Some notes on mental approach

With grateful thanks to Coach Lindsey Parry

Deciding you want to do something is often the easiest part. Inspired by watching Comrades on TV or seeing a friend or family member achieve a lifelong ambition like doing Ironman, the Two Oceans Half Marathon or a multiday stage run. But this is the romantic end point of months of hard work that no one tells you about when the heat of battle is still fresh in the mind and they are high from the fulfilment of the goal.

Here are some tips about how to ensure you keep the ship sailing towards the end goal even when things don’t quite seem as fun as they were supposed to.

Setting the goal:

Although this is the easiest step, it still remains the most important step, without this first step there will be no step two. So make sure you set a goal whether it is to run your first five kilometres, to run for health, set a new personal best time at a chosen race, do that first Half Marathon, a Marathon or beyond. The goal needs to be something you have always wanted to do and it needs to be something that instils some fear mixed with excitement so that it actually gets you out there and running.

Once you have your goal there are three important steps that will greatly increase your chances of seeing this through and achieving your goal: 

Write it down. Put your goal as well as your programme on your fridge so that you can be reminded about your commitment every day. Tell people your goal, as many as you can. The more people who know the greater the pressure will be to start and the greater the chances you will push through when things get tough. Sell your goal to a friend or colleague so that you are not doing this on your own. You will have someone to meet when you are tired, it’s cold and dark. It’s that 10% you need on the tough days.

The first three weeks:

Depending on how little running you have done in the past, the first three week period can last up to six weeks. This will be the most physically challenging part of the training programme. It is important to consult a professional to ensure you start off at an appropriate rate that is sustainable, and yet steep enough to meet your goal.

For a beginner this may be as simple as pulling a beginner’s programme out of a magazine or off the web. For an experienced runner, have a consultation with a pro to analyse what you have done in the past. Ensure you have the right mix and introduce some fresh ideas. Having a programme will provide confidence in the road ahead.

During this part of the programme it is important to keep looking at the goal on the fridge and keep telling people what you are doing so that you can plough on even though progress seems non-existent and you feel sore all the time. If you can hang in there you will suddenly feel great in three to six weeks, feeling significant improvements.

The danger zone:

Once through the difficulties of starting up you enter the riskiest part. You will now feel great and your training will excite you. The big problem is that your excitement may well lead you to do too much and either burn out, get sick or injured, these are the greatest threats to your ultimate goal. During this period you need to hold yourself back and be patient, stick to your programme and do not jump ahead.

If you get injured or sick it is critical to manage this correctly to ensure you can still achieve your target. Always remember that the success of your goal is based on the sum total of the programme not on what happens on each individual day. You are therefore better off looking after yourself for a day or two before getting back out there than pushing through and ensuring the injury or illness becomes serious and takes you out for two to three weeks and you need to start again.

Illness or Injury MUST be managed as follows (Replace Physiotherapist with Doctor in case of illness):

REST and ice for 24 to 48-hours. If the injury has not cleared up it needs Physiotherapy See a Biokineticist or whoever the Physiotherapist advises. If you follow this rule you will never miss more than a couple of days of running at a time.

When the excitement is gone:

Somewhere along the line the excitement of the goal will start to fade, you will start to feel fatigued and the improvements will seem to have slowed down. This is the time when having someone to train with becomes critical, especially if your goal takes you through or into winter. If you don’t have a training partner, get to a running club in your area so that you can have some people to train with.

This is also the time to introduce weekly tests or as we call them Time Trials. These are measured routes of five to eight kilometres (if your goal is five kilometres then you would use a two-and-a-half kilometre route) that you repeat weekly. You will see weekly improvements which will keep you excited and training hard to see more improvement the following week.

It is also a good idea at this point to set a short term goal that you can achieve, such as a shorter distance race than the ultimate goal. This will give you confidence and again show you are moving in the right direction.

Lastly when you are really feeling down and just don’t feel like it, apply the 10-minute rule. Get out there and run for 10-minutes. Chances are you will start to feel good and be able to complete the session. If you still feel really down and fatigued then call it quits and take an unscheduled rest day.

Going down the home stretch:

In many ways this is by far the toughest part mentally. So many questions are cropping up such as when to start cutting back to freshen up? Have I done enough? Will I get sick or injured now? What should I eat? Did I do enough of the right type of training? Some of you will even be absolutely sick of the training and just want the event to be done with.

The taper is in place to help us get through all of the above anxiety and to help you freshen up physically so that you start to feel stronger when you run. Importantly the pressure is off mentally as the discipline required to keep training hard is reduced due to the demands of training dropping.

During this time it is important to keep mentally running through the race so that you keep building up the confidence and anticipation of successfully achieving your goal. Think about the people you have met along the way and those you will meet on race day.

Lastly set about a race plan, set little time markers for certain points along the route. For experienced athletes this will keep you honest and serve as check to see how you are progressing towards your goal. For inexperienced runners this will be critical to ensure you pace yourself correctly and don’t get caught up in the emotion of the event and run out way too hard.

The big day:

All has gone according to plan, you feel great, you are excited and the goal is now firmly in sight. However it’s not a done deal yet, particularly for the experienced runner who does not just have a goal of finishing but of achieving a specific and difficult goal. I often get asked about that peak performance and the mental processes around it. Your clichéd “getting into the zone”. It is not a fluke once off experience but by following specific steps we can get into this when needed. The steps may differ a bit from person to person but here are a few tips to get you closer to your perfect day.

Chasing the clock takes immense concentration and you cannot slip up or else the target starts to slip away.

How do we do it?

The first step is to ensure that there is nothing to worry about from the start. So plan to arrive at the venue early to park, have time to get ready, do a good warm up and take your place at the start line near the front so that you do not get held up at the start. This is critical because mentally you do not want to be playing catch up; you need to be on the mark from the first kilometre as this will start to stimulate the “hunt” instinct in you as your “prey” becomes a realistic target.

If you are a slower runner chasing a goal and have to stand near the back for seeding purposes then find out how much time you can expect to lose at the start so that it doesn’t come as a surprise and you can still stay on track and tap into the above.

The next step is to concentrate hard on getting into a rhythm so that you don’t have to focus on every step but can tick off two to three kilometres going at a great speed. During this time focus on things that will keep up the intensity so picture yourself winning, chasing someone or being chased. Avoid thoughts about work, family or holidays as without realising your pace will slow to the rhythm of your thoughts.

Take each kilometre that is on target as a major success, strengthening your resolve and gathering for the final few kilometres. Finally if you have focused well and done everything in your pre-race plan for the first two-thirds of the race, you will find yourself well and truly in the zone, focusing on each competitor ahead, catching and passing them as you push harder and the world seems to have become a blur of movement around you. You may feel great like a hover craft flying over the ground or you may be sore but the resolve just pushes you on.