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How to Dominate Any Race—With Your Mind

Get through the toughest parts of any race with these nine Olympian-approved tips.
How to Dominate Any Race—With Your Mind

You've heard it before: that annoying voice in your head that starts chattering halfway through a race telling you to quit. Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or just crossed the finish line of your first 5K you know what we’re talking about. And while there’s plenty you can do ahead of your race—physically and mentally—to prevent it from happening, it usually will anyway. Even if you’re an Olympic legend like Joan Benoit Samuelson. That’s why she’s come up with several tactics over the years to ward off succumbing to that urge to quit. Here, with the help of Samuelson and Dr. Beth McQuiston, a neurologist, registered dietitian and Abbott Medical Director, we’ve outlined nine ways to get through the toughest parts of any race so you can enjoy the process and finish stronger and better than ever.

Some marathoners talk about “hitting the wall” at mile 20 while other find that once they get to 20, they’re in the clear (it’s miles 10-15 that are most challenging to them, maybe). So, Samuelson recommends figuring out what your magic number is. “For me [in a marathon] the magic number is 17,” says Samuelson. “I need to be feeling good at mile 17 and I need to keep telling myself 'you need to feel strong at 17,’ because at that point it’s less than 10 miles to the finish line,” she explains, and for her “10 miles training runs are commonplace.” So, she spends a lot of mental energy prepping herself for that elusive mile 17. For you, that could be mile three in a 10K or mile 37 in an ultra marathon. Pay attention to your body and figure out what the “tough part” is for you and then use it to your advantage in your next race.

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You know when you have to fill out race entry forms and they ask you to predict your finish time? You may feel inclined to be super bold and give some crazy-fast time you may or may not actually be able to handle. Resist this urge. “In order to feel good about yourself you need to think about how much is easier is mentally to pass someone rather than to BE passed,” says Samuelson. It can have the effect that makes you feel as if you’re going backwards. So, don’t put yourself up front—you’re going to feel like you need to keep pace with those speed demons and go out faster than you should.

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“Your brain can be trained to feed off of dopamine sparked by achieving something like a goal,” explains McQuiston. So, trick your brain by creating mini goals throughout the race. Whether that’s getting past mile 17 or [insert your magic number here], passing that yellow-shirted dude ahead of you, or just making it to the next water station. Any of these things are telling the brain to attach a dopamine response to achieving that goal—so when you do, you get a reward via a burst of feel-good hormones, per McQuiston.

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Once you set and achieve a goal—even a tiny one—allow yourself to experience that positive feedback. “Let yourself feel good," says McQuiston. “Put your own gold medal around your neck and go for the next goal—It’s positive reinforcement every time you set and meet a challenge,” she explains.

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Don’t think of a marathon as one big 26.2 mile slog. Instead, break the miles down into different segments, suggests Samuelson. Some marathoners use the 10/10/10 trick (10 miles, 10 miles, 10k) so you’re not worried about finishing 26.2 miles, you just have to run 10, then another 10, then a 10K. Figure out what breakdown works best for you.

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Picture yourself at the finish line. Visualize yourself getting to mile 18 or 19 (or past whatever your “magic mile” may be). Or, pick a runner ahead of you—say, that dude in the yellow shirt—and visualize yourself leaving him in your dust. Research shows that this tactic works—and it doesn’t have to be reserved to your training runs or before the race starts (though it works then too!). Try picturing success in your mind's eye when things start to get tough.

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If you anticipate in advance an obstacle—and you hit it—you actually get a little dopamine boost because you’re like ‘I guessed that this was going to happen and I got this,’” says McQuiston. This, in turn, actually helps you to keep going.

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Mantras are great for before and during your race. When you’re getting closer to the finish line make it something like ‘Finish what you start,’ or ‘I’m getting closer,’ or ‘one step at a time.’ “Sometimes I even get into a count: “1234, 1234,” when I’m coming up a hill and feeling tired,” says Samuelson. “Do whatever you can do to take your mind off what’s giving you a challenge—It can help change that pattern in your brain that’s saying ‘I’m tired, why am I doing this?’”

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“Every runner is different and everyone will have different challenges along the way,” says Samuelson. “You have to run your own race. This is so pertinent to not only running, but life! You can’t keep tempo with the beat of someone else’s drum.” In other words, what works with you won’t work for the dude in the yellow shirt and vice versa. Do some experimenting during your training, sign up for races you don’t “care” about PRing in so you can practice, and just stay in tune with your body. Figure out what works and then stick to the formula!

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