From the August 2012 issue of Runner’s World
Intimidated by first races, hard courses, fast runners? Here’s how to get over all that
By Richard Laliberte
Every runner has moments of doubt – and that’s not always bad. Wondering if you’re up to the challenge of a first marathon reflects a healthy investment in the outcome. And if you haven’t trained properly, your concerns are valid. But other worries – especially those triggered by outside influences – can create a self-defeating sense of intimidation.
These doubts go deeper and are rooted in negative emotions, says Windee Weiss, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who is an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services. “Realism accepts that a demand may be tough but doesn’t place a judgment on it,” she says. “Intimidation assumes you won’t have the goods to meet the demand.”
Failure-oriented stress can cause a host of problems. It can tighten muscles so that they fatigue faster, hamper co-ordination so you can’t find your stride, distract you from your goals, and undermine mental toughness. Here’s how to get past common sources of intimidation and run your best, without doubt.
They’re everywhere – at the starting line, on the road, among your running buddies. Don’t just stew over others’ times – tap their achievements for inspiration. Catherine Andrews, felt fast among friends but recently joined a running group of four-minute-kilometre pacers knowing she’d be a straggler. “I joined to be more motivated,” she says. Andrews soon stepped up to tempo work and speed running. “It made a difference within weeks,” she says. If you can’t embrace a faster group, at least quit comparing. “Focus on the true satisfaction of running the way you want to run,” Weiss says.
A Tough Course
When Beth Strickland completed her first marathon in 6:33, friends prodded her toward another marathon. “The race had a six-hour time limit and many hills,” she says. “If I tried and didn’t make it, I’m not sure I’d attempt another.” While Strickland decided to tackle one or two flatter courses first, sports psychologist Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., cautions against getting derailed by general impressions. Instead, prepare. Use online street-view maps to review a course’s geography. If hills are the issue, make them part of your weekly training. Practise mantras to keep your inner dialogue positive.
People Who Train More
Banish guilt over your presumed lack of dedication by acknowledging that your training reflects your life, not someone else’s. What’s more, training needs are different depending on one’s goals. If you’re truly not satisfied with your results, you’ll have to change your training. “No amount of confidence-building will improve your performance above what you’ve trained to do,” says Doug Hankes, Ph.D., a sports psychologist.
The Idea of a First Race
“A first-time 5K can be more daunting for a beginner than a marquee marathon is for an experienced runner,” says Hankes. “There are many more unknowns.” So take comfort in your courage to sign up in the first place. Talk to seasoned runners about their experiences. “Ask what they think would have been helpful, looking back,” says Hankes. But keep the stakes low and focus on having fun. On race day, try running with a friend. “Tying your pace to someone else’s takes pressure off,” says Weiss.
Entering a Mega-Race
TV cameras, elite athletes, mobs of people, online tracking, mythic features, they’re all distractions. “The essence of mental training is getting your head out of the way and letting your body do what it’s trained for,” says Hankes. Build a routine that makes every race feel familiar, honing elements like the amount of socialising before the race, your music playlist, and mantras geared to different sections of the course. Defuse pressure to perform by imagining life a week later. “Don’t make the race more than it is,” he says.
Saying “I’m a Runner”
Even after running her first half-marathon last Autumn, Beth Probst says she feels uncomfortable calling herself a runner. “I like to be good at what I do,” she says. “If I’m not trying to be a runner, I don’t have to justify being mediocre at it.” Runners of all levels often equate the phrase with speed. But in reality the words represent a lifestyle. Probst should embrace her new identity. Acknowledging one’s effort has benefits: You start eating better, boosting core strength, telling people about running. That’s what makes you a ‘real’ runner.
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