DEVELOPING A FINISHER’S MINDSET
Taking on an endurance distance race can be a daunting prospect when you’re yet to take your first step. The goal will seem miles out of reach and you’ll likely question what possessed you to sign up for it in the first place.
Getting to the start line is as much a battle as the race itself, but with the right mental approach and enough vaseline to make any cashier look at you suspiciously at the checkout, it is 100% achievable.
This is just as important as your getting your head right during the race, if not more so. Regardless of how far your race is, or what terrain it takes place on, the correct approach to your training will make sure that you’ve got the preparation behind you to get across the finish line.
UNDERSTAND YOUR PROGRAM
Once you’ve got your training program, take the time to fully understand the purpose of each run and the definitions of intensity. The often repeated maxim of keep your “easy days easy, and your hard days hard” is often repeated for a reason. Make sure you set out on each run knowing what the goal is on that day and stick to it.
Many runners end up training in a grey area, where every run is kind of hard. While this will still elicit a training effect, programs are designed with varying intensity to help prevent injury and ensure progress in the long term. Keeping easy days easy also helps to keep you mentally fresh; you can look forward to nice, cruisy runs to break up the intervals, tempo runs and hill sprints you’ll likely be doing on other days.
A few weeks into your training, you’ll probably start noticing an accumulation of fatigue. This always seems to be at its peak right after you get home from a long day at work and need to get changed and set out on your run for that day. There’s a voice in your head that tells you that you’ve worked hard enough to deserve a rest today, or that you need to save yourself for a hard training session tomorrow. It’s the same voice that will be telling you to drop during your race, and you need to learn to ignore it. You’ll almost always feel fine 10 minutes into your run, and if you really don’t you can stop then.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the advice “listen to your body”, and you need to do exactly that, listen to your body, not negative self talk. Listening to your body means recognising the signs of injury, illness and severe muscular fatigue, not that it’s been “a long day”. You should in fact expect to be somewhat fatigued, after all you’re working to increase your endurance, which by definition is the ability to continue when you’re tired. For example, many programs include back to back long runs, running pre-fatigued to build your capacity to maintain forward progress mile after mile.
That being said, there is a dichotomy at work here. Part of understanding your training for endurance distances is knowing that the long runs are key, and if you are feeling really beaten up the day before your long run, you need to protect it. It is of course down to your judgement what the definition of “really beaten up” is, but occasionally dialling back the training on one day to ensure you get out there for your most important session of the week is part of maintaining progress in the long term.
This applies to the management of niggling injuries as well, the ones that you can run on but know that you really shouldn’t. They are the precursor to a full blown injury, which would put your goal race in jeopardy. It’s far better to take a day or two of rest to keep on track, than to push through the pain for the sake of one training run at the risk of not even making it to the start line.
Long term improvement is all about consistency. Missing a run here and there won’t ruin your race, but if it becomes a regular occurrence you’re mentally setting yourself up to be weak on race day. If you take the easy road too often, you’re conditioning yourself to look for the easy way out. Just like the physical side of training, building the mental fortitude to keep going when every part of you is telling you to stop is essential.
When the big day finally arrives, it’s easy to forget how you got there and get caught up in the excitement of the race. For some, just crossing the finish line will be the goal, going as far as to not have any particular finish time in mind. I believe a target finish time (other than the cut off) can give you a real mental boost however. I set an ambitious goal time, this way a DNF isn’t even on my radar and completing the race isn’t in question, I’m just worried about being slow. In reality, I know my target time will be nigh on impossible for me to achieve, but it gives me a ready-made contingency. When you reach the point when the goal time becomes impossible, you just reset it to a revised goal time that keeps you pushing. Everyone’s different, but to my mind if you start the race hoping only to finish, you don’t have anywhere to fall back to mentally if it starts going sideways.
When something does go wrong, distinguishing pragmatism from defeatism in your internal monologue (sometimes external if you’re really suffering) is huge when it comes to keeping the momentum going. It’s essential to be realistic when assessing your progress during a race without becoming defeatist. Pragmatism is acknowledging you won’t achieve your goal finish time, defeatism is not bothering to adjust it.
It’s easy to go down the slippery mental slope to a DNF when things start going wrong, and you need to recognise when the self talk is going that direction and reset yourself. It’s easier said than done, and just like every other aspect of training it becomes easier with practice. Longer training runs are a good opportunity to monitor how you think when you’re uncomfortable, practice re-focusing and maintaining perspective. Learn to detach from how you’re feeling and assess the situation, recognising that you’re just in a low point of the race and it will pass. Anyone can run when they’re feeling good, there’s immense personal satisfaction to be had from toughing out the low points and coming out of them gives you a real boost. You realise that no matter how bad you might have felt 10 minutes ago, it passed and you’re still moving forward.
At the end of the day, you should enjoy the entire experience; training, racing and everything that comes with it. Part of that enjoyment is working hard and challenging yourself with some voluntary suffering. The mental side of handling this is just as important as the physical, and just like the physical side, one step at a time you can prepare yourself to reach that finish line, however far that may be for you. Many people live their lives without exploring the boundaries of what they are capable of, be proud of your decision to test your limits and give it everything you’ve got.