Overcoming Mental Blocks
Intimidated by first races, hard courses, fast runners? Here’s how to get over all that.
Every runner has moments of doubt–and that’s not always bad. Wondering if you’re up to the challenge of a first marathon reflects a healthy investment in the outcome. And if you haven’t trained properly, your concerns are valid. But other worries–especially those triggered by outside influences–can create a self-defeating sense of intimidation. These doubts go deeper and are rooted in negative emotions, says Windee Weiss, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who is an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services. “Realism accepts that a demand may be tough but doesn’t place a judgment on it,” she says. “Intimidation assumes you won’t have the goods to meet the demand.”
Failure-oriented stress can cause a host of problems. It can tighten muscles so that they fatigue faster, hamper coordination so you can’t find your stride, distract you from your goals, and undermine mental toughness. Here’s how to get past common sources of intimidation and run your best, without doubt.
They’re everywhere–at the starting line, on the road, among your running buddies. Don’t just stew over others’ times–tap their achievements for inspiration. Catherine Andrews of Washington, D.C., felt fast among friends but recently joined a running group of six-minute-milers knowing she’d be a laggard. “I joined to be more motivated,” she says. Andrews soon stepped up to tempo work and speed running. “It made a difference within weeks,” she says. If you can’t embrace a faster group, at least quit comparing. “Focus on the true satisfaction of running the way you want to run,” Weiss says.
A tough course
When Beth Strickland of Brooklyn completed her first marathon at Walt Disney World in 6:33, friends prodded her toward the San Francisco Marathon. “It has a six-hour time limit and many hills,” she says. “If I tried and didn’t make it, I’m not sure I’d attempt another.” While Strickland decided to tackle one or two flatter courses first, sports psychologist Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., cautions against getting derailed by general impressions. Instead, prepare. Use online street-view maps to review a course’s geography. If hills are the issue, make them part of your weekly training. Practice mantras to keep your inner dialogue positive.
People who train more
Banish guilt over your presumed lack of dedication by acknowledging that your training reflects your life, not someone else’s. What’s more, training needs are different depending on one’s goals. If you’re truly not satisfied with your results, you’ll have to change your training. “No amount of confidence-building will improve your performance above what you’ve trained to do,” says Doug Hankes, Ph.D., a sports psychologist for the athletic department at Auburn University.
The idea of a first race
“A first-time 5-K can be more daunting for a beginner than a marquee marathon is for an experienced runner,” Hankes says. “There are many more unknowns.” So take comfort in your courage to sign up in the first place. Talk to seasoned runners about their experiences. “Ask what they think would have been helpful, looking back,” Hankes says. But keep the stakes low and focus on having fun. On race day, try running with a friend. “Tying your pace to someone else’s takes pressure off,” Weiss says.
Entering a mega-race
TV cameras, elite athletes, mobs of people, online tracking, mythic features (think Boston’s Heartbreak Hill)–they’re all distractions. “The essence of mental training is getting your head out of the way and letting your body do what it’s trained for,” Hankes says. Build a routine that makes every race feel familiar, honing elements like the amount of socializing before the race, your music playlist, and mantras geared to different sections of the course. Defuse pressure to perform by imagining life a week later. “Don’t make the race more than it is,” he says.
Saying “I’m a runner”
Even after running her first half-marathon last fall, Beth Probst of Iron River, Wisconsin, says she feels uncomfortable calling herself a runner. “I like to be good at what I do,” she says. “If I’m not trying to be a runner, I don’t have to justify being mediocre at it.” Runners of all levels often equate the phrase with speed. But in reality the words represent a lifestyle. Probst should embrace her new identity, says Kamphoff, of The Runner’s Edge in Mankato, Minnesota. Acknowledging one’s effort has benefits: “You start eating better, boosting core strength, telling people about running,” she says. “That’s what makes you a ‘real’ runner.”
Rewire your brain
The right steps to take when you’re worrying too much
Fears and doubts are natural. But dwelling on them–or ignoring them–can prevent you from improving, says sports psychologist Doug Hankes. Be on the lookout for the following warning signs that your fears are holding you back.
1. You’re focused on potential race outcomes, and not the process of improving.
Sure, there’s a chance you won’t set a PR in a race. But your training time is better spent focusing on confidence-building workouts like tempo and long runs rather than worrying about “what if’s.”
2. You’re ruminating about the source of your intimidation.
Performance anxieties need to be dealt with before race day. ID your trouble zone and practice ways to conquer doubts. For example, if in past events you’ve slowed down in the final stretch, finish the last mile or two of each workout fast.
3. You’re questioning your commitment to your sport.
Sounds like you’ve forgotten or misplaced the joy of running that once motivated you. Temporarily set aside any time goals and spend your next few workouts having fun. Do whatever you can to ditch the stress of “performing.”