Racing well is a skill. Just as a basketball player practices shooting free throws and responding to game situations, you can become a better racer and improve your performance by brushing up on your racing tactics.
By nature, our bodies are pre-programmed to stop doing things that hurt. Put your hand on a burning stove and it won’t take long before your brain sends a signal to your arm to flinch away. The same principle applies in racing – stress the heart, lungs, and legs enough and your mind is going to try and prevent you from continuing to push hard. Therefore, it is critical that you have specific strategies in place to help you continue to push when the brain is urging you to stop.
Here are four easy-to-implement tactics you can use to reach your potential on race day.
Positive Imagery And Mental Cues
The first step to racing well and pushing through mental barriers is to be prepared mentally. Letting negative thoughts creep into your mind is a critical mistake many runners make. Whether those thoughts are as inconspicuous as, “oh no, I am feeling tired way earlier than I should” or as pessimistic as, “wow, this really hurts, I can’t push any harder,” once negative self-talk begins, research has shown that performance severely declines.
Therefore, using positive mental imagery and cues is a powerful weapon. In a previous article, I discussed the benefits of developing positive mantras such as, “I am strong” and “I can do this” as opposed to “push through the pain and “don’t give up” because the second mantra elicits negative connotations with the words “pain” and “give up”.
Break The Race Down Into Smaller Pieces
Another effective mental trick is to break the race down into bite-sized and optimistic pieces. For example, in the last mile of a 10K, you might say, “only 800 meters left until I start my kick”, which sounds a lot more promising than one mile to go. Furthermore, you can associate the remaining distance of a race with your favorite workout. For example, when you hit mile 7 of a half marathon (often the most difficult point in the race) you can think to yourself: “now it’s time to roll, just like that 6-mile cutdown I did three weeks ago when I finished with a 7:00 last mile – go!”
Visualize Reeling In The Runners In Front Of You
Visualization can help disassociate your mind from the painful task at hand to an actionable and visible goal. This particular tactic is a favorite for many of the athletes I coach: pick one runner who is in front of you and imagine yourself casting a fishing line to the back of their jersey. Slowly reel the runner in and focus on nothing but slowly gaining ground on your “prey”. Before you know it, you’ll be right behind your target and you can recast your line to the next runner in front of you.
Surge To Get Back On Pace
One of the most common racing mistakes runners make is slowly letting the pace slip, oftentimes without even realizing it. As your legs get tired and your breathing becomes more labored, maintaining goal race pace gets more difficult — that’s not a big surprise. The problem is that many runners don’t know what to do about it once it does start happening.
The solution is to analyze the splits from your previous races and identify where this slowdown occurred. If you have the data from your last three to four races, you can usually find a common point where you started to fade. If you’re new to a race distance, a good tip to remember is that the slowing point will most often occur just after halfway — usually between halfway and three quarters into the race. For example, the slowing point in a 5K usually happens at around the 3000-meter mark.
Once you’ve identified your slow spot, plan to throw in a surge at this exact moment as you’re developing your next race plan. The surge will get you back on pace and serve as a mental reminder not to let the pace slip. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to keep pushing the pace, but it does prevent the unintentional pace creep that often occurs.
How To Implement In Training
Like anything else on race day, you don’t want to rely on a new strategy without practicing it in training first. Include a few 60-90-second surges during your next long run or try inserting a “hammer” into your next track session (a hammer is running the second to last repeat of your interval session as fast as you can and then returning to normal interval pace for your last repeat). These two workouts will prepare your mind to execute this tactic when it counts, on race day.
Recommitting to the pace, and your goal finishing time, is a hybrid tactic that combines positive mental cues with surging to get back on pace.
As discussed previously, our instinctive reaction to the physical stress of racing is to back off and slow down. One way the mind tries to convince you to stop is by tricking you into thinking you’re hurting more than you actually are. Your thoughts begin to drift from race splits and good form to the searing of your lungs and the cement-like feeling in your legs. The more you focus on these things, the more they seem to hurt and drag you down.
To prevent your brain from convincing itself you’re going to die if you don’t slow down, you need to refocus your mental thoughts and recommit to pushing the pace by reaffirming your goals. Try to relax, calm your thoughts, and look deep inside yourself. Is there something more there? If so, recommit to your goals and return your focus to running your pace.
This drastic change in thought process mid-race doesn’t come easy. Just like shooting a free-throw at the end of a game requires experience and practice, so does recommitting during the middle of a race. Practice recommitting during your next tempo run or your next hard workout and you’ll be better prepared on race day.
Relax At The Finish
If you’ve ever watched the last 100 meters of a local 5K race, you’ve probably seen most runners flying down the last straightaway with their faces clenched, arms flailing and veins popping out of their neck as they strain to extract every ounce of speed from their legs. Compare this to how relaxed elite milers are during the final 100 meters of their race.
Straining your face and flailing your arms to gain momentum wastes precious energy and distracts you from moving straight ahead as fast and efficiently as possible.
This tactic applies to any point in a race, not just the finish. When you hit a rough spot during a race and need to throw in a surge, keep your face relaxed and your form strong. Don’t strain and grit your teeth when running uphill, or windmill your arms in an uncontrolled fashion on the way down. Stay relaxed, focus on your form, and let your speed and power come naturally.
How To Implement In Training
Like surges and recommitting, practice staying relaxed in training. When you’re finishing the last mile of your tempo run or launching yourself down the home straightaway on your final 400 repeat, focus on staying relaxed and running with good form. You can also implement core work and form drills to help you stay strong and fluid in the final miles of a race.