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Change Your Mindset To Improve Race Times

Be mindful of the deceptive paralysis that can take hold when you become intimidated by your increasingly faster paces.

Be mindful of the deceptive paralysis that can take hold when you become intimidated by your increasingly faster paces.

Rapidly improving and making huge gains in training and fitness is the daydream almost every runner has on those perfect, effortless runs. While most runners understand that reaching their ultimate potential takes time, lots of miles, and a sprinkle of patience, many don’t realize there is an underlying mental chasm that must also be crossed when making big improvements in their race times.

It may seem ironic that the very daydream that consumes your thoughts during those endless miles might actually be the hindrance that prevents you from taking the next step in your training and racing. However, when runners begin to improve rapidly, it’s often the fear of what were previously considered daunting paces or inconceivable goals that holds them back; it’s intimidating to believe that you can run a marathon 20 seconds per mile faster than what you considered your 10K pace not all that long ago.

Succumbing to the awe of faster paces and how unbelievable it can seem to run that fast is often what leads to racing plateaus and time barriers that runners can never quite get past. Being aware of this phenomenon, understanding that other runners go through it as well, and implementing specific strategies to get over the mental hurdle is critical if you want to take your race times to the next level.

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Learn From The Elites

The mental hurdle of being in awe of faster paces and seemingly unachievable goal times isn’t unique to beginner runners attempting to improve from a 4-hour marathon to a 3:30 marathon. Elite runners, even those who run the kinds of times that make your head spin, deal with this psychological obstacle of improving.

The 2004 men’s Olympic Marathon Trials are a great example for illustrating this concept. Given the quality of the entrants in 2004, all the runners knew it would require a 2:11 or 2:12 (5:00 pace) marathon time to make the team. For many qualifiers in the 2:16 to 2:20 range, improving four to eight minutes in one race might seem impossible. The idea of dropping 10-20 seconds per mile for an entire marathon was an enormous mental barrier — one that prevented many athletes from even thinking they had a shot. While many hopefuls dreamt of hitting the podium, very few had the ability to let go of their intimidation and recondition their mind about what was possible. In the end, this self-doubt prevented them from taking the next step.

However, Trent Briney decided that he was going to suppress those self-doubts and not let the intimidating paces get the best of him. Despite entering the race with a 2:21 personal best for the marathon, Briney had unwavering faith in his fitness and training; but more an importantly he had an open mind about what was possible. When the dust settled in Alabama, Briney “went for it” and ran a 2:12:34 to finish in fourth place. While it wasn’t the top-three finish he had hoped for, his time was a testament to the power of not being intimidated by fast times and rapid improvements.

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Strategies To Recondition Your Mind

Given the importance of self-belief and not being intimidated by fast race times, how do you recondition your mind to rethink about what you think is possible? If you’re at a standstill or you’re facing a time barrier you just can’t seem to conquer, what strategies can you implement to take the next step?

Switch Your Measurement System
One of the easiest ways to alter your perception about intimidating paces is to switch the units by which you measure your runs. Try measuring your runs by kilometers if you use miles, or by miles if you use kilometers. Obviously, you’ll need to do some converting, but when you’re thinking about the difficulty or magnitude of hitting your next tempo run, track interval, or race split, your reference point will be entirely different.

If you use the imperial system, attempting to run a 3:43 kilometer might seem easier than a 6-minute mile because your perception of the difficulty required to run a 3:43 kilometer has yet to be established. When you reflect on your goal workouts or your target race paces, you’ll be able to think rationally about your fitness. Hone in on your ability to hit the paces based on your workouts as opposed to being intimated by how fast you used to think these splits used to be.

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Take It Step-By-Step
Runners who have an ambitious goal (qualifying for Boston is the most common), but aren’t anywhere near their qualifying time, need to break down their overall progression and perception of their paces into smaller chunks. If you’re a 3:45 marathoner and need to run 3:20 to qualify for Boston, you can’t expect your mind to be comfortable with going from 8:35 pace to 7:38 pace in one giant swoop.

First, condition your mind to know that it can run 7:38 pace for 10K. Then, continue to train your mind and body so that same pace eventually becomes manageable for a half marathon. Keep making these small steps in your mind (and, of course, your training) and you’ll soon consider 7:38 per mile to be a feasible marathon pace without having to take a huge leap of faith.

Consider Desiree Davila, who went from a 2:44:56 marathon in 2007 to a 2:22:38 in 2011. The thought of dropping nearly 55 seconds per mile off her marathon time in 2007 might have seemed too daunting to contemplate. But with slow and steady progress, along with constantly redefining her perception of what she thought was fast, Davila was able to claim a spot on the 2012 Olympic marathon team.

Find A Faster Group
Another simple strategy to help shift your mindset about what you think is fast is to look for training groups that are above your ability level. This doesn’t mean you need to do every workout with a new group or be careless with your training, but surrounding yourself with faster runners will transform your perceptions of paces and race times. If you’re trying to break through and dip under 3 hours in the marathon for the first time, surrounding yourself with 2:45-50 marathoners will make your goal pace much less intimidating.

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This strategy is one of the main reasons elite runners flock to training groups. For a starry-eyed runner out of college, the thought of making an Olympic team seems outrageous and impossible. However, if they join a training group and surround themselves with athletes that have already achieved that goal, it makes the possibility of running that fast real — and almost commonplace. Surrounding yourself with some of the faster runners in your area removes the mystique and awe of running fast.

Whatever your strategy, be mindful of the deceptive paralysis that can take hold when you become intimidated by your increasingly faster paces or goal times. Don’t let your own perceptions about what is fast prevent you from taking that next step in your racing. Shift and transform your mindset and you’ll gain more confidence in your training with each step you take in your progression.