We’ve all been there. Feeling like a boss, cruising past competitors, basically feeling like a badass. And then, for no reason whatsoever, things start to change. It all goes sideways. Whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, race days have a way of bringing out the best — and the worst — in our brains. It’s how we react to the situation that defines us as athletes.
Coach and author Matt Fitzgerald knows that getting through a race isn’t just about your legs. In fact, he knows that most of your race — especially those tough parts — are in your head. We chatted about his latest book, “How Bad Do You Want It,” which details the psychology of sport and what it takes to be a winner.
Here are some highlights and tips to help you get through the darkest parts of any race.
Tough Mile Marker: 2.8 (aka the final 500 meters)
Why: These races are pretty darn short — Olympians race well under 15 minutes; fast masters runners take 20 minutes; and new runners finish at around the 30-minute mark. No matter where you are speedwise, the last surge to finish strong in a 5K is the hardest part of the race.
How to move past it: Before you even start, brace yourself, says Fitzgerald. “In races of all distances, if you run it right, you suffer. The suffering is the perception of effort. It just goes up and up until you reach your maximal tolerance, hopefully right at the finish line. There are two layers to that: how you feel and how you feel about how you feel. According to Fitzgerald, the second is the only thing you can control. You can’t control how you actually feel, but it’s the way you interpret it that matters. “If you interpret it in a positive way, you’ll feel better,” he says. So when you hit that last 500 meters and you’re hurting, just know that everyone else is struggling, too — you’re almost there, embrace the hurt and cross the finish line.
Tough Mile Marker: 3.1
Why: About halfway through is when you might realize that you went out at a pace that’s too close to your 5K pace. You still have half a race to go, and you’re starting to lag.
How to move past it: The struggle is inevitable, Fitzgerald says. He adds that if you head into any race assuming it’s going to be the hardest race of your life, you’re setting yourself up to deal with whatever comes your way during the race. “Expect a dogfight to achieve your goals,” he says.
The Half Marathon
Tough Mile Marker: 1
Why: From a pace-setting perspective, the first mile is the toughest because your legs are struggling to find a comfortable rhythm in this not-too-long-but-not-too-short event. Half-marathons are tricky to pace because they’re double a 10K, but only half of a marathon, so your pace will be somewhere between the two.
How to move past it: Positive self-talk. Most people are familiar with this, Fitzgerald says, but it’s hard to remember when you’re battling during a race. “It’s unavoidable to think negative thoughts when you begin to struggle,” he admits, but, “you could allow those negative thoughts to happen and perform worse. Or, you can choose to be aware of them, catch them and expunge them while replacing them with positive alternatives. People trained in positive self-talk have been shown to perform better.” This is why you’ll want to have a mantra heading into a race.
Tough Mile Marker: 20.2
Why: It’s not a question of whether your mind will start to fade, it’s more a question of when. For most people, it happens in the last 6 miles. You’ve passed the 20 mile marker, and people are starting to cheer that you’re almost done. How little do they know…
How to move past it: “The amount of time you spend not feeling good can be immense,” Fitzgerald says. There’s a fair bit of suffering in a marathon. You’ll want to be able to focus your attention during a race. “There’s a lot of thinking that goes on, so being ready for it can be helpful,” he adds. “What you want to do is keep your focus as external as possible. Instead of obsessing about how you feel and how you’re moving, focus on your pace, focus on your competition, focus on getting to benchmarks — all external focuses. If you turn the lens in, your negative thoughts are more likely to creep in.” External attention reduces perceived effort, so if you’re thinking internally, it’s been shown that you’ll feel like the same pace is harder. On the other hand, don’t focus on birdwatching, he says: You need to still be focused on the race.
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