4 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Racing Season
by Stephen P. Gonzalez, M.S.
Endurance athletes are a particular bunch when it comes to preparing for upcoming races and competitions. From superfood fads to the lightest shoes to the best performance apparel, you spend a lot of time and money perfecting your preparations. Still, there’s one area you may fail to strengthen: your competitive mindset.
Whether you’re a professional competitor or a weekend warrior, training your brain will help you handle unexpected adversity, remain focused, and maintain your motivation to succeed. So as you create your training schedule for the upcoming race season, consider these ideas to improve your mindset on and off the race course.
1. Give Yourself a Window of Opportunity.
Athletes are goal-oriented people. Records, training information like watts or pace, and positioning are hard to ignore when competing, and endurance enthusiasts commonly use this information to track their progress toward goals. But this practice can quickly become a barrier to your next breakthrough performance. How? Think of this scenario: You’ve had one of the best training blocks in quite awhile. Your intervals and tempo efforts all point toward the potential for a peak performance. You make a goal of setting a new personal record at your upcoming race, but as the big day approaches the weather report is calling for extreme winds and rain for the event. During the race you work as hard as you’ve ever worked, but your pace is off. Pretty de-motivating right?
I encourage my clients to consider “goal windows” rather than rigid expectations. Having a reasonable and adjustable range as an indicator of your performance is healthier than abandoning an opportunity to compete simply because factors outside your control are working against you.
I also recommend this practice during training. The next time you want to run 55 miles in a week, consider a 50–60 mile range instead. If you’re having a rough week, go low. If you’re having a great week, kick it up. When you want to set a new PR, consider the course and weather carefully and set a range of time that will challenge you and make you happy.
2. Think Inward and Forward.
Races are, by nature, evaluative situations where athletes are not only aware of their performances, but also those of others. It’s easy for competitors to focus on what others are doing rather than themselves. But in doing so, you miss the opportunity to relax your mind and pay attention to you! Whenever I have clients worrying about other racers, I encourage them to develop a mantra to stop that thinking and channel that energy into useful action. “Inward and Forward” is an easy phrase that reminds you to think of what you can control, to forget the past, and move forward to the next opportunity. You have a limited supply of attention and emotional energy. Why spend it on someone else? Your mind is a powerful tool that can drain or direct you. Know the difference. Recognize when you’re draining and refocus your mind.
3. Do Your Visual Homework.
Visualization and imagery are two popular mental training methods for enhancing performance, but have you ever thought to use these techniques to plan for your race’s course? Do you know what the transition area looks like for your upcoming triathlon and where your bike will be? Do you know where the climbs and descents are in your upcoming cycling race? On the whole, many athletes fail to prepare themselves for the environment they will compete in. Even the best athletes are prone to make errors the first time around.
Consider new trail and ultra marathon running sensation, Sage Canaday. In his first full season on the trail running scene last year, he dominated in most of the races he entered. However, two races got away from Sage. These were races where he was leading, but course conditions deteriorated and the markings became less clear. Being new to the trail scene, Sage went off course and ended up losing time, and in one race the win.
This happens to many of us during strenuous efforts when our mind and body shut down and we just go through the motions. Keep your mind active. Chunk the race into parts, imagine the race course and running through it successfully. Know the turns and tricky parts. Complete training runs or rides on the course if possible. Doing this before competing will keep you from making errors, give you an edge, and help propel you toward the next milestone in your endurance racing career.
4. Maintain a Routine.
Routines are not simply habits, but purposeful actions that ground us because they’re consistent. No matter where you travel for a competition, while your surroundings and environment might change, keeping your routine consistent provides stability. Routines bridge our preparation and translate it into race-day success.
When you create a routine, do so with actions and thoughts that give you the confidence to perform. If doing fast, quick intervals on a trainer prior to a cycling race helps you feel primed, do it! If you know certain foods rarely give you issues, stick with them! Sometimes it’s smart to pack your own food rather than rely on what you might have access to while traveling.
Maintain a good sleep schedule and “load” your sleep days in the week leading up to your event, not just the night before. Make sure your equipment is well maintained and have a checklist to avoid race-day surprises. In the end, this will give you peace of mind and allow you to focus your attention on competing.
Stephen P. Gonzalez is a sport psychology consultant, USATF Level 1 and Brooks ID program coach, and a former NCAA Division I runner. For comments and questions contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website elitemindsetconsulting.com. Stephen resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and newborn son.