The Mental Peak
By Richard Ferguson, Ph.D.
You have trained really hard for your most important race of the year. Months and months of effort have been invested and you have sacrificed physically and mentally. It won’t be long now until you run your biggest race of the year. You want to be at your best, both mentally and physically. In other words you’re looking to “peak” for your big event.
Your training has gone well and you indeed feel fit and very well prepared. You understand that you will need to back off of your training in the weeks preceding the race to ensure that you’re rested and energized. The proper taper period and proper rest are most certainly a requirement for being able to physically peak at the proper time for your important race. But what about the mental part of peaking? Most runners are pretty good at physically peaking, but they totally ignore the mental aspects of peaking.
Peaking for a race means sharpening and getting energized to bring the body to 100 percent capacity to perform. In many cases the way you think does not allow this to happen. After many months of hard training some runners actually find it to be mentally challenging to back off their training and get more rest. It’s as if they feel guilty and/or don’t trust that their training has been done well enough. There is guilt that they’re not working hard any more. You must understand, from a cognitive point of view, that cutting back on your training is not being lazy, it’s about exhibiting the discipline to do what is best to get your body and mind to their optimal peak for an optimal performance in your most important race of the year or season. Months of hard training can go down the drain as fast as Drano if your mind won’t allow you to back off physically before an important race. Trust your training. There is little you can do in the two weeks before a big race to get in drastically better condition, but there is a lot you can do in those two weeks to ruin your upcoming race.
Peaking certainly requires physical rest, but it also requires psychological rest. Emotionally, you need to be 100 percent going into your important race if you expect to unleash all of your physical preparation. One of the biggest mental drains on runners is the stress of competition. As a result, it’s probably a good idea to limit your competitive efforts in the two weeks leading up to a race you’re peaking for. Races, even small ones, require a lot of mental energy because you face evaluation of your performance. How important is a small race the weekend before a big race? Is it worth wasting mental energy over or is it worth risking an injury? By not racing in the 14 days before a big event you will find yourself more mentally refreshed and hungry to race the event that you are trying to peak for.
Often runners will want to “test” their fitness too close to an important race. You know, just one more hard workout to prove you’re fit! This strategy can be disastrous on two fronts. First, if the workout is too close to the competition you may feel physically tired for your important race. Second, trying to reach a specified time or performance level in the workout will tend to create stress and if you have a poorer than expected workout, you may really start playing head games with yourself as you doubt your fitness. Trust your months of training and be confident. Save your physical and emotional energy for your big event.
When you do taper and rest for your important race, be sure to rest your mind as well as your body. Reduced training can mean more time to actually think about the race and that extra time often allows for self-doubt to creep into consciousness. Many runners begin to worry about their preparation, especially when they feel a bit physically sluggish due to the extra rest. In the days leading up to your big event specific forms of mental training can be invaluable for calming your nerves and increasing your confidence. Your self-talk can be your best friend or your worst enemy. The first thing to do is become aware of your self-talk. Negative self-talk is often unrecognized and in many cases it’s negative self-talk that creates anxiety and lack of confidence before an important race. If you find yourself using negative self-talk, like “I just know I needed more long runs,” simply say “stop” to yourself and replace the negative thought with one such as, “ I’ve paid my dues, I’m fit and I’m ready to give 100 percent effort in my race.” Always work on being your own biggest fan! Use positive self-talk to enhance your confidence and keep your focus on running to the best of your ability. Remember, trust and confidence!
Imagery can also be an effective aid in the peaking process. All runners visualize images about upcoming races. Be sure that yours are positive images. If you imagine yourself having a bad race, then you are setting yourself up for a bad race to actually occur. The best athletes image what they want to happen, not what they’re afraid might happen. Work on imaging yourself running strong on the course and feeling really good. Don’t just see yourself running, try to feel yourself running! Imagine the course like it really will be: the sounds of other runners and spectators, the weather conditions etc. Try to include all your senses as you image having a great race. Positive imagery can reduce anxiety and increase confidence during your peaking period.
Finally, don’t give in to the temptation of trying new things as you taper. Stick with what works. New diets, new sports drinks, or new stretching routines that are experimented with during a taper period can disastrous. If you haven’t tried it in training, don’t use it immediately before or during a race. The taper period is no time for experimentation. Trust your preparation and be confident as you peak for your big race. You’ve done the hard work. Now trust yourself to let a good race happen.
Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Science Department at Averett University and is an AASP Certified SportPshychology Consultant.