A FEW sentences about your best workout. Fifteen minutes jotting down your goals and concerns regarding the next day’s contest. A chronicle of good days and bad, disappointments and successes. Could these simple acts of writing mean the difference between a PB and a subpar performance?
Megan Vaccaro, a decorated cross country runner who now races on the roads, finds that getting her thoughts down on paper helps her stick to her race plan. Ernesto Ramirez, a 1:13 half marathoner, says that his pre-race writing helps him strategise in more depth. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time champion at 5000m, knows that when she writes in a diary, she sleeps a lot better the night before her race.
These three athletes have added an effective strategy to their repertoire – writing in a diary.
What is it about writing that helps an athlete?
“Negative self-talk and rumination can occur in athletic situations,” says psychologist Sian Beilock, director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. “Getting the worries down on paper makes them less likely to pop up and distract us in an important competition situation. It’s akin to downloading them from the mind.”
Beilock’s conclusion is based on a study she did with groups of student test-takers. Students in one group wrote down their thoughts and feelings about an exam right before taking it, while a control group did no such writing. The students who wrote performed significantly better on the exam than the control group, and those who were the most prone to test anxiety showed the most improvement over their past test performances.
Runners who have used writing in their preparation find these benefits apply to their performance as well. “I can be relaxed the day of the race,” Fleshman says. “Anxiety comes from just not having verbalised. It’s almost like your brain is full of gibberish. Sometimes you just need to translate it. You’re writing your own story, really. It makes you feel in control.”
To gain confidence before competition, Fleshman says, “I look at the work I’ve done, and I also look at my goals-processing pages so I can remember why I’m actually doing this, which helps quiet the noise, negative thoughts and extra nonsense that pops up right before a big race.”
Ramirez says that the day before a race, he spends time writing about things that could happen. “You can’t predict everything,” he says, “but you can prepare for some situations. And then as the race plays out, you can fall back on your thinking [from] the night before and race according to plan.”
Vaccaro says she’s a visual person, so writing goals and plans down helps to lay them out where she can see and process them more effectively.
Writing also helps Fleshman scale her expectations. “I spend time processing – ‘OK, where am I really in my training? What can I really expect from myself? What’s reasonable? What’s extraordinary?’ – and then line up expectation with that,” she says.
Besides race preparation, regular writing can help throughout your season. “Writing is a way to learn,” says Richard Kent, director of the University of Maine Writing Project and author of Writing on the Bus, a guide for sports teams using journals. He has worked with many types of athletes to amplify their understanding of their craft.
Kent offers this example: A runner writes down what he considers to be the perfect preparation for the 24 hours leading up to a race. After his race, he writes about his actual preparation and then compares that to his perfect scenario. He quickly sees the areas where he can tighten up his process.
Kent has athletes reflect about their preseason build-up and goals; training during the season; struggles; hopes and concerns on and off the field; and post-season evaluation.
“It’s a way to find patterns in your training and your running life so that you can find out what works and what doesn’t,” Fleshman says. “A lot of people just follow a program and just go out and run. And then they’re taken by surprise when they get hurt or sick. If you have it all written down, you can actually look at the data and say, ‘Why did this happen?’ ”
You don’t have to be a Hemingway to channel your inner scribe. Your writing can be as simple as adding a few lines of comments to the entries in your running diary. The main rule is to turn off your impulse to edit. Just get your thoughts down on paper without caring about form or punctuation. Remember, the journal is for you – no one else will read it.
“It takes about a month to get in the habit of it,” Fleshman says. “And even if you’re not a person who writes in it every single day, you just do whatever you can. It’s still going to make a difference.”
What to Write About
To help you get started, here are a few sample questions to prompt your writing.
Before a race
- What are my goals for this race?
- How do I see my race playing out?
- What are my concerns?
- Based on my recent training and racing, what are realistic expectations for this race?
- What am I looking forward to in this race?
During the season
- How are my workouts making me feel?
- Are there aspects of my lifestyle or training that I need to tweak?
- How is my confidence level? Can I do anything to move it higher?
- Did I execute my race plan?
- Did I meet my expectations?
Before and after the season
- What am I looking forward to this season?
- What are my goals for the season? What improvements should I make in my lifestyle, training and racing?
- What is my postseason assessment? What are things I know I can improve?
- What were the highlights of my season?