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What a Difference a Day Makes

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Well 11 days to be accurate. I raced on the track for the first time in over two years (741 days to be precise) and it was the first time I had stepped onto an athletics track for the first time for nearly eight months. I raced a 5,000m and I ran pretty poorly. Well you might be saying, if you hadn’t run on a track for that long, what did you expect? I see that argument, but I then raced a 3,000m 11 days later and ran really well (without trying to blow my own trumpet). So in those 11 days, what changed?

Well I’d completed two sessions and a long run, however it was very unlikely that I was fitter and if I was the physiological changes would have been minimal. Based upon my 3,000m time, I was in shape to run 1 minute quicker in my 5k when using the Tinman Training Calculator. So my physical fitness could not explain why I had run two races at completely different standards. Then what could?

Mentality, thoughts and psyche.

"Running is ‘90% mental and the other half is physical" and after reflecting on these two races I could not agree more.

Before races I am usually quite nervous, I always have been. I have always been told to “just relax” or “don’t think about it” but I’m sure many of you know that this is easier said than done. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, the first thing you think about is a pink elephant, so trying to make thoughts disappear is a completely pointless exercise. Being able to constructively use your thoughts and challenging them into positive energy is something all athletes strive to achieve.

After winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Josh Kerr credited his mindfulness coach as a big reason for his improved performances. The big athletes know the power of the mind and being able to focus it on what matters.

I’m not saying I’m an elite level runner, far from it but as runners we continually churn out miles, tackle tough training sessions and practice fuelling for a marathon, but very rarely do we ever train the mind. Some things that can help include practicing mindfulness, visualising success and using positive self-talk or positive cues before and during a race or tough training session. Positive self-talk examples might include: “You have trained hard for this”, “embrace the pain when it arrives” or “focus on my arm swing.”

Reflecting on these two races I noticed stark differences in my psyche before and during the race. I was nervous before both, which is a good thing. Many athletes think something is wrong if they don't have nerves. However with my first race, I let the nerves get the better of me and I started to doubt if I could do it. The second time, I changed my perception and accepted that nerves are part of the process and I should use them to motivate me.

During the races, in one I let gaps grow larger and larger, not having the confidence to close them down. In the other, I felt in control, I didn’t panic and took my time. I almost zoned out and I only remember hearing first lap split being called (only finding out my splits after watching the race on YouTube) compared to hearing the lap counter on 12 separate occasions 11 days earlier which told me that I was slowly crumbling.

I felt like I was in a state of flow, a term used by sports psychologists, which can be defined as an optimal state involving altered awareness and total absorption in an activity. When in a sense of flow, athletes often report being in complete control and losing perception of time. You feel completely immersed in the task you are completing. Whenever you watch a world record or incredible performance, I’m thinking of Kipchoge, Gidey, Cheptegi or Kipyegon, they always look effortless and it looks as though they could run at that pace forever. These athletes are in a state of flow. Achieving a state of flow is a balance of challenge and skill. When both your skill level and the challenge you are faced with are high, you are more likely to experience a state of flow, but it’s not always the case which makes being in ‘flow state’ so brilliant when it actually happens. Performance levels can be affected by varying degrees of stress, anxiety or arousal which can be influenced by our perception of nerves but that requires a separate article.

How can we make sure that we are always in this positive state of mind and potentially make sure that we are in a state of flow? Well that is the million pound question that many sports psychologists aim to work out. Figure it out; bottle it and you’ve created the best performance enhancer ever.

And I'm sorry if you are still thinking of a pink elephant.

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