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Your Race Result May Hang on One Word

Word cues: a simple strategy to beat back negative thoughts and keep yourself focused on executing your race plan.

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Imagine you are 200 meters into a 1500 meter race and your race plan has already gone out the window. Your plan had one ironclad rule — Don’t lead — and yet you are somehow in the front and no one will take the lead. What do you do?

Now imagine the race is the final at the US Olympic Trials, and you have to win in order to qualify for the Olympics — because you only have the “B” standard. What would be going through your mind?

This was the situation Carrie Tollefson found herself in at the 2004 US Olympic Trials. Midway through the first lap it was clear her race plan was worthless and she was going to have to rely on something else. She relied on word cues.

Carrie Tollefson competing in the 1500m during the U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials in 2004.  By focusing on her word cues after her strategy didn’t go according to plan, she stayed positive, dug in, and surged back for victory to become an Olympian. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“Plans are Worthless but Planning is Everything”

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” He was speaking of military campaigns, but he may as well been speaking about racing. No matter how many scenarios you’ve played out in your mind, reality always turns out different than you expected.

But just because your plan doesn’t always come to fruition doesn’t mean planning isn’t critical. The act of preparing, of considering possible outcomes, situations and scenarios, is what gives you the tools you need to overcome unexpected challenges. Preparation is the act of identifying the tools at your disposal and figuring out how and when to use them.

We put a lot of emphasis on our physical tools: our sense of pace, our aerobic capacity, our finishing kick. And we put a lot of emphasis on anticipating who will do what: Runner X likes to go out hard; Expect Runner Y to sit and kick. And of course we do things like visualize our performance and use mantras and positive self-talk to build up our confidence and decrease anxiety and stress.

But there’s one area that many athletes don’t actively prepare for, and that is the thoughts and feelings they will experience at various stages of the race. We don’t actively train ourselves to re-focus when our attention slips, to block out negative self-talk when it starts to creep in, or to reduce the strain on our minds as we hit periods of exhaustion.

Word cues are a great tool for just these situations. 

Word cues are short, predetermined words or phrases that you use to help execute your desired race plan. Think of them as “tactical mantras.” Whereas a good mantra is personal and generic, a word cue will be situational. It will be specifically chosen based on the challenge you’re trying to navigate, and is more likely to sound like “sit,” “push,” or “five quick steps.”

Two Types of Word Cues

1. A Word for Each Segment 

Word cues can take two types. The first type of word cue is the kind Carrie used in her Olympic Trials race. (Hear her describe it on our latest Fueling the Pursuit podcast.) She divided up the race into four laps and gave each lap a word. For example, her word cue for the first lap was “sit.” By focusing on this one word, she was able to avoid freaking out about her position and do what she needed to do. Despite being at the front of the pack, she “sat.”

These types of word cues keep her positive in challenging situations. She explained, “I just want to have a positive thought or a productive thought going on. So if there’s a negative thought I can squash it right away and just go back to the ease of having one word.” Word cues keep you positive and productive when the situation is primed to go negative.

400-meter gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross described a related benefit to using word cues. Her coach, Clyde Hart, trains his athletes to use the “four P’s of 400m racing” — push, pace, position, poise (though Richards-Ross says there are five…). Having one word cue to focus on for each 100m section not only blocks out distractions, it helps to avoid getting caught up in the moment.

Sanya Richards-Ross racing in the 4x400m relay in the Olympics.
400-meter gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross used word cues for each lap of the 400m race. Having one word cue to focus on for each 100m section not only blocks out distractions, it helps to avoid getting caught up in the moment. (Photo: Getty Images)

2. A Word for Each Situation

The other type of word cue has to do with specific race situations we all experience. Summiting a hill, overtaking a runner, being overtaken, getting a side-stitch, and wishing you never signed up to run the damn thing in the first place. 

My UCLA teammate Mason Moore shared an example from his time running for Nordhoff High School, which won 11 California state cross country championships under legendary coach Ken Reeves. The courses in California are infamous for their steep hills. Runners’ legs feel like jelly when they reach the top. In order to stay focused and aggressive at these critical points, Reeves used a word cue: “five quick steps.” Every time his athletes reached the top of a hill, they took five quick steps.

Any point in a race where you have to act (or react) decisively is a great place to insert a word cue. Without a reminder, you may allow your exhaustion to get the better of you. With a word cue, you’re more likely to commit to a productive decision. 

How to Strategize with Word Cues

For word cues to be effective, they need to be built into your training and preparation. Your race plan will often end up worthless, but your planning can still prepare you to be successful.

Identify the key stages or situations where you can benefit from them. Most races can be divided into sections. Similarly, most races have predictable moments where we will have to truly go all-in and overcome our pain and self-doubt.

Next, decide on the core behavior you want to exhibit in those moments, regardless of your race plan or how you are feeling. Pick a simple word or phrase to embody that behavior. Keep it positive and productive.

Once you’ve picked it, look for opportunities to build it into your training. If you are doing mile repeats, practice doing them while repeating your word cues. If you are training on hilly terrain, do five quick steps at the top of each hill. Train your body to respond to the word cue in practice.

Finally, when you are doing other mental preparation like visualization, incorporate the word cues into it. Don’t just imagine yourself running at a particular pace. Imagine yourself running that pace while focusing on your word cue.

The more you build it into your training, the more likely you’ll be to respond automatically when the time comes. The goal is for the word cue to feel as natural as every other part of your execution.

Runners scale "Reservoir Hill," the final major incline of the 2.91-mile course in the 58th Mt. San Antonio College Cross Country Invitational in Walnut, Calif.
If you are training on hilly terrain, practicing telling yourself to do “five quick steps” at the top of each hill. (Photo: Getty Images)

Word Cues Work

Tollefson ran that entire 2004 Olympic Trials race from the front, the one place she did not want to be. But she focused on her word cues and ran her race. And when she was passed on the final straightaway, she stayed positive, dug in, and surged back for victory. She became an Olympian. 

Now, many years later, she says she still uses word cues in many aspects of her life. Richards-Ross also told me she uses word cues to navigate new and challenging situations, from hosting the Olympic Games to starting new businesses.

Word cues are not a racing tactic so much as a focusing and staying positive tactic. I have used word cues to help me get through business meetings, interviews, dates, exams, emceeing events and many other situations where I needed to be mentally sharp and engaged to do my best.

Word cues work. And when you build them into other areas of your life, it not only helps you excel in those situations, it makes it easier to use them in your running. Success in any area is a function of preparation and execution. Word cues help you do both, better.

About the Author 

Bryan Green competed at UCLA from 1997 to 2002, was a two-time individual qualifier for the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2000 and 2001, and ran a “3rd best time” of 29:40 in the 10k. He has a Master’s in International Affairs from UC San Diego and spent ten years working as an analyst in Silicon Valley. He is currently the co-founder of Go Be More Apparel, host of the Go Be More and Fueling the Pursuit podcasts, and author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster. His passion is sharing powerful ideas to help people go be more in life.