Your lucky socks could be helping you run faster – or they could be holding you back.
If you follow Olympian Molly Huddle on Instagram, you know she has a secret – beyond arduous training – to her successful performances: race nails.
Since year six basketball, Huddle has painted relevant designs on her fingertips the night before a competition. The American record holder in the 10,000 metres prefers to handle her own manicure rather than hitting the salon.
“Even though they look much better when someone else does them, I like to compare the process to adult coloring books,” she says – meditative and relaxing, shifting her mind into competition mode.
Many runners have quirky pre-race rituals. The night before a race, ultramarathoner Becca Menke, 28, sleeps in the soccer tryout jersey she got when she was 9. “I made the team and it’s become my lucky charm,” she says.
Others have special gear for race day itself, from a hair bow with rockets on it – which 17-year-old runner Abigail Mauermann says help her run “rocket fast” – to the jersey runner Adam Engst, 49, has worn in nearly every race since year 10 in 1983.
The 1980s nylon fits just right and reminds Engst of past positive finishes. “I won’t wear it sometimes if I don’t think I’m going to run well,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to jinx it with a bad performance.”
Running well on any single day is hard enough. Why do we add a layer of nail polish, lucky shorts, and nostalgia on top of it?
1. Good luck charms can instill confidence…
Sports psychology experts say prerace rituals decrease anxiety and even boost feel-good brain chemicals that really do enhance performance. Some research even suggests superstitious behaviors benefit athletes in uncertain or high-pressure situations.
2. …or destroy it.
If you’re not careful, they can hold you back. Say you find yourself rattled if your phone dies before you play your power song, and you lose focus and run poorly. “Those behaviours have control over us, instead of us having control over them,” says Dr Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist.
3. We’re conditioned to think this way.
Runners typically develop prerace routines to prepare themselves mentally and physically to perform, Graef says. Dynamic warm-ups, laying your clothes out the night before, planning the timing and contents of your breakfast – those are all typical ways to prep mentally and physically.
Sometimes, it’s when your routine goes awry that new rituals spring up. Runner Janessa Dohse, 31, recalls the morning she realised all her sports bras were at the laundromat. “I took a taxi to Target, bought the first sports bra I found, put it on in the dressing room, ran to the race start with minutes to spare, and PBed in the 10K,” she says. “It’s my lucky sports bra now.”
Same with 50-year-old Eliot Ephraim, who once hastily packed for a marathon and arrived without shorts. He found a store open late and paid $12 for a pair of shorts. He had a good race and wore the shorts so often afterward his friend made a bobblehead doll of Ephraim incorporating them.
These associations arise due to classical conditioning – the dog-and-dinner-bell type, which assumes because something happened once or twice before it will happen again. “There’s a concept of order, a sequence to it,” says sport psychologist Dr Stan Beecham, author of Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success.
4. We search for scapegoats after bad performances.
Another factor: feeling prepared but then failing can create a discomfort – a cognitive dissonance – that causes you to scramble to make sense of it all. It often feels easier to ascribe bonks to unlucky socks than to admit you didn’t fuel properly or train well, says sport psychologist Dr Gloria Petruzzelli.
Sometimes, that prevents bad days from crushing you. “Even if on some level we realise that’s baloney, it helps us carry on with confidence – oh, it was just that one thing,” she says. “As long as I control that one thing next time, I’m good to go.”
5. These prophecies are powerful and self-fulfilling.
However, what Graef calls “illusory correlations” – false beliefs about cause and effect – can cause runners to freak out unnecessarily. Say the washing machine eats one of your lucky socks or you run out of time to cue up the Black Eyed Peas.
While not a single study links not hearing “Let’s Get It Started” to slower race times, you might actually perform worse because you believe you will. “The lucky charm and ritual has significance and meaning because you give it significance and meaning,” Beecham says.
6. So you need to take them with a grain of salt. Here’s how:
Beecham advises crafting your prerace routine with caution: “Be careful what you give significance and meaning to,” he says. To keep the power of habits and talismans in perspective:
Take inventory. “Sometimes we just lack awareness,” Graef says. Make a list of all the things you “have to” do before a race. Then determine what purpose each serves and if you can pare some down. “You might realise – I’ve run well without that, I can run well without it in the future,” he says.
Katie Mackey, 29, simplified her routine after high school. “I would wear the same socks to every race and use lucky body wash the night before,” she says. “It was exhausting to keep up.” Now, she stays as flexible as possible, which she feels gives her a better chance to run well.
Plan ahead. Make a detailed race-week and race-day plan that incorporates the things you do feel are vital, Petruzzelli says. A little preparation can make sure you fit everything in and decrease your odds of mishaps.
Build your cognitive toolkit. The athletes with the most mental strength have a wide variety of ways to deal with the unexpected, including disruptions to their prerace routine, Petruzzelli says. Spend time in training practising a few strategies for keeping your composure, such as using mantras, physical cues like keeping your shoulders down, or feeling grateful for each kilometre.
Embrace the butterflies. “Anxiety is human nature; we’re never getting rid of it,” Graef says. Instead of viewing it as an intrusive obstacle to be banished with rituals, acknowledge it exists but don’t let it derail you. “Realise that regardless of whether I’m experiencing anxiety or not, that is not going to get in the way of me putting one foot in front of the other for as long as I need to at the rate that I want to.”
Detach with intention. If you can, take another step back and remove the pressure on yourself to do well in the first place, Beecham says. “Go into the competition saying, I don’t care if I run really fast or not, I’m just going to be fully and completely there and see what happens,” he says. “Sometimes what happens is, it puts you in the zone and creates the ultimate performance.”