The Power of the Mind and Good Race Preparation

The Power of the Mind and Good Race Preparation
How Positive Affirmations and Day Before Race Day Activities Help Athletes Improve Performance

By Alix Shutello

I decided to run a social experiment on myself a few days before the Jackson Hole Half Marathon in Jackson, Wyoming (September 5, 2015). The week leading up to the race I had been absolutely bludgeoned by bad news – learning of medical complications of my father-in-law (who is much better now), a grueling work schedule, and other more personal issues regarding running complications I’ve been having and I was not feeling so good about things. I  started worrying about my performance at the half because this run would be a test of how I compete at the Baltimore Marathon next month.

I decided to listen to positive affirmations began some Web research. As an adoptee who has dealt with my own self identity, I have found that “positive self-talk” is a very effective way to build self esteem and confidence. Research suggests that positive affirmations need to be part of a larger wellness program and that may be true, but I tested and theory about using positive affirmations to readjust my thinking before my race and I found the results to be profoundly encouraging. And to support my hypothesis that positive self-talk would improve my race day performance, a study entitled Belief in Self-Talk and Dynamic Balance Performance stated that “those who used positive self-talk [for athletic performance] performed significantly better than those who used negative/mixed self-talk.” Also, in the article, Positive Self-Talk,  “In sports psychology, the goal is to replace the negative self talk with more positive messages” in order to improve performance. I believed that by listening to positive affirmations only 3 days before the race would help. And I was right.

Now, mind you,  you cannot change your psyche, solve your problems and become a totally positive person in 3 days but you can certainly change your mindset. As many of you know, endurance sports are about how strong you are mentally even more so than how strong you are physically, and that belief in yourself takes months and years to take effect. However, it’s amazing what you can do in a few days if you simply open your mind and commit to having a great race day.

So let me tell you about my issues. I’ve been trying to figure out what is now becoming a chronic issue with calf cramping. I’ve tried different types of electrolytes, more water, less water, more stretching (as I have tight calves), more salt, less salt, more sleep, different types of stretching, and the list goes on and on. Somewhere around 10 miles I start to have complications and it becomes very mentally debilitating when you reach of point when you are running with excruciating pain. My last 17-mile run turned into a 12.5 mile run and two-mile painful walk back to my car.  The week before that I ran 15 miles with no incident but the week before that I had problems and ran 13.4 miles before I cramped up.  Dealing with this calf pain has been maddening and it had started to cripple my confidence.  I needed to do something other than pop electrolyte pills, stretch, and hope for the best.

So where did the self talk come in handy? Well, I decided if my physical self was failing me, by God my mental self wouldn’t. A few days before the race I started listening to positive affirmations with one goal in mind – I was going to finish the half marathon without problems. That was my goal. It didn’t matter to me if it was reasonable – it was my goal and I had done the right amount of distance training so this wasn’t a matter of fitness. I just needed to do some mental readjusting, relax, and kick ass. It was really that simple….or was it?

The day before the race I focused on relaxing. I followed my normal regime of resting, drinking fluids, eating and laying out my race clothes. I drove to the race start and the race course, planned my race day activities, and listened to my affirmations (I downloaded a few podcasts) a few times a day. The podcasts were long enough (2 or more minutes) that the repeating claims that I was awesome, among other things, by random male voices was very encouraging. Soon, I was able to push out the sad feelings of my father-in-law, who thankfully was much better, as well as shove out the worries of work and my potential calf issues. I then added on a new goal – to finish the race and beat a specific person who I met the day before.

When race day came, it was dark and raining! However, I could compartmentalize that because the weather had nothing to do with my calves. I had been telling myself how great I was through these affirmations so I really was mentally strong and it really helped that I didn’t see my target (the person who I decided I would beat) at the starting line. I allowed myself to chat with a couple of other runners and when the gun went off I waited a few miles until people fell into formation and my vendetta grew.  I wanted to beat a whole host of people….which is exactly what I did, picking them off one by one.

Good news: There were no problems!  Yeah I had to fiddle around with my new Hydra Pouch and threw some water in my face before I figured out how to drink from this little thing and yes, I had to keep stuffing it into my shorts (that’s a story for another time), but I was so mentally ready to kick ass I just kinda flew through the miles.

The race got interesting at mile 6 or so. I passed a few people I targeted but there was this one Marathon Maniac (she was wearing the T-shirt so that’s what I called her) who I was working on passing. I bated my time, and by mile 6.5 I passed her but man, that took about 4 miles of me staring at the back of her head. However, as I was claiming my prize, the nice solitude and quiet of the race was destroyed by two people just yapping away and who were just ruining my mojo. (No offense but I hate race talking – run, don’t talk, to the finish line!)

Now normally, my negative self would get all crazy if I wasn’t mentally strong and I’d worry about these two “talkers” passing me because they were closing in on me very quickly.  I simply said, “You will not pass me,” and, after listening to them for about 5 minutes, I was determined enough that I pulled so far enough ahead of them I never heard from them again. But you see, it’s because I believed I could. The positive self-talk allowed me to concentrate on strategy instead of worry if my body would be in pain any time soon. In fact, the issue of my calves never came into play because I was having so much targeting runners to pass in front of me.

By mile 7, however, I figured I’d be alone for a while until this fabulous female passed me after coming from nowhere. After she passed she really started to haul ass. It was beautiful to watch because she was so strong so I kept my eye on her. A few miles later I zoned out a bit and lost her and said out loud, “Where the F**K do you go?” Of course, the one time I say anything another runner was right on my shoulder and heard that. Lovely. I shook that off and pushed forward.

And then the finish line came…..

Ok so what happened to my calves? They didn’t hurt during the race at all! I felt them get tight as the race went on but there was no pain.  At mile 10 I got tired but I concentrated at how enjoyable the race had been to that point. My calves, as I decided the day before, were not going to be an issue during the race.  I pushed on and ran hard as the course race sloped up and up toward the finish line at Teton Village.

Frankly I just never gave any thought to how my calves would feel after the race. The minute I stopped running my calves started to hurt so badly I couldn’t stand up.   Holy Mother, the pain was excruciating.  Several hours later I was able to go hiking but man, post race I wanted someone to come and saw my legs off below the knee. The pain was THAT bad.

It didn’t matter, for on this day, I achieved my goals.

Alix Shutello is the CEO of Endurance Racing Magazine and an avid half marathoner and trail runner. Please consider a $12 subscription to Endurance Racing Magazine. 

Reference Articles

Performance Affirmations by Fast Larry

Do Positive Affirmations Work?

Belief in Self-Talk and Dynamic Balance Performance

Positive Self-Talk