For years one of my biggest challenges when racing was mental strength and motivation. As I was out on the course, I would give up mentally and couldn’t dig deep enough to really push hard to work towards my goals. I think this led to years of plateauing in several distances. Combine that with a long injury, followed by pregnancy and childbirth, and it’s been a long time since I’ve set PRs. As I’ve been participating in virtual races, I have found some things that have helped me to stay motivated when racing alone. I thought I would share what has worked for me to stay mentally strong in these races.
My last half-marathon PR in 2015
I’m going to take a minute to retell the story of my last half-marathon PR in 2015. I was running the Baltimore Half-Marathon as part of my training for the Route 66 Marathon. I didn’t go into it with the goal to set a PR. Around mile 10, I was giving up mentally. I didn’t realize it but Rob (my husband) was behind me as I was trying to get a gel from my belt. As he caught up to help me, he started to give me a pep talk.
He had run the 5k before the half and said his legs were dead but that I should go ahead. I started to tell him how I wasn’t on track to PR, and my legs were tired, and I didn’t taper…basically lots of excuses. He gave me a quick lecture about how he doesn’t want me to complain about missing a PR by 1-2 seconds again, and that I knew the course was easier from here on out, and I could easily throw down a few 7:30s if I had to. I started to try to give him some more excuses, but he just said “no talking”. Tough love, I guess.
But he was right. I did have something left in the tank, and there was no reason why I couldn’t go for it. After the 10 mile mark I started picking it up. I was also able to do some math and at mile 11 realized I was pretty much guaranteed a PR at that point. So I kept pushing hard, and surprised myself each time my watch buzzed. I ended up with a PR of about 1 minute and 20 seconds.
So what do we do when we don’t have someone there with us in a race to tell us what we need to hear at just the right time? Worse yet, what do we do during those times when there is no crowd support? Or if you are running a virtual race? Here are some things that have worked for me.
Prepare yourself ahead of time
If you are going to race hard, it’s pretty much a given that at some point in the race you will struggle mentally. Come up with a plan ahead of time. What usually happens when a race gets hard? How will you respond when you want to give up? You can actually role play these scenarios before the race, or try them out during a training run. When you expect a race to feel hard, then it’s easier to respond and push through when it actually happens. Even just telling yourself “I’m racing really hard, this is supposed to hurt” is validating.
Play mental games
This is a good distraction technique. Come up with something to take your mind off of the negative thoughts, like breaking up the miles into smaller chunks. Last week when I was around mile 7 I decided that I would try to hold on to my pace until mile 10 and then pretend I was racing a 5k. So I basically broke down my last 6 miles into 2 sets of 3. Thinking about those final 3 miles as something separate made it slightly less intimidating, even though I knew that it would be hard.
You can also try something like “think about something you are grateful for at each mile”. Different strategies will work better for different people, so you have to find what works for you.
Focus on your reward
Try to think about how good it is going to feel when you are done. Picture how happy you will be if you give it all you’ve got and you reach your goal. Sometimes this alone can be extremely motivating. If you need something more concrete. you can focus on a delicious breakfast you will enjoy after your race. Of course you can also bribe yourself with a special treat like new running shoes. I told myself I could buy the new Brooks I’ve been eyeing if I ran sub 1:45. Since I also ran a PR, I got a new pair of shorts as well.
I think more than anything what really helped me to push it at the end was thinking about how disappointed I would feel if I missed a PR by a few seconds. I wanted to be able to look back and know that I really gave it everything during that last mile.
Remember what you sacrificed
If you have put in a full training cycle leading up to a race, you have likely sacrificed alot. Think about the long runs, the events you missed due to training, and the hard workouts that you got through. Even though I didn’t put in a full training cycle I was able to tell myself “you woke up today at 3:00am to do this- you better make it worth it!” Also, now that I have a baby I am always reminding myself that when I am racing that I am taking time away from being with him and also that I am relying on my husband to do more when I am training or racing, so I better put in the hard work for them on race day.
Think back on another time when you did something challenging
The nice thing about having some racing experience is that you have probably had races that went well and others that did not go so well. I often remember running the Baltimore full marathon in 2013. During that race I went out too fast in the first half and then completely fell apart in the second half. I was definitely tired, but my biggest issue was that I gave up mentally. After that race was over I had alot of regrets.
But there have been many other times that I was able to push through challenges during races and workouts. I try to think back on those times and compare how I’m feeling. “Ok you have 3 miles to go, and you have run tempo runs at this pace on tired legs…” Most importantly you want to remember that you have been able to persevere in the past, so you can do so again.
Staying mentally strong and motivated when racing alone is challenging. Many of us appreciate support from others when a race gets hard. However, no matter what the circumstances are, being able to motivate yourself is very important in becoming a stronger runner and being able to reach your goals.
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Do you struggle with your motivation and mental strength when racing?
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