When we train the body, we merely plod along in our own mediocrity, when we train body and mind, we truly begin to run. The most compelling running picture I have seen is a black and white shot taken in 1954. It is a photograph of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier at Oxford where he was studying to be a doctor.
At that time there was a clutch of talented athletes who were knocking on the door, hoping to be the first to pull off this important milestone, Arne Anderson, Gunder Haegg, Wes Santee and John Landy. None could achieve it, the barrier seemed so close and yet it eluded all. Haegg singled out Banister as the athlete who would most likely do it: “he uses his brains as much as he uses his legs. I’ve always thought the four minute mile more of a psychological problem than a test of endurance”.
And so on 6 May 1954, at Oxford’s Iffley Road track, history was made, Roger Bannister broke the barrier, and opened the way for others to succeed. If one has to look at results today, an athlete who merely breaks the four minute mile oftentimes comes last.
Afterwards Bannister wrote this: “Though physiology may indicate respiratory and circulatory limits to muscular effort, psychological and other factors beyond the ken of physiology set the razor’s edge of defeat or victory and determine how closely an athlete approaches the absolute limits of performance”
Space here does not allow for all the mental training principals followed by Bannister and others who have achieved at high level but it is worthwhile to note some of the most valuable ones;
Concentration on a single goal during training. – The Comrades runner understands this more than most especially during the last month of training. This principal presupposes that a runner has a very clear and defined goal. The goal is achievable and is committed to writing. Put more effort into racing than into training – This comes down to ‘big match temperament’ Bannister said that he needed to release more energy in four minutes, than that spent in half-a-hour’s training.
Have a detailed competitive plan – Knowledge of the course, a detailed pacing chart with times at important milestones, a thorough check of equipment, shoes and a study of weather all make up for a confident and relaxed start.
Mental preparation – For a week before the race, spend time thinking about the big day, see the course in your mind, see yourself achieving your goal. Bannister did exactly this; his body would grow nervous and tremble as he ran the race over and over in his mind. Then he would calm himself and go to sleep.
Don’t let problems upset – If your plan is detailed and you are focused on the outcome, the fact that a watering table has no refreshment is of little consequence. People are rude and bump you, marshals are incompetent, and your stomach wants to work. This is all of little matter, for the plan is detailed, the goal is clear and you have seen the outcome. Now it is time to put in the effort, this is what you have come here for.
Calm and relaxed – To help with this one, keep as much of your surroundings and your habits as familiar as possible. If sleeping in a strange hotel, take you pillows from home, the familiar smells and feeling is comforting. Seek solitude, stay away from the hype and plan to keep relaxed. Arrive at the start early and not in a panic. Bannister used to go for long walks before competition, ‘seeking the mental calm I needed’.
Our mental state is important to our performance on and off the road, and it was Buddha who said ‘we are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”