Think Fast

For decades, sports psychologists have told runners that focusing on the act of running is the best way to chase PBs. But what are you supposed to think about? New research suggests that certain mid-run thought patterns are helpful, while others can do harm. And the more mental tactics you practice, the more likely you are to have one that works in any race situation, says researcher Noel Brick, Ph.D. “Inexperienced runners use distraction not because it’s effective, but because they don’t know any other options,” Brick says. “I think of it as cards in a deck: If one isn’t working, which will I play next?” To master the mental side of your next race, start training to use these tactics now.



Elite runners are masters of “metacognition,” or thinking about thinking, according to Brick: They plan what they should be thinking about at different stages of a race in order to maximise their performance, and they practice those thought patterns in training. After the race, they assess which strategies were successful and which weren’t. Did you start falling off goal pace when you focused on staying relaxed, and then pick it back up when you started looking ahead to the runner in front of you? Make note of that pattern. “To know whether a strategy works for you, you’ve got to self-monitor,” Brick says.



“Can you maintain this pace to the finish line?” is the fundamental question in racing. To answer it, you need to periodically assess how you’re feeling, then slow down or speed up accordingly. But if you focus nonstop on how you’re feeling, that can make the run feel harder. Instead, Brick suggests, do a periodic body scan – at each kilometre marker in a marathon, for example – and if all’s well, turn your attention back to other matters like your competitors, your progress along the course, or your running form.


Experiment in training to find form cues that help you feel smooth and fast. Try focusing on maintaining a quick cadence and light steps, keeping your shoulders down and arms swinging freely, or keeping your face relaxed and your brow unfurrowed. When you turn your attention outward, break the race into chunks (each kilometre of a 5K, each 5K of a marathon, and so on) and set specific pre-race goals for each, adjusting as needed mid-race.



For 2:28 marathoner Annie Bersagel, “calm confidence” is the mid-race mantra; for 2:10 marathoner Ryan Vail, it’s “one more kilometre.” Your internal dialogue isn’t just a response to how you’re feeling; it also helps shape how you feel. Thinking that you feel like crap is, to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a 2014 study, researchers in England showed that positive self-talk improved time-to-exhaustion by 18 per cent in a cycling test. Draw up a list of mantras to use at different points in a race (e.g., “Feeling good!” early on, “Push through this!” in the closing kilometres), and try them in training to determine which feel comfortable. Then keep practicing them until they become automatic.
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