Friday, March 6, 2009

Say "Yes!" to Smoking!

...your competitors, that is. Unfortunately, racing with success is something that no amount of pre-race rituals, carb-loading, or lucky pairs of underwear will help you achieve. To reach your maximum potential and sense of accomplishment that ensues a hard race, preparation is key. Steve Prefontaine put it best when he said, "If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail." But even the most physically-prepared runners can overlook the single, most significant form of preparation in their training, which is that of the mind.

Most people have heard the saying "Running is 99% mental." Some of you may be skeptical, wondering, "Then why does it hurt so much?!" Scientifically speaking, that great sense of discomfort you feel when you're pushing yourself to the limit truly is a matter of the mind. A lot of it is all in your head, despite that familiar burn you feel emanating from leg muscles you never even knew existed.

In a sense, fatigue is a sensation the brain produces as part of a survival mechanism, as proposed by "The Central Governor Model" theory. This fatigue ensures one will not deplete their ATP (AKA "Adenosine Triphosphate" and used by the body for energy) supply, for if ATP were hypothetically used up entirely, the muscles would go into a permanent state of contraction (paralysis). Thus, the exhaustion one feels near the end of the race is a result of the brain involuntarily decreasing muscle fiber recruitment to prevent any possibility of ATP depletion.

Training, of course, increases the brain's physiological ability and electrical output to these muscles for more prolonged durations of time. However, this accounts for only a portion of the supposed 99% of the mental part of running. While this brain mechanism is subconscious, there are many things a runner can consciously do to optimize your times and achieve the PR's so many of us strive for on race day.

As cliche as it sounds, optimism is a significant aspect of a winner's mentality. You must feel confidence that your solid training foundation will serve you well. It is a good idea to incorporate speedwork into your training regimen that mimics race effort, which will increase your efficiency come race day. Aside from the infamous "off-days" we all have, positive thinking and envisioning success are truly underestimated, yet extraordinary, forces. Also, it sometimes helps to think of the race, regardless of the distance, in segments that seem more surmountable.

As much as I love running, it's certainly difficult to "bask" in the pain of a race, so I often find myself looking desperately for distractions. Among these include playing songs in my head (in rhythm with my stride), counting my steps, finding successive objects along the course to pass by and pull me along, and looking for my supporters at various places throughout the race. However, the tug-of-war between trying to dissociate oneself and monitoring your pace and physical conditions is a struggle in which one must find a balance.

Personally, I find it helps to use logic to maintain a level-head among the discomfort, nerves, and ornery little butterflies furiously flapping in my stomach so often induced by a race. For example, it always calms me to realize time will pass, regardless of whether or not I'm racing. I may feel pain in the midst of it, and though it may seem like an eternity, it will inevitably end."

In addition to logical and optimistic thinking, one must be a realist. A great coach once told me, "Embrace the pain." Yes, that's right. Fully allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable waves of fatigue, accepting and inviting them, for you must realize a race is not suppose to feel good.

And lastly, the sometimes inspirational, sometimes notoriously cheesy, running quotes can give a dragging psyche the boost it needs to pull through. Sometimes I'll take a short, yet meaningful phrase, and write it on my hand to be able to glance at later when I'm in the thick of physical and mental strife.

The moral of the story is that running certainly is 99% mental, hence to only physically prepare would be robbing oneself of an exceedingly important aspect of training. Training the brain is as essential as training the muscles and cardiovascular system. Once you've developed a mind and body of steel, try drinking a little too much water beforehand. I can tell you from personal experience, that will definitely give you a competitive edge.


  1. All great tips! Your mental state has so much influence on a race!

    Joe Paterno has a similar quote to the Pre's that I like "the will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital."

  2. All great stuff. May have been just the kick I needed to get off the comfy couch and go run. :o)