IT’S BOSTON MARATHON WEEK! I can hardly believe that it’s upon us. A lot of people (including myself) have dedicated countless hours training, working extremely hard to earn the right to toe the line at the Boston Marathon. For many, this is a once in a lifetime achievement.
Performing well at the Boston Marathon will require more than a devoted training regime, good fortune remaining healthy and injury free, and preparing course strategy. Managing the excitement of the week will play a huge real in delivering optimal performance on Patriot’s Day.
Over the course of race week you will encounter a host of useful tips from a great variety of sources. You will repeatedly read about not spending too much time on your feet at the pre-race expo, not walking too much around Boston in the days preceding the race, and in general trusting your training. There will be plenty of wisdom regarding holding back your pace on the first half of the race, and preparing yourself for the Newton Hills. There seems to be plenty of advice on what not to do during race week. I am writing this post to share some insight on what you can do to develop a sports psychology performance plan for managing the emotions of this race, including working to address pre-race anxiety and excitement.
Developing An Optimal Performance Mindset
Optimal performance on race day comes down to many factors, a great majority of which have been set in motion in the months prior to race day. Improperly managed excitement or anxiety in the days leading up to the race, sometimes even just on the morning of the race itself, can take the well laid path to race day and turn the marathon into a brutal experience. I’ve used the principles below personally as a race day, corral meditation in just about every race I’ve ever done and have taught countless others this simple yet effective go to meditation practice to use in the starting corrals. I find this practice to reduce anxiety, increase confidence, and dial in focus. And the truth is, this 8 step process is one that would be of benefit to engage with on a daily basis during race week as you prepare for marathon Monday. If you follow these steps you are on the path to ensuring you are properly managing your emotions so that all of the hard work spent getting to the start line will pay off.
1 Stand Tall. Our posture and body language has a strong effect on our mood and emotions. Standing tall, with shoulders back helps induce a sense of confidence, calm and regulation of emotions.
2 Breathe. Another conventional wisdom piece of advice. But here’s how to breathe. Put one hand over your belly button. Breathe slowly in for a count of 5, then slowly out for a count of 5. Pay attention to your hand. Work to breathe deeply so your hand is moving up and down with each breath. Take at least 3 cycles of breathing in this 5-5 manner.
3 Connect to your surroundings. Continue to breathe slowly, deeply, and mindfully. Reconnecting to your senses is going to help you reduce negative cognitive rumination and help you stay grounded to the present moment. Start by noticing 3 things you can see, looking for small details. Describe in your mind what it is you see, looking for small details in your surroundings, those around you etc. Then notice 3 things you hear. Again, describe in your mind what you hear, looking for small details in your environment. Try to stay focused on the physical properties of what you hear, rather than what people are saying.
4 Be grateful. Connecting to gratitude helps you refocus your energy onto the positive aspects of your race and all it took to get you to the starting line in the first place. Be grateful for the hard work and dedication you put into your training in order to be in this moment. Consciously remind yourself of 3 things you are grateful for that led to this achievement. “I am grateful for having the physical ability/health to be here today. I am grateful for having the opportunity to test my limits. I am grateful for the support of my family, friends, coach.” Be as clear, crisp and genuine as you can.
5 Connect to community. One of the greatest aspects of running is the connection to a larger community all passionately pursuing goals – no where can I picture this being more powerful than at the Boston Marathon. From the moment you touch down in Beantown, through wandering through the pre-race expo, to the moments you’re waiting in the starting corrals you will be surrounded by an amazing community of others chasing down meaningful goals. Be present with those around you this week, appreciating the presence of the others next to you, reminding yourself that you are surrounded by some of the world’s fastest, most dedicated recreational runners. Be reminded of all the people who made it present for you to be at the starting line today. Be thankful for your coach, your friends, your family, your training partners. Picture those individuals in your mind and give them a quick internal recognition of thanks.
6 Reframe anxiety. Many runners try to not be anxious. This is going to backfire each and every time. Pre-race excitement is necessary for optimal performance, and the likelihood of experiencing butterflies at the Boston Marathon, even for the seasoned running veteran is high. Cognitively appraising the internal sensations you are experiencing in a positive way is important. Positive self talk about what you’re feeling with statements of, “This means I’m ready and prepared for the task at hand,” “I’m excited about being able to run well today,” “This is not anxiety, this is excitement, which means I’m going to perform at my best” are going to help you settle down and focus. It also helps you be in charge of your thoughts, rather than the anxiety based thoughts being in charge of you.
7 “I am” Statements. Now it’s time to redirect your focus on how you are planning to execute. Be crisp about these thoughts, making them “I am” intentions as clear as you can make them: “I am going to manage my pace,” “I am going to run __________ splits for the first ______ miles,” “I am going to ensure that I control what I can and let go of the rest,” “I am going to enjoy the hell out of this experience.” These are just ideas. Make them specific and genuine to you. These statements help you dial in your focus and build your confidence for your race day strategy.
8 Three big deep breaths. Finally, close this practice by reconnecting to the physical sensations of your breath, feeling that hand on your belly button. Now, intentionally take 3 slower, deeper breaths, as big as you can make them. You’re ready! Now go out at enjoy the Boston Marathon!
Remember, you’re not suppose to not feel anxious at the beginning of a race, especially the Boston Marathon. How you handle the pre-race excitement will go a long way in helping you perform optimally.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to line up at the Boston Marathon on Monday!
Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO, specializing in health/wellness psychology as well as sports and performance.