Sarah Crouch

Written by Sarah Crouch


3 Simple Ways to Take the Pressure Off Your Next “Big Race”

Goal races at the end of a training segment define a certain timeline for many runners.

Marathoners often spend months on a proper training build-up towards race day and become mentally and emotionally invested in the outcome of the goal race, which is often seen as the culminating result of hard work and desire.

The phrase “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” warns us not to invest all of our energy into one specific project or endeavor lest that endeavor fail and we are left with nothing to show for our effort.

We as runners would be wise to take to heart the words of this Proverb, which can unlock the secret to taking the pressure off of the big race.

To help you along, here’s a simple 3-step system you can use to take the pressure off your next race.

Step 1: Set “non-goal race” related goals within the cycle

Tune-up races

Adding separate goals to a season apart from the big race is, in essence, putting your eggs into separate baskets.

Having 1-3 tune up races during a longer build-up towards a goal race can allow a runner to not only test fitness, but to validate a season.

During my build-up towards the New York City Marathon in 2011, I chose to race the USA 10 Mile Championship as a tune-up race a month before marathon race day.

I placed 5th at the 10-mile Championship running 55:15, far faster than I expected and beating a lot of women I did not expect to beat. It was a great race.

The NYC Marathon was not a great race.

I ran over 10 minutes slower than I hoped, but my season was not a failure because my fitness and mental strength was validated at the 10-mile race.

Tune-up races allow you to focus on smaller goals, one at a time, before the larger goal race, thus taking the pressure off of the goal race, and allowing more opportunities to have a great season and prove one’s fitness.

Personal fitness goals

Forming goals within a season that are not race-related can also help alleviate the pressure of race-day.

When I was a sophomore in college, I made the goal of maintaining an average of 100mpw during my fall cross-country season. I was just as pleased with my accomplishment of high training volume as I was with my accomplishments in the races that season.

Setting personal fitness goals that exist within a season give you a reason to be proud of your training and add confidence that is essential heading into race day.

Personal fitness goals can be anything you want them to be; a certain amount of mileage, a core routine twice a week or a beneficial cross-training routine are all good suggestions.

Step 2: Set checkpoints

A standard marathon build-up is roughly 12 to 16 weeks long. Within that time, it is important to set mental and physical checkpoints that can help you evaluate your progress within the build-up and improve on areas

Every 3-4 weeks during a marathon build-up, I like to have an honest conversation with myself about how my training is progressing. The most important question I ask myself is how I am handling the emotional stress of a marathon build-up.

Runners often discuss the physical hardship and fatigue of marathon training, but few discuss the mental toll that high volume, intense workouts and the looming pressure of race day take on an athlete’s morale.

I’ve often thought of the pressure of an impending race day as a weight that grows heavier and heavier on my mind until it is released by the race itself.

Setting up mental checkpoints in which you ask yourself key questions can help put this “weight” into perspective.

Key questions ask yourself

“How much time each day do I spend thinking about the race?”

If your honest answer reveals that you are spending far too much time thinking about the upcoming race, do something about it; plan ways to take your mind off the race by spending time with non-running friends, seeing a movie or taking up a new hobby that will distract you.

“ Am I feeling worn down by my training or bursting with an over-abundance of mental energy?”

The answer to this question will help you decide whether you need to back off a bit in training or talk to your coach about adding more mileage and harder workouts. Marathon training should leave you “comfortably tired”, using up a large amount of your energy but not completely drying up the well.

“Is running a chore or something I truly enjoy?”

I have had seasons where the answer to this question changed every few weeks. Part of being a committed distance runner is logging the miles even when you don’t feel like it, but if you find yourself dreading every run for more than a week or two, it may be time to give yourself a small break to mentally regroup before race day.

Allowing yourself a step back from running can leave you hungry to compete and excited for race day rather than dreading it.

Step 3: Set multiple goals

Having a set of goals as you approach race day can help lift the pressure of breaking a specific barrier or PR on the big day.

Set yourself a good goal, a great goal and a shoot for the stars goal.

  • A good goal should be a reasonable, very reachable goal, a time that your training indicates you should be able to run even on an “off” day.
  • A great goal should be attainable but challenging, perhaps a new PR or a time that breaks the nearest barrier (for example, 4:10, 4:00, 3:50).
  • A shoot for the stars goal is a personal, dream goal that you believe you could accomplish if absolutely everything goes right on race day and your legs have that magical feeling of being able to run forever. This can be anything you want it to be; the sky is the limit.

If you are having trouble with goal setting, talk with your coach about what may be a reasonable goal for you to shoot for.

Arming yourself with these tools as you head towards race day will help you to step back and enjoy the process of a season build-up without overly stressing about the outcome of race day.

Of course, it is natural to experience a certain amount of anticipatory pressure as you approach your goal race, and it can help to look at it through the eyes of famed sprinter Michael Johnson who said, “Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity”.

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