By Matt Fitzgerald—A running race is a very emotional experience. At the start there is a lot of anxiety—fear of impending discomfort and possible failure. In the middle there is often a lot of doubt and discouragement. And, if you’re having a good day, the last part of the race is exciting and joyful.
The various emotions we experience in races are not purely reactive, however. They also influence our performance. Generally speaking, positive emotions enhance performance while negative emotions reduce performance. Obviously, when things are going well you are likely to feel positive, and this emotion in turn will help you continue to perform well. But some runners do a better job of staying positive when things aren’t going well; these runners are better able to salvage races that are teetering on the brink of disaster.
A study published earlier this year in the European Journal of Applied Physiology reported that cyclists performed better in a time trial when they were made to believe they were doing 5 percent better than they really were and fared worse when they were told they were going 5 percent slower than they were in reality. The authors of the study speculated that emotion may have played a role in the effect of both positive and negative feedback on performance, so they designed a follow-up study to test their hunch.
Seven competitive cyclists participated in the second study. As in the first one, all were asked to complete a time trial on two occasions. In one time trial they were given false positive performance feedback and in the other they were given false negative feedback. But this time the subjects were asked to rate their emotional states as well.
Interestingly, in this second study these was no difference in performance between the two time trials. However, there were physiological differences. Blood glucose levels were higher in the trial with false positive feedback, whereas oxygen consumption and blood lactate were higher in the trial with false negative feedback. Emotions were different too. The cyclists gave higher scores for anxiety, gloominess, sluggishness, downheartedness, and effort to regulate emotion and lower scores for happiness and calmness in the false negative time trial. These findings suggest that disappointing performance feedback caused the cyclists to feel negative emotions that in turn increased physiological strain. While the increased strain did not reduce performance in this particular study, it could have, and in all likelihood it did reduce performance in the prior study.
There are many tricks you can employ to stay positive in races and throughout the training process for the sake of better performance. Here are five of them:
1. Expect the worst.
What? Expect the worst? That doesn’t sound like a very good way to stay positive in a race! Actually, it is. Research by Carl Foster at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse has shown that athletes generally feel better in race-type efforts if they expect to suffer a lot beforehand. It’s when they unrealistically expect or hope to feel terrific that the inevitable suffering they do experience makes them panic and fall apart. Always brace yourself for a big challenge before races and you’ll have a better chance of staying in control of your mood.
2. Choose secondary goals.
Most of us start races with a best-case-scenario goal in mind. That’s fine, but it should not be your only goal. You just never know what your body is going to be capable of on any given day. You can do everything right in your preparation and in your race execution and still fall short of your highest expectations because your body simply happens to be “flat” on that day.
Typically it is apparent within the first mile or two of a race whether you’re going to have a good day or a flat one. Discovering that you’re flat can be quite discouraging, but it will be less so if you have a more attainable secondary goal to fall back on.
3. Don’t frown.
When runners are really hurting in races you can usually tell just by looking at their faces. But a study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent found that ugly faces not only express suffering during exercise, they also increase it. That’s right: You’ll actually feel a little better in races if you relax your face and try to appear totally comfortable to those around you.
4. Choose a “crisis thought”.
Olympian Kara Goucher chooses a “power word” for every major race. When her mood starts to darken during the most challenging parts of the race she calls upon her power word for comfort and strength. Other runners have special mantras that they use repeatedly for a similar purpose in all of their races and even in tough works.
I myself prefer a tough-love approach. When I start to feel sorry for myself in races and tough workouts I tell myself, “Man up!” Choose your own “crisis thought” that gives you comfort and strength when you need it.
5. Train your way.
The more you’re able to enjoy a race, the better you’re likely to perform. Likewise, the more you enjoy the entire training process, the more improvement you’re likely to derive from it. There is more than one way to train for races. Don’t feel obligated to train in a certain way. Free yourself to train in the way you most enjoy. If you hate running around a track, don’t. If you love running up mountains, do it often. You’ll invest more in workouts you enjoy and thus get more out of them.
On the other hand, your training approach should not be completely self-indulgent. You need to face your fears and tackle some of your least favorite workouts in training or else you won’t be fully prepared to tackle the challenge of racing. In a recent interview, Kara Goucher said, “I would say once if not twice a week I get really nervous [for workouts].” While unpleasant, that anxiety is a good thing, because completing workouts that are hard enough to make Goucher nervous beforehand makes her less fearful in races. “I can look back and to ask myself to run a PR doesn’t seem scary because I’ve proven to myself now consistently that I’m ready to do that,” she said.
Follow Goucher’s example and scare yourself a little in training so you’re less scared when the start horn sounds.