Race number on bib attached to the front of red running shirt

Getting your mind ready for race day is just as important as your physical preparation.  Running is a body-mind sport and to be the best runner you can be, both your body and mind need training.  Even if your fitness is lacking or you’re only at the beginning stages, a strong mind will carry you far. (Read about my experience with this here.)

To perform at your best, strive for developing a fit body and mind. 

Here are a few suggestions on how to beef up your mental fitness for a stellar race day and an unforgettable finish.

Stay positive

In running, a positive outlook will carry you far.  Start by developing a positive attitude in your everyday life and practice it throughout your training.  Remind yourself that not every run will be a “good” one.  View the tough runs as valuable learning experiences and keep them from getting you down.  Remember that the difficult runs help you become a better runner and better appreciate the runs that go well.

When negative statements creep in, finish them off with the phrase, “but it doesn’t matter” to retrain your brain for positive thinking.  If it rains cats and dogs on race day, it doesn’t matter because you can still have a kick-ass race!

Believe in yourself

The mind is powerful and what you tell yourself can immensely influence your performance on race day.  If you want to have an amazing race, leave self-doubts behind.  Start off believing that your ready and that you’ve done the work to get you to your goal.  Whatever goals you’ve set for race day, for it to happen you first must believe that you can do it.

To help shift your mind from doubting to believing, focus on the things you can do and eliminate the word can’t from your vocabulary.  Remind yourself of your previous accomplishments, big or small, and be proud of your progress.  Know that you can do whatever you put your mind to.

Remember: what your mind believes, your body can achieve.

Set goals that keep you super-charged

Instead of going for one goal, set three–good, great, and excellent.  Start your race knowing that no matter what you’ll end up achieving one of three goals that you’d be happy with.  This will keep your energy up and the pressure off.  It could save you from mid-race disappointment (or quitting) if things don’t go as planned or if your one-and-only goal seems too far out of sight.

A “good” goal might be to finish while an excellent goal could be to break a personal best.

Find your best motivators

Choosing good motivators will give you strength and keep you going when times get tough.  Think about what’s motivating you to have a kick-ass race day and bring it front and center.  Say it out loud and share it with others. Harness that energy on race day and let it power you through. 

Or make your race more meaningful by running for your friends, family, or lost loved-ones.  Break down your race into parts and dedicate the parts to people who will power you to the finish.  Write it on your arm or make a wrist band as a reminder.

Choose a powerful mantra

To keep your mind from leading you off course, stay strong with a confidence-boosting mantra.  This could be a simple phrase such as “I’ve got this,” “I’m strong,” “I’m invincible,” or “watch me, here I come.”

Repeat your mantra to yourself throughout the race, when you feel tired, or when you need a boost. 

My preferred mantra is the chorus of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”  I repeat this little ditty to myself anytime during a race and it gives me an instant boost.

Visualize your race

Before you run it, visualize it for a boost of strength. 

Imagine yourself at the start, going out at at your planned pace.  Imagine reaching certain milestones, such as 5K markers.  Write down your split times for these key milestones and spend some time visualizing yourself following your plan and completing the race as you hope. Visualize points where it might be tough and how you get through it. Visualize your supporters and people calling out your name.  Imagine yourself crossing the finish and collecting your medal.  Imagine sharing your accomplishment with others and the pride and enthusiasm you feel. 

Visualize it all and rehearse it over and over again in your mind.  It will power you through.

Relax and just breathe

Pre-race excitement, stress or anxiety can cause an elevated heart rate or shallow/rapid breathing.  As this can adversely effect your performance, learn to call upon your inner calm to perform at your best.

Mindful breathing can help you stay cool and reduce race day jitters. At particular milestones, such as every 5 km, spend a minute focusing on your breathing.  Try breathing to the rhythm of your steps or for the count of 3 in and 4 out.  Find a rhythm that works for you.

Exercise: Get in the habit of inhaling deeply and exhaling completely. Close your eyes and take a minute to pay attention to your breath.  Keeping it slow and controlled, breathe in deeply for the count of six, hold it for the count of 4, and release it for the count of 8, exhaling completely. Try this to relax, or before each run to improve your performance.

Get organized

Keep calm by getting organized.  Eliminate race-day stress and build confidence by planning out your day.  Use a checklist to get organized the day(s) before. (Find a print-ready race-day checklist here.)

Read through the race booklet and scope out the start area.  Plan where you have to go and what time you’ll get there.  Allow enough time for crowds and long lines at the porta-potties.  Recruit your race-day supporters and strategically place them along the course where you’ll need them most.

Plan your meals the week or night before.  Plan your breakfast.  Plan your mid-race fuel.  Plan for the unexpected (GI issues, blisters, etc.). 

And always, always plan to be flexible and remain positive when things don’t go as planned.

What has helped you improve your mental toughness to perform your best on race day?  Got comments or questions?  Please post them in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Laurie Villarreal

Laurie’s an accomplished endurance athlete and has been running since 1998. She’s the founder of House of Running and a professional Running Coach, a certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Health & Wellness Coach. Laurie’s trained and worked with nearly 1000 runners since 2010. She’s a master in her field with over 10,000 hours of run coaching experience. Laurie helps ambitious professionals make running part of their healthy lifestyle through on-on-one online coaching and fun group training programs. She has a unique holistic approach to running, helping her runners think beyond running to realize their running dreams. Click here to find out how to work with Laurie in one-on-one online coaching.

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