifts from having a positive to a negative impact on your life.

Any negativity you associate with training may lead to you dreading and therefore avoiding it. Eliminate such negative feelings by refocusing on why you chose to enter this event in the first place. Was to get fit? Was it for sentimental reasons? To hang out with your friends? Did competitiveness drive you to sign up? Or were you simply after that warm glow of accomplishment that you’ll get as you cross the finish line?

When you first start training, your end goal may seem an almost impossibly long way off

Keep in mind that training is a process and a journey, and continually pressing forward with your training schedule will help to hone the mental endurance that you’ll need on race day.

When you first start training for a new event, your end goal may seem an almost impossibly long way off. But as the days and weeks pass by, have confidence in what you’ve accomplished so far, and don’t lose sight of where you’ve come from to get to that point, whether it’s reducing your running time by 10 seconds per mile, or simply spending way less time stationary, watching telly.

Grab your mates and make things fun

Three Key Things About Training

Don’t beat yourself up. If you don’t accomplish your training plan for a particular day. A few missed miles really aren’t going to make or break your race. It’s far better to arrive at the start line feeling slightly under-trained, but strong and eager.

Take plenty of rest. You don’t need to train hard seven days a week – you need to train smart, three or four days a week. Your body (and mind!) needs time to recover so that it can rebuild and get stronger.

Take a playful approach. Avoid stressing yourself out by taking your training too seriously: turn it into something positive and playful, and start think of training as your ‘play time’.

Race Day Is Fast Approaching! How Do You Keep It Together?

Don’t be your own worst enemy! Be kind to yourself: think of success not as clocking an amazing time that will astound your friends, but simply as performing to the best of your abilities and enjoying the experience itself.

As your training enters the final stretch, it can be useful to employ ‘self-talk’ techniques. Say to yourself, “I remember why I’m doing this, and what made me click that ‘submit’ button on the application form.” Also try, “Completing this important training will give me confidence and enable me to finish the event comfortably.”

How athletes think or what they say to themselves can have a critical impact on their performance

You may feel a little silly, but research has repeatedly proven self-talk to be an incredibly effective tool for athletes, both amateur and professional. As this research paper by Australian sports psychologist Michelle Austin states, “How athletes think or what they say to themselves can have a critical impact on their performance. Unfortunately, athletes are often taught to tune in to their bodies and physical skills, but not their minds or mental skills.”

Try finding some quotes that resonate with you and inspire you (“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try” and so on) and stick them around your house on Post-Its – on your mirror, your fridge, and any places that you visit frequently. If you live with other people and they start moaning about all the weird Post-Its everywhere, write “Soz!” on one and stick it on their forehead.

Stick motivational quotes on your fridge, your desk, your head

Images You Should Start Visualising

Spectators cheering you on, friends and family greeting you at the finish line

Picture inside your increasingly healthy body; see all that oxygen-rich blood fuelling your workouts

See yourself running, cycling or swimming every mile of the course you’re training for

Visualise what the finish-line area will look like: the clock, the crowds, the volunteers handing out medals

Picture friends back at home who’ll be thinking about you and willing you on during your event

When the going gets tough… think of the bling

Race Day Is Here! How Do You Keep Your Nerves In Check?

Nerves are healthy. They stem from a concept known as “fight or flight”– an instinctive response, governed by your sympathetic nervous system, that prepares your body to face a challenge – i.e. something out of your comfort zone; something different to your usual daily routine; something with a little extra meaning.

Your heart speeds up, your digestive system slows down, your breathing rate increases, your adrenaline levels rise… But don’t worry, these are all good things if you’re racing!

Meditation can keep you calm, just don’t try it on an open road, yeah? (PIC Nickolai Kashirin)

Three Tips For Dealing With The Jitters

Learn to meditate. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘calming’ nervous system – and soothes the sympathetic nervous system and its fight-or-flight functions. Try using HeadSpace, a free app that’s great for meditation newbies and offers easy, step-by-step guides to mastering the basics.

Think in the moment. Human beings have a unique ability to focus on things that aren’t happening at that moment, which allows them to imagine things that may never occur. Keep your thoughts in the moment, and try not to leap ahead to the ‘what-ifs’ of the event. Embrace what will follow, as and when it follows.

Keep busy until event day. Distract your mind with activities that don’t involve the event itself. Mindless procrastination is fine! Wash the car, vacuum the bedroom, watch a 30 Rock boxset… But don’t sit there reading running mags, trying to psyche yourself up. It’s the same reason I always recommend that people treat lunch breaks as compulsory – you’ll be less productive if your mind doesn’t get that breather.

The Race Has Begun! What Should I Do If I Feel Like I Really, Really Want To Quit?

‘Hitting the wall’ (or ‘bonking’ in triathlons ahemhappens to some people during a race when their body’s natural glucose levels are depleted. This leads to the body burning its natural fat levels, which in turn leads to enormous physical and mental discomfort. But there are ways around the wall (or, er, over the bonk). 

If we can just make it to that next tree…

Three Ways To Stay Cool, Calm And Collected During A Race

Try ‘chunking’. This is the art of breaking a task up into smaller, manageable tasks in your mind to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Instead of thinking about the entire race, focus your mind onto markers, such as that lamppost in the near-distance – i.e. “I only have to run to that lamppost and then I’m done.” By the time you reach that lamppost, you’ll think, “Actually, I could run to another lamppost,” and so on. This links back to the strategy of ‘thinking in the moment’ I talked about earlier.

Remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. Keep your motive for entering the event at the forefront of your mind;  particularly with long events such as a 300-mile cycling race or a marathon, as these can sometimes feel witheringly repetitive. Whatever your original motivation for entering the event was, it’s worth continuously relaying it to yourself.

Focus on your goal, not others’ performances. The only goal that should matter to you, both before and during the race, is your own. You know the pace you need to keep to reach your goals, and that’s all that matters. Feel free to view another competitor passing you as a possible extra motivation to speed up, but certainly don’t think of it as ‘falling behind’.

Keep your pecker up, it doesn’t matter how many people overtake you it’s your own goals that count

Throughout your training, remember that people who achieve goals actively work towards them in a structured way. I enjoy hearing about people who invest in a coach, buy a book, or download a training tracker app. These are the people who are going to succeed – they are surrounding themselves with motivators. Happy racing!

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