Last week, during an easy run, I noted to my training partner that, while she kicks my butt in training, I have the edge over her in racing.
I was, in effect, trying to say that she trains too hard and races too easy. She responded that I’m just a good racer. I suppose there’s something to that. I can never, ever, replicate my race pace even in race-pace training. The mental part of racing just isn’t there for me until race day.
But I wasn’t always a decent racer. In fact, I used to downright suck at it. I recall my early cross-country running days, jogging around the course, telling myself I didn’t feel good and didn’t really belong there. And it didn’t stop at negative self-talk. I wasn’t prepared to push myself through the hurt, backing off at the first sign of discomfort. I let every external factor – the weather, my competitors, the spectators – affect me. In short, I lacked Resilience, Adaptability, Confidence, and Experience – the keys to racing well.
Gradually, I learned how to develop these essential skills, and now I don’t come to a race without them. Here’s how.
The first step in being a resilient racer is accepting that there are things that are out of your control. The weather and your competition are factors you can’t do anything about. Remember, though, that it’s a level playing field. The weather and the competition are the same for everyone else. And if you train in all types of weather (i.e., you didn’t skip your workout because it was raining), then you can race in all types of weather.
Resilience is preventing factors you can’t control from affecting your race. It helps to think of yourself as Teflon. Nothing sticks. This also goes for having a bad night’s sleep before a race. I’ve had plenty of pre-race sleepless nights. I don’t believe it has any effect on performance. Your poor sleeping habits in general are what will affect you on race day. Get a good night’s sleep the rest of the time, and the night before the race doesn’t matter. I once raced a Half Ironman on 2 hours’ sleep…and got a 40 minute PR.
Resilience also enables you to push through the hurt. Good racers know that, at some point during the race, it’s going to hurt. Resilience is what separates the racers who back off when they feel discomfort and those who push harder. An experienced racer once told me that picking up the pace when you start to feel uncomfortable can actually help. It’s the change that has the positive effect, like switching gears. Of course, you have to fight your brain, which will be telling you to do the opposite. Resilience is what gets you through these tough moments.
Be prepared for anything to happen. Race delays, traffic issues, flat tires…what are you going to do when these things happen?
If you’re adaptable, race day glitches won’t affect you as much. Granted, race delays suck, especially when they throw off your pre-race nutrition, but what sucks more is not being able to roll with it. Key to adaptability is planning for the worst. I’ll admit – and others will concur – that I’m a basket case if I don’t arrive at a race with plenty of time to spare. So I plan extra time into my schedule. At the same time, I know – because I’ve told myself – that I will be fine if I don’t have as much time as I’d like. I’m adaptable.
Being adaptable goes hand in hand with resilience. When you start to feel discomfort in a race sooner than expected, your resilience, backed up by your adaptability, enables you to cope. At the 2013 Boston Marathon I started experiencing hip flexor pain at mile 10. (My notoriously tight hip flexors had a hard time dealing with the steep downhill in the first few miles at Boston.) I accepted that I was going to hurt for longer than planned – adaptability – and toughed it out for the next 16 miles.
No-one won a race by telling themselves they couldn’t. Confidence is an essential element in racing well. You have to constantly remind yourself of your ability. If you start second guessing yourself, or tell yourself that those around you are better racers than you, then you’ve already lost. I recall a 5K in which I convinced myself in the last mile that I couldn’t catch the girl ahead of me. I didn’t. A month later, racing a half-marathon and faced with a similar situation, I told myself I could catch the girl ahead in the closing stages. I passed her with 0.1 to go. Confidence isn’t cockiness, it’s self-assuredness, and it empowers you to tell yourself “I can” when your body is screaming “I can’t.”
Obviously you can’t gain experience if you don’t race. I used to fear racing. The build up gave me so much anxiety I was a wreck. I would put so much on the line that racing became an unpleasant experience that I started avoiding. I decided the only way to get over this was by racing more frequently, effectively callousing myself to everything that made me a nervous wreck. I raced often, and with mixed results, but it got me over that hump and I started to enjoy racing more, especially as being experienced meant I was, quite simply, better at it. Start treating racing as a learning curve, not an exam, and you’ll find yourself gaining the experience you need to become a better racer.