Tips for Mental Toughness on Race Day

If you’re training for a race, you’ve hopefully logged the miles and done the workouts to get you across the finish line.

One thing you probably haven’t thought about is what you need to be mentally tough on race day.

Headshot of Mike Wojciakowski
Mike Wojciakowski

“Most of us spend zero time training our brain,” said Mike Wojciakowski, head cross country coach and assistant track coach at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids.

Wojciakowski, or “Woj” as he’s known to his college runners and members of RunGR, a community running club that draws members throughout West Michigan, said not preparing mentally can be devastating to race-day performance. As humans, we naturally fixate on the negative, so if you experience 100 great workouts and one disaster, guess which one you’ll fixate on? Yup, the bad workout will naturally surface in your race day brain, Wojciakowski said.

The good news? You can develop mental toughness. Here are Wojciakowski’s tips to do so:

Mental Toughness Tips for Runners

  • Set goals. A lot of runners don’t push themselves on race day, simply telling themselves they’ll just be happy to finish. While that might be a good goal for first-time racers, Wojciakowski encourages his runners to do more. Based on what you know you’re capable of, pick a time that might seem like a stretch. Write it down and put it up at your desk at work, on your bathroom mirror or wherever you’ll regularly see it to help remind yourself why you’re working so hard. “If you can’t mentally see it, it’s not going to happen,” Wojciakowski said.
  • Control what you can. You have absolutely no control over what the weather will be like on race day or what time race organizers set the start time. You can control what you wear and when you go to bed the night before the race. Wojciakowski said you can also control the amount and intensity of training you do before race day. Take note of what works for you when you do have a great practice run. What did you eat? How much did you sleep? What else was going on that might have contributed? Try to replicate some of those things on race day. By removing some of the variables that can lead to a bad race, your mind will be freed up to focus on running your best race. “Be in control of the controllables,” Wojciakowski said.
  • Develop mantras. Our minds naturally deviate to negative self-talk, especially when we’re doing something hard like running a race. Before race day, experiment with different words you can use to boost yourself up to get through tough spots. Everyone’s internal pep talks will be different based on what’s meaningful to them. Draw inspiration from top runners and their mantras here.
  • Visualize. Wojciakowski recommends picturing every moment of race day before it happens. Have a plan and visualize what you’ll eat for breakfast, what you’re going to wear, how you’re going to drive to the race, where you’ll park, how you’ll warm up and how you plan to attack each mile. By the time you get to the race, you’ll have already run it several times in your mind, accounting for anything that might trip you up. “Success isn’t by chance,” he said. “Success is a choice.”

Editor’s note: The author of this blog post is a member of RunGR.

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Photo credit: Simon Thalmann

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