In training for the "big" race, you logged more miles than ever on the roads, track, and trails. This race build-up, you even adjusted your nutrition, went to bed early, lifted weights and incorporated yoga. The "big" race goals were well within your grasp according to your workouts. Even though you tapered well and did your normal warm-up for the race, you felt sluggish and tired in the first mile of the competition. As the race progressed, you became less motivated and only focused on the pain you were experiencing. Needless to say, you were not able to access your hard-earned fitness on race day.
The race day failure described above could have been caused by a training error in the build-up, but the more likely culprit is race day anxiety. From what I have observed and learned in my many years of coaching, "big" race day anxiety is caused by over-arousal of the nervous system.
The optimal Arousal Level
As you can see from the graph below, there is an optimal arousal level for every race or event.
If you are sluggish, or not motivated at all, you will be under-aroused and performance will suffer. But for the "big" race, being under-aroused is not usually the problem. It is actually over-arousal for the "big" race that causes anxiety or "choking". This state of arousal has an extremely negative impact on motor control of the muscles. You are "paralyzed by fear" (at least partially), running economy suffers, and these things encourage the onset of unexpected early fatigue. An athlete experiencing this early fatigue due to anxiety becomes discouraged and negative thoughts spiral out of control. Once this self-reinforcing, downward cascade of muscle fatigue and negative thoughts take control, it is almost impossible to then give a best effort.
The runner described above arrived at the starting line in excellent physical condition but without an adequate mental prep plan to deal with the expectations of the "big" race. Toeing the start line at the optimal arousal level, and then maintaining that arousal level throughout the race, is a skill that can be mastered with frequent practice. When operating at the optimal arousal level, it is possible to access your fitness and ability on the "big" race day.
During my 30 years of coaching experience I have learned that one of the most important factors determining your arousal level on race day is: How much time you spent thinking about the upcoming race. From what I have observed most runners think very little about the early season and tune-up races. In some instances this might cause under-arousal on race day, but definitely not over-arousal and the resulting anxiety. As the season progresses though, and the "big" race looms in the immediate future, the tendency is to dwell on the race. This over-thinking in the days leading up to the race is a primary cause of over-arousal.
Establish your mental training practices early in the season
To avoid the mistake of over-thinking, and the resulting over-arousal, establish your mental training volume early in the season. Varying the volume of physical training is incredibly important, but not so for mental training. It is with this in mind that I developed the Coach Henner 5:00 Mental Drill. I advise my athletes to only think about their upcoming race for five minutes daily during a run. By sticking to the 5:00 Mental Drill throughout the early season and right into the "big" race, my athletes have been able to avoid over-thinking and the detrimental effects of over-arousal.
Establishing mental training volume early in the season and then having the discipline to stick to that pattern is very important in avoiding over-arousal on the "big" race day. Now that the the duration of that daily mental training is established and maintained, we need to answer the question: What to think during your mental training? I will answer that question in Part 2 of WIN THE MENTAL GAME.