2. Mental Preparation is just as important as physical
When it comes to preparing the body for a strenuous activity, getting your mind in the right state is just as (if not more so) important as the physical piece.
Running is one of the most mental sports out there. Often times, the only thing preventing you from the race of your life is your mindset, and allowing certain negative thoughts to creep into your forethought while under the stress of intensive exercise.
So how do we prepare our mind for optimum performance on the track or cross country course?
One word, visualization.
I discovered visualization in my junior year of high school. That season, I PR’d by over 20 seconds in the 2 mile and set a school record.
The power of visualization is not discussed enough in the sport. I’ve found this pre-race tactic to be hands down the best way to prepare myself for an upcoming race.
Pro’s have been practicing visualization for years, mentally preparing by going over every stretch of the course, or each lap of the race in their heads repeatedly, until they’ve internalized it to the point where all variables have been considered and response to any one race condition will be instinctual.
I’ve found that visualization is best when performed in the days leading up to the race. Set aside 10-15 minutes to sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths and start to walk through the events of the race day as you anticipate them unfolding.
You get to the venue, you warm up, you stretch and do strides, you get to the starting line, the gun goes off, and then you’re in the race.
Think about who your competition is going to be, see their faces, think about the course, feel the hills and how they activate your hamstrings, sense the breeze.
Walk through each part of the race as it would unfold under ideal circumstances. Think about how you should be feeling as the race progresses. Plan where you see yourself surging, making your move. Think about how you’ll tuck behind your competitor and let them do the work, matching their surges and wearing them down.
What visualization does is it prepares the mind through acceptance. Usually we try to avoid uncomfortable or stress inducing thoughts or acts, but when we address them head on with full recognition that this race will actually happen, and you will actually feel a level of discomfort. Only at that point can you fully prepare yourself.
Put it off until the start line and your mind will be a frantic, disorganized mind, in no state for optimal performance.
By coming to terms with the discomfort, we are able to see that it’s controlled, and we are the masters of our own racing experience.
Think through the final stages of the races, how you’re going to feel, how your legs will burn, your breathing labored. How you’ll push through all this, and know that it will soon end and you will have achieved your goal.
Considering outside variables like weather conditions can be helpful, just so you’re as prepared for what’s ahead as possible.
Perform your visualization session at least once a day for the 3 days leading up to the race. Listen to music if you like, I found my perfect visualization song, Sigur Ros’s Untitled 8 of their first album. It’s perfect because it’s the right length, it starts slow and builds over time as you lead up to the start of the race, and then as the race progresses, it swells as you prepare to make your big move late in the race with crashing cymbals and heavy distortion.
May not be everyone’s thing, but I love Sigur Ros, and I love this song for pre-race visualization sessions. It’s hard not to get pumped up with the right song overlayed on your perfect race.
If music doesn’t work for you, then silence is just as good. The important thing is to remain focused and step through each stage of the race.
I do one last visualization session the day of the race, usually pre-warmup, like 20 minutes before you go for your shake out.
I truly do believe that visualization played a major role in all my best races, and many of my less than stellar performances interestingly usually coincided with days that I wasn’t as diligent about getting my visualization in.
If you’re a coach, especially of high school aged runners, you might find it difficult to explain this practice to your athletes. My recommendation would be to sit down with each athlete and go over their individual race strategy, and talk them through how they can start to plan for the race. Tell them to start to think about the race daily, considering the factors you discussed in your strategy session.
Any form of mental preparation is beneficial, so some athletes may not be disciplined, or mature enough, but impressing on them the importance of thinking the race through should still positively impact their race.
3. Nutrition is Key to any Successful Pre-Race Routine
I’ve talked about diet a bit in my post on how coaches can promote healthy eating. Many high schoolers don’t quite understand how critical nutrition is, I know I sure didn’t. It wasn’t until meeting with nutritionists in college where I began to really pay close attention to diet.
The most common mistake in preparing nutritionally for a race is to think that the only thing that matters is what you eat the day of the race. This is incorrect, and actually the opposite of the truth. What you eat in the days or weeks leading up to your race will play a far bigger role than what you eat the day of.
So in the week ahead of a big race, be sure to get adequate nutrition, and calories. Make this a part of your pre-race routine, and get in a regular pattern of when you eat in relation to your workouts.
On the day of the race, make sure to eat things that you know settle well with you. Practice this by eating the same foods before workouts.
Once you’ve found a race day meal plan that works for you, stick with it. For me, oatmeal is my go to. I add some brown rice protein powder and few other items like dried fruit. But a hearty bowl of oatmeal the morning of the race, and I’m fueled for hours without feeling full and lethargic.
Another consideration is pre-race hydration.
This is always a difficult topic because everyone is so individual. I know I have a nervous habit of drinking out of my water bottle before the race, whether or not I’m thirsty. This is not good, because over hydration can lead to bloating and can make you feel lethargic and weighed down.
I suggest again, testing this in workout environments. Measure the amount of liquid consumed prior to strong workouts. Obviously, weather conditions and temperature play a large role in this, as does the length of your race. You wont need to hydrate as much for a mile race as you would for a 5k.
The other issue needing to go to the bathroom at the starting line and the issues this could cause in both physical discomfort and mentally. Going to the bathroom as close to race start as possible is key, but I know from experience, this can be challenging at some cross country courses where the bathrooms are a quarter mile plus from the start.
Just plan ahead. Try not to consume so much water that you need to go to the bathroom every 15-30 minutes. Listen to your body and monitor your hydration levels, but don’t overthink it.