Expect the Unexpected

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Expect the Unexpected

Written by Richard Ferguson, Ph.D. on 20 May 2013.

You have a big race planned, your training has gone really well, and you know you are prepared physically. You have probably run the race over and over in your head already. It’s as if you have run the race even before you get to the course. You have envisioned speeding up that tough hill, being out in front of your closest nemesis, feeling great all the way to the finish, and simply, just having a great race. You have your strategy all planned out and you know exactly how you want your race to go.

But wait, how often does a race go exactly as planned? Sure, you hope all races unfold just the way you want them to, but often something happens before or during a race that forces you to throw all of your best made plans and strategies out the window. How do you react when things aren’t turning out as you had planned? Do you panic and freak out, or do you anticipate and prepare for uncertainties and be able to address and solve them “on the run”? (No pun intended)

In reality you need a race plan, but you also need a back-up plan as well. The first part of your plan should be what you want to do from the minute you arrive at the race until you finish. Try to plan out a warm-up protocol, which you probably already have, including when you plan to go to the starting line, and the basic framework of a race strategy.

Do you plan to go out fast or try to run negative splits? Are there specific mile splits you would like to shoot for? Are you planning to pace off of another runner? Is there a part of the course on which you plan to push the pace, or vice versa, ease back on? Will there be a significant other somewhere on the course to lift your spirits and provide nutrition and hydration? These and many other decisions will go into formulating a general race strategy. Do your best to have a solid, well thought out plan.

Having a great race may be aided by a pre-race and in-race plan, but all too often the pre- and in-race plan will hit some snags, or in other words, things may not go according to plan. You also need work on being able to anticipate and respond to unexpected events, both before and during a race. You probably will need to come up with a back-up plan that will be put into play if your original plan is absolutely not working.

Pre-race seems to be a particularly uncertain period at many races, especially large races with many participants. Even when you plan your best to get to the race start early, traffic congestion, closed roads, and even getting lost, can mean a shortened, stress-filled warm-up. You may want to write out a list of things that might occur pre-race that could take your focus away from your normal warm-up. Things like how you will change your jogging and stretching routine if you only have 20 minutes before the start, rather than 50 minutes. Do you reduce your jog, reduce your stretching, or reduce a little of both? What if the portajohn line is two miles long, do you wait or do you seek an “alternative” location? What do you do if there is pouring rain? Are you prepared with proper clothing? You need to be as well prepared as possible to cope with unexpected events that present themselves at a race. Think about hassles and distractions that have affected you in the past during your warm-up period and then try to develop a plan to cope with each of the difficulties.

Next, try to think out possible scenarios of things that may force you to change your race strategy. You want to be prepared the best you can for unexpected race occurrences. Of course you always want things to go smoothly, but when problems do occur, you can be well prepared to deal with them.

For instance, what if you had planned to run with other runners, but find yourself caught out in “no mans land” between packs, running alone? Do you maintain your pace alone, wait for the pack behind you, or try to catch the pack ahead with a hard push. Think about it logically beforehand and have a plan. What if your mile splits are slower than you hoped for? Do you panic and push the pace too hard and cross the anaerobic threshold, or do you think logically and gradually up the tempo just a bit? Having a back-up plan allows you to think more clearly under stress. Some days you simply don’t feel well during a race. That’s a part of racing. Can you maintain your focus and continue to give top effort or do you let your mind run wild with negative self-talk? Having practiced the use of some “cue” words during training such as “focus,” “relax and push,” or “hang in,” can help to keep your performance up even on those days when you don’t feel 100 percent. You can even have a solid plan behind you when negative thoughts begin to creep into your mind late in a race. Using positive self-talk during hard training can be very useful to transfer into the late stages of a race when you are fatigued. Self-statements like, “keep going, fast time,” “I’m hurting because I’m running fast,” or “keep focusing on the goal,” can serve to help you maintain your pace when your mind may be telling you otherwise. Be sure to have some planned positive self-talk ready for difficult parts of the race. Practice this positive self-talk in your training!

Focus on things that are under your control, like how you think and how you react to situations. You can’t control other runners, how they act or what they say. However, you can view your performance in races as being more under your control. Focus on your own strategies and race plans and how to deal with challenges as they occur. How you react to situations is under your control, even though the situation itself may not be under your control. Learn to have a plan and be able to refocus when the plan gets off-track. Be mentally flexible and adaptable! Be ready, because the only thing you can expect in racing is the unexpected!

Richard Ferguson Ph.D. is the Chair of the Physical Education Department at Averett University in Danville, VA and is a Certified Consultant by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it -  http://fergusonperformanceconsulting.yolasite.com - [email protected]

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