I’ve been spending a lot of time considering how we control our thoughts and focus lately. If you’ve been following along, recently I was talking about how we respond to others and how we feel during races and how we control our own overall training picture in our heads. Something in this triggered me to start thinking about our old friend, whom we call pre-race anxiety, and how that problematic emotion relates to these topics. So I ask you today, “what’s in your thought space before a big race?”
Let’s start with a concept of the thought space itself. This is the active part of your thinking. It’s what you’re thinking about, pondering, considering, mulling over, and performing strateg-ery on. It’s the stuff that keeps you up at night because you are expending mental energy pouring over it. We’ll distinguish this from things that are going on in your subconscious mind, of which you may not even be aware. I bring up this distinction, because my first instruction is always to tell people to deal with pre-race anxiety by bringing the “fear” that they are feeling into their conscious minds and converting it into thoughts of excitement and energy. This forces them to move these thoughts and feelings into the foreground and actually think about them.
People process information and think about things in vastly different ways from one another. Not everyone has what we would consider the same level of “presence of mind” of what’s going on in their world. To give you an example of this, I was speaking with a runner recently who told me that he was wearing “whatever they gave me in the running store” on his feet. Contrast this with many other people that would be able to articulate to me which of their four pairs of running shoes that they have to choose from for a particular workout and why they would choose this pair over that one. This is due to the level of conscious thought that each of these people are devoting to their shoe selection. This is not to say that one is better than the other — or even that one is a faster runner than the other — but they are simply processing the situation in different ways.
So let’s think about how, when and why our race preparation for a major race should enter our thought space. If you follow along with this thinking you may find that you’ll have less stress as you come up to the race and less (or more controlled) pre-race anxiety.
The first time that a race enters our thought space at all is likely when we decide to do the race and sign up for it. This might be a flash idea or something that we’ve really considered, but I bring this up because today sometimes these decisions must be made many, many months in advance. Many marathons and triathlons sell out the day they open registration, so in order to get into the race at all you may have to make a very early decision. This means that this distant event may already move into your active thought process many, many months before it occurs. And this is not necessarily a good thing. Moving too early onto the active focus about a race can lead us to really build up apprehension as it starts getting nearer. You may feel that you’ve been “working on this for such a long time” that you’re “freaking out” by the time the race rolls around.
What I would suggest is that you place a distant race on the back-burner for awhile. Do what early planning you need to, whether that means booking travel or getting your training plans in place, but then move the race gently out of your mind for awhile until say 4-6 months before the race at the earliest.
When you move into the space of 4-6 months out, what I would suggest is that you start to “say” your training focus is on this specific event. Now you’ve committed to it. This is what you are actually working on. But again you’re not devoting huge mental energy to thinking about the event yet. It is still a distance project. You should at this point thoroughly understand your training needs and have a clear idea of things like what gear you’ll need and what type of terrain and weather with which you are ultimately preparing to deal.
When you get three months out (in the range of 14-11 weeks), your training focus should now be for this specific event above any other event that you have on the schedule. This should be true even if you have other small races as part of your training. These are something you will deal with that particular weekend, but they shouldn’t be occupying much of your thought space. Your “A” race is now squarely your focus, although you should be thinking about it in a healthy way. “I am getting prepared. I have plenty of time. I will be ready.
In the time about 8-6 weeks out before the race, you are now in the final stages of your preparation. You should now be doing things like watching videos about the course that other athletes or coaches have posted, reading reviews by other athletes and talking to people that have done the event before. This is the time that you are starting to visualize the day. You’ve caught anything that you missed in earlier preparations. All of your travel and gear is set. You’re learning everything you can to prepare yourself and peaking in your physical preparation.
The last two phases are the most critical. In the weeks around 5-3 weeks out from the race, you will be tempted to move your big event into your thought space all of the time. If you do this, be very mindful of the fact that you are devoting mental energy to this exercise. If you are thinking of nothing but your event, then try to make room for other things in that thought space of yours. Get your mind off of it. If you are thinking about it, make sure that you are thinking positive thoughts and moving yourself into the “zone of excitement” as I like to call it. This is when you say “I’m so stoked!” when someone asks you about the event.
Finally, we move into the last two weeks before the race. This is typically a whirlwind and is ultimately a bit of a danger zone. Your physical preparation is complete and you’ll likely be tapering. This means you have less physical stimulation than normal and you will have more “down time” to devote to freaking yourself out or driving people around you crazy by talking of nothing but your race. This is where you need to be actively thinking about what’s happening in your thought space. You need to be living in the “zone of excitement” and when the Boogeyman (fear) enters your mind, you need to kick him out to focus on positive thoughts.
These are lot of words that describe a fairly simple concept: you control what’s in your thought space. The control of your thought space starts with an awareness of it. If you don’t like what’s in it, then remove those thoughts and replace them with something more helpful to your life. Keeping an active awareness of your thoughts is essential. Understanding the balance between getting yourself mentally prepared and driving yourself nuts with worry is something that comes through practice and mental focus.
I hope before your next big race if I were to ask you what’s in your thought space the answer would be, “I’m living in the zone of excitement coach and I feel prepared, ready and relaxed.” If you’re there, you’re happy. If not, then give me a call.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News
You must be logged in to post a comment.