Interview: How to optimize your performance on race day

This is the second of a three part series presenting the insights of sports psychology expert and author of Amazon best seller, ‘ The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive (Rodale, 2014)’; Jim Afremow, Ph.D. Today Jim talks about how to set smart goals and optimize your performance on race day.

Question: Rundamentalists
Why do athletes tend to set themselves unhelpful goals?

Answer: Jim Afremow
Goals are very important - they light the path that will get you where you want to be. There are well-established guidelines for building goals and these five questions will help you ensure your goals are golden.

– Is my goal specific?
– Is my goal measurable?
– Is my goal positive?
– Is my goal inspiring?
– Is my goal displayed?

The final one displayed is often neglected… We use the phrase: “Think It... Then Ink It!”…. Put your goals where you (and your loved ones…aka support crew) will see them every single day…. For example on your refrigerator door.

We advocate using a three level system:

– Bronze - symbolizes a good outcome based on current form and recent past performances
– Silver - would represent a significant improvement
– Gold - for a runner this would mean achieving a personal record (PR) time or a major performance breakthrough”

Rundamentalists comment

A marathon runner with a PR of 4 hours and 2 minutes and a time last year of 4:15…assuming their training is going well might ‘Display’ their goals following Jim’s approach as:

4:15 (a year older but maintaining my form!).A range is also easier to work towards over 26.2 miles…it might be better displayed as 4:10 to 4:20

4.02 to 4:10 (older but faster)

Under 4 Hours (a significant milestone is achieved…plus a new PR)

This method allows you to always aim for a personal podium finish rather than face the disappointment of missing a single fixed goal.

Q: Rundamentalists
What advice do you give athletes about Race Day?

A: Jim Afremow
It is essential to minimize the magnitude of race day. We should ideally take our training more seriously and treat the ‘Big Day’ as just a fancy practice. On the start line aim to be the loosest runner……look relaxed…..breathe the easiest. It is always important to under-react to issues you cannot control. Good preparation helps but you should also develop a  ‘solution-focused’ mindset where you can quickly: Improvise – Adapt – Overcome. Panic is never an option…think: “nothing will phase me”….”I can roll with the punches”.

You can also practice visualization on ‘bad stuff’ – imagine how it will feel and the action steps you will take if there is a heatwave on the day of the race. Always expect the best but be prepared for anything.

Rundamentalists comment: Whilst it can be tempting to skip workouts on horrible weather days…get out on the road with the positive thought that the experience will make you mentally tougher. Many runners also find that walking or running the course prior to races can be helpful. The Evanston running club is planning a field trip to run the last 6 miles of the Chicago Marathon course on a Sunday morning in September as a dress rehearsal. Hopefully a positive spin on the phrase – familiarity breeds contempt.

Q: Rundamentalists
What are your thoughts on pre-race rituals?

A: Jim Afremow
In my view there is an important difference between routines and rituals. With routines you are firmly in charge, however, with rituals or superstitions you are not in control. For example, laying out your race day kit in a certain order or having the same breakfast gives you certainty and structure….. Lucky socks - not so much.

Q: Rundamentalists
What about mantras?

A: Jim Afremow
My experience is that they actually work for many athletes…. The best ones tend to be short and very specific to the situation, such as when going up a steep hill or moving through a rough patch. Runners might go with:-

– fresh and fast
– feeling good
– easy speed
– light and quick
– relax and roll

You should also practice mantras in training…. The key is to experiment and find out what works for you.

Rundamentalists idea - during your training build up to the big race try a ‘mantra of the week’ with your running crew to see which ones work best for you. I borrowed one from a UK toilet paper television commercial that still works if I feel myself tightening up in a race: “Soft…strong and very long. 

In our next episode, Jim talks about mental techniques for coping with injury, the power of selective amnesia and his thoughts on Zen applied to running.

"Goals are very important - they light the path that will get you where you want
to be".

Dr Jim Afremow Ph.D.


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