If you've been following my training schedule for either the 3M Half Marathon or the Austin Half Marathon, you're just weeks away from your pre-race taper where training load decreases and mental preparation increases. Whether you are new to this distance or are an experienced half marathoner, the days and weeks leading up to the race are some of the most nerve-wracking and panic-inducing; you start to question everything. These are just a few of the pre-race thoughts that may plague your mind: Did I train hard enough? Will I hit my goal? What if something goes wrong?
I’m here to tell you not to fret. Those feelings, ironically, are as normal as breathing. When you view something as overwhelming or scary, such as the start of a race, it engages what we know as the fight-or-flight response. You're excited, but an innate part of you is wondering how you can get out of the threatening situation. Those nerves are part of a hormone release that triggers cortisol secretion, increase blood sugar, quicken pulse, force shallow breathing and increase sweat. These normal pre-race hormone surges actually help prepare you for battle by giving you an extra jolt of energy. A little fear is good in competition because it means you care about the end result and want to do your best.
So, how can you prepare to do your best, be in that winning mindset on race day, and toe the starting line feeling confident and self-assured? You write a script. Race day success is as simple as creating a series of habits and practicing them over and over again until they become routine. Much like how an actor can't just wing it on a Shakespearean play, you can't improvise your way through a long race. Practice may not make you perfect, but it can make you prepared.
Here are a few tips on writing your race day script—which can also be found in my latest book, Headspace for the Perfect Race: Create a Winning Athlete Mindset:
Know how you're going to pace your race.
Throughout training, you've practiced your pacing for both speed work and long runs. You set a time goal, and now it's time to script how you're going to get there. I recommend athletes start slower than their goal pace and finish fast. Some people run “even splits” or try to keep their pace relatively the same throughout the race. Regardless of your strategy, you should know what it is and have practiced it during your training. Don't start too fast and try to bank time—it's a strategy that rarely works and can burn you out quickly.
Know what time you are going to get up, and get to the race early.
Race morning is often harried and frustrating as traffic is more congested than usual on an otherwise quiet weekend morning. Parking becomes its own competition. And porta-potties are at a premium. Your best defense against these inevitabilities is to get to the race site early, which means getting up at least three hours before the start of the race. This will allow you plenty of time for breakfast, bathroom breaks, commuting, parking, a solid pre-race warm up, and probably another bathroom break. In the same way that you would show up early for a job interview to avoid added stress, make a point of getting to the race early.
Know your nutritional needs.
This includes both pre-race meals and nutrition during the race. Write down how many calories you plan on taking in and at what mile markers. You may even want to write it down on your hand or set an alarm on your watch to alert you when it's time to eat. The best insurance policy against a bonk in energy is regular eating intervals; easily digestible calories every 30-45 minutes. Practice what works for you and have your snack supply in a spot that's easy to grab during the race.
Know your sphere of influence.
One of the biggest causes of stress in racing is fretting about things out of your control. You can't control the weather as much as you'd like, you can't control other competitors, and you can't control how your body will react that day. The biggest things you can control on race day are your emotions and how you react to adverse situations. Practice racing with an attitude of joy and appreciation for the ability and opportunity you have to compete.
Stay in the moment.
When you get tired or sore, doubts start to creep in and you start thinking negative thoughts. When your mind wanders away from the task at hand, bring it back by focusing on your breathing, maintaining good form, and staying as relaxed as possible. Soak in your surroundings—admire the hoopla, thank some volunteers, and bask in the glory of your body's abilities. You never get that moment back, so cherish it.
One of the greatest things about competition is that it brings out the human response in all of us. Everyone stands at the starting line or on the sideline feeling nervous and anxious. That's not just an emotional response, but a physical one as well and regardless of ability or experience, it will always be there. That fight-or-flight response is the great equalizer handed down from our prehistoric ancestors. There is no secret pill or formula that separates good athletes from champions. Success in sport is dependent upon your beliefs and ability to prepare your mind for competition. A champion's mindset is really those daily habits you form to create a positive and confident training atmosphere. It's consistent work and practice. It's quieting the negative mind chatter. It's scripting your response in every situation. And it's the realization that you are grateful for the opportunity to be there in the first place.
Weeks 9–12 (12/29-1/25)