Relax To Race Faster and More Consistently
Runners are inherently obsessive athletes. What else can explain why we wake up at ungodly times to run or why we spend countless hours pouring over training data. For serious and recreational runners alike, achieving goals and performing well at races is a huge component of what makes training and racing fun. Unfortunately, sometimes this obsessive nature and optimal performance don’t go hand-in-hand. Often, our compulsive nature compels us to exert a great deal of pressure on ourselves to perform on race day. Like the NBA player that needs to hit the buzzer-beating free throw, the intense pressure can cause you to lose focus, succumb to stress, and deter you from reaching your goals. Here are some real-life examples and some practical takeaways about pressure and reaching your goals:
Don’t Let the Pressure Get the Best of You
At the 2000 Olympic Games, Suzy Favor-Hamilton was the hands-down favorite in the women’s 1500 event. Favor-Hamilton had the season’s fastest performance and was ranked number one in the world. However, pressure to perform from family, sponsors, and teammates kept Favor-Hamilton from running to her potential in the final. With 200 meters remaining in the race, Favor-Hamilton was slightly behind the leaders and had a momentary anxiety attack as she realized her goal might not come to fruition. In the moment of panic, Favor-Hamilton fell to the track on purpose with just 75 meters remaining and finished in last place. The pressure Hamilton exerted on herself to win caused her to miss out on a possible medal and a chance to walk away knowing she gave the race everything she had.
A race isn’t always going to go exactly as you envisioned. Maybe the weather isn’t perfect, you’re off pace through the first half, or some other unplanned event occurs – it happens to everyone. However, if you’ve put so much pressure on yourself that you “just have to run this time or you’ll be devastated”, you create a negative situation. You become unable to adjust when the race doesn’t go perfect and instead of adapting and pulling things together, or at least finishing proud that you gave it everything you had, you walk away with your head in your hands.
Don’t let the pressure consume you. Remember, there will be other days to race and your family and friends will always support you no matter how fast you run.
Don’t Become Obsessed with Beating a Time Goal
When I was a sophomore in college, I had one of the best races of my career when I ran 14:09 for the 5k indoors. The time was a complete surprise and ranked me as the second fastest sophomore in the country. I went home that night and knew my career was on a non-stop trajectory to the stars; it was only matter of time before I achieved my “dream goal” of breaking the 14 minute barrier.
Every 5k race I ran after that magical night was an all-or-nothing shot at getting under 14 minutes. During my classes, I scribbled possible split times in my notebook – calculating the numerous ways to break 14 minutes. I was obsessed. The problem was, I was so focused on breaking this one arbitrary time, I created a huge mental barrier for myself. Over the next 5 years, I ran times in the 10k that qualified me for the US National Championships and 1500 times that clearly indicated I had the speed to run 13:45. Not once did I break 14 minutes during that time – and not for lack of trying. Then, one early Spring day, my coach decided that instead of the scheduled workout we would head to a small college meet in Michigan. The van ride was long and my legs were tired from training the day before. The wind was whipping, it was cold, and the stands had less fans than a Baltimore Orioles game. I just didn’t want to be there. Unbelievably, with 2 laps to go, I found myself within sub 14 minute territory. I kicked as hard as I could and finished in 13:58. On the day I could have cared less about breaking 14 minutes, I did it. The barrier was broken and it seemed a weight had been lifted.
Don’t become too obsessed or occupied with one goal, you’ll start to make it a mental hurdle. Instead, focus on the process and measure your racing from a more holistic viewpoint. Head to the starting line relaxed and to remember that even though the goal is to run your best, racing is supposed to be fun. When you stop obsessing and putting so much pressure on yourself, you allow your body to run as it has been trained to do.
Race Hard, but Enjoy It
Take the pressure off yourself and remember to enjoy your training and racing. By no means does this mean you shouldn’t focus your training, execute your race plan, and do everything you can to have a great performance on race day. Rather, don’t obsess so intently on one goal that you develop a mental barrier or create a situation where you can’t adapt to the evolving nature of training and racing. This is especially important during the taper before a big race. Be confident, relax, and trust your training!