How to Train Yourself to Hang Tough, According to a Sports Psychologist
We're only human, and bad races here and there are inevitable. Here's a crash course in honing your mind to mentally power through a tough day.
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No matter how fast, fit, experienced, or strong-minded you are, if you’re a runner, you’ve had your share of tough days. Whether due to flat legs, poor fueling, an overzealous race plan, or any number of other reasons known or unknown, sometimes just reaching the finish line feels like an insurmountable challenge.
As miserable as they are, those days are fertile ground for major growth. They reveal important truths and expose areas in need of attention, while setting the stage for future breakthroughs. The trick is getting through those trials with as much grace as possible, and teasing the lessons from them rather than drowning in self-pity or excuses.
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Lennie Waite, PhD, a 2016 Olympian for Great Britain with a sports psychology consulting business in Houston, Tex., has encountered countless crucibles as an athlete, spectator, coach, and psychologist. Below, she offers her best advice for preparing, managing, and learning from them. Consider this your crash course in the psychology of hanging tough.
Accept That No One’s Immune
As nice as it would be to reach a level of fitness or self-confidence in which poor performances are a non-issue, Waite says that, even for the best of the best, that’s just not realistic. “Humans are unpredictable,” she says — not to mention imperfect. “A bad race here and there is inevitable.” Acknowledging that truth will allow you to better manage them when they do arrive.
Practice Salvaging the Tough Ones
Rather than trying to outright avoid tough days on the track, trails, or roads, Waite says your efforts are better spent limiting how often they occur and how greatly your performance differs between good and bad days. “A lot of athletes have the tendency to just throw the towel in on a rough day, but they can still finish the race and tick off some performance boxes,” she says. To master saving a bad day — a skill Waite encourages all athletes to work on — commit to trying your best no matter how your body is feeling or mind is racing. With repetition, you won’t always get the results you want, but you will be able to walk away from any workout or race knowing that you’ve given your best on the day. And what more can you really ask of yourself?
Slow Down to Run Fast
“When races aren’t going well, athletes tend to panic,” Waite explains. Your mind starts racing, your heart rate accelerates, and your breathing becomes increasingly labored. Whenever you notice yourself tensing up or showing early signs of anxiety, Waite recommends slowing down your thoughts and breaths. Two of her favorite ways to do that are: conducting a brief body scan, and releasing tension anywhere you notice it (like your face, neck, arms, and hands); and grounding yourself in the present by noting things around you (such as trees you’re passing or sounds coming from spectators). Reducing anxiety is the first step in salvaging a spiraling performance, Waite says.
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Envision Possible Positives and Negatives
Runners are taught from the beginning to think positively, have a good attitude, and envision great races and personal records materializing. Waite agrees with those recommendations, citing optimism and positive self-talk as key players in positive performances.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, Waite also encourages you to also spend time considering the things that might go wrong or fall short of your expectations in a race, and coming up with a plan for handling those moments. Here is Waite’s four-step plan for doing just that:
- Set a goal (or a few) for what you want to achieve.
- Imagine your plan unfolding seamlessly at various points of the race.
- Next, envision places where your plan might start veering off course. (For some runners, this happens at roughly the same point in races.) Decide how you want to respond to the voice that becomes negative, frustrated, anxious, or hopeless.
- In your visualization and in an actual race, do your best to stay calm and simplify the situation: keep on putting one foot in front of the other, and focus on the present moment (which could mean minute, lap, mile, or whatever other segment feels manageable at the time.
Recognize the Growth Potential
Waite sees a big learning opportunity in those inevitable rough patches. Consistently putting forth your best effort — especially when it’s tough to do so — will not only increase trust in yourself to get through any crucible in one piece, but it will also foster long-term growth and increase your likelihood of staying in the sport long enough to find out what you’re capable of.
“If you can look back and think, Man, I was ready to throw the towel in, but I maintained my composure, focused on what I could do in the moment to bring myself back to my performance goals, and still met some of them,” Waite says, “That is HUGE.”