KEY: long before race day, begin to focus your mind’s eye on your goal. Visualizing success can help you attain it.

Racing isn’t the be-all end-all of running. Entering races, however, remains a potential peak experience that too many runners miss because they don’t do enough prerace “headwork.” Whether your goal is to run a personal best time or merely to finish your race, proper mental preparation will help you accomplish it.

Too often runners spend hours training their bodies, only to line up on race day and suddenly find themselves overwhelmed with fears and questions: How fast should I start? Where are the hills, and how bad are they? Where is the finish, and what is it like? Here are a few tips to help you develop a positive mental attitude about running a race.


Concentrate on your own positive feelings, rather than on how good some of the runners look. Give yourself a spirited pep talk. You’ve trained well; you’re ready for your personal best!

You are an athlete–yes, you! Like everyone else on the course, you are striving to do your best, and your goals are just as important as those of anyone else in the race. That’s the reason for the great popularity of mass running events: Everyone can be a winner.

Remember how out of shape you once were or how slowly you used to run? You now have every reason to feel proud. Concentrate on how smoothly or powerfully you can move your body. No matter what your pace is, you are better – conditioned than the “old” you and than lots of people who can’t even run around the block.


If you want to perform your best in a race, make sure you study the course beforehand. Confront possible mental let-downs during the race by preparing for upcoming challenges. Set short-term goals such as, “I’m going to make it to the top of the next hill.” Then you can stride out down the hill, to gain ground on anybody behind you and pick off anyone in front of you.

If you live near the course on which you’ll be racing, practice key sections
before the day of the race. They’ll become familiar and less threatening. If you can’t practice on the course, do it on a route with similar topography. When you hit a previously dreaded section on race day, you’ll look forward to it, because you’ll have an advantage over most of the runners around you. Attack the hills (gently) before they attack you. A course conquered in practice is one you’ll beat again on race day.

If you’re visiting an out-of-town course, practice the last mile the day before the race or even on race day. It’s important to get a feel for the finish. You’ll be more confident early in the race if you know what to expect at the end. I advise the runners I coach to feel the pride of achievement as they practice “hitting the tape” physically and in their imaginations.


Put your imagination to work long before race day to experience the race as if you were actually running it. Be “rehearsing” the race the way you would like it to turn out, you can train your conscious mind to perform in that manner. Obviously, you can’t just dream about a fast time and then achieve it, but you ca
n reach a goal more readily after you’ve first “practiced” it in your mind.
Write your time goal on a piece of paper, and tape it to your wall. Or take a digital clock and set it for your race time–3:59 for a marathon, for example–
and then unplug it and place it in a prominent place. Seeing it often, your mind accepts it as a realistic goal. Imagine yourself crossing the finish line in that time. Think about the time goal often, including during your training runs and the race itself.

Learn to achieve a state of deep relaxation that allows you to focus on your goal, then visualize running the entire race, including lining up, reaching certain landmarks and achieving intermediate split times. See yourself running strong, with good form. Repeat the whole mental process several times before an important race. You become your own movie director, running the scenes of your race through your mind. By imagining your own happy endings, you help bring them about.


Once you’re in the race, break up the whole of the distance in your mind, and set yourself some short – term goals. Try, for instance, to reach the 1-mile mark within 10 seconds of a goal pace, perhaps right behind your friend who is aiming for a similar time. You can segment the course by landmarks, mile markers or both. By breakin up the course into “bite-sized” pieces you can keep yourself
pushing to goal on the immediate horizon. When you begin, thinking only of a finish line miles away, it’s too easy to get mentally fatigued.


I believe in a three goal system: the acceptable goal, the challenging goal and the ultimate goal. First, establish a realistic finish – time goal that is a bit of a challenge. Ten figure out what you need to average per mile to achieve that goal. If it is a nine-minute mile, you should line up with or slightly ahead of the nine-minute milers. Temper the excitement of the start with common sense; your mind should say whoa, because your body will say go. Try to run no more than 10 seconds per mile faster than your average goal pace. Run from mile marker to mile marker, and play a little game–see how close you can come to keeping an even pace. Of course, you can expect to be slightly slower or faster because
of hills at some markers.

Don’t panic if you find yourself ahead of or behind schedule–gradually adjust your pace. If you’re past the halfway point and feeling good, don’t be afraid to pick up the pace and go for a good time. But if you’re struggling through a “bad patch,” try to hang in there and regroup for a strong finish.

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