As a writer, I often find myself drafting my post-race story in my head—whether for a future article or a social media post—as I run along. It’s a tactic that, more often than not, leads to disappointment, since my recap inevitably needs to be revised and edited as the race goes on. On the flipside, the times when I have been able to truly stay in the moment, focused solely on the adventure at hand (rather than how I’ll recount it later), have been some of my most rewarding performances.
I know I’m not alone. Whatever types of distractions you experience while racing, it seems that most of us have them—and that we might be better served by learning to hone our focus and fully experience the moments we spend out on course. I reached out to a trio of experts (a coach and two sport psychologists) to learn their tips and triggers for staying as present as possible during longer races. Their advice is varied, and arguably invaluable. Draw a bath, crank up your essential oil diffuser and have a read.
1. Build a base of mindfulness
“Just like physical training, mental training must be practiced diligently and consistently in order to execute it in a race-day scenario,” says Dr. Gloria Petruzelli, Clinical Sport Psychologist. “I recommend every athlete have a ‘thought awareness practice’ or mindfulness practice that helps them cultivate body-mind awareness. Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, are some examples I recommend.”
2. Get a grip
Equally important to brain training is getting a grip on what causes you to lose focus in the first place, says Petruzelli. “When it comes to training your mental skills, specifically becoming more present-moment focused, the first step is to become aware of when you are not in the moment and what exactly is pulling you out of being in the moment. I always say, ‘You cannot change what you are not aware of.'”
3. Make room for mind chatter
Clinical Sport Psychologist Dr. Mitchell Greene shares his own athletic experience to illustrate a concept he refers to as “mind chatter.” It was about a half hour before the start of Greene’s A race and, right on cue, his mind chatter showed up. “I was reminded of the fact that people could track me online, that I was a sport psychologist and therefore I better not freak out, and that not finishing would be so disappointing,” he recalls. Greene says his own experience has taught him that our mind starts chattering when it senses that we might a) not meet expectations, b) embarrass ourselves, or c) not ‘look good’ (come in last, DNF, etc.). It shows up for everyone at some level, so the key is learning how to make room for it rather then see it as a sign of weakness or cowardice.
4. Think small
Greene also mentions a tactic he calls “time traveling.” “That’s when we think about past races and results and think about our upcoming races and results, thus losing sight of the bigger purpose—which is trying to discover something about ourselves and our smaller goals.” He says that time traveling tends to backfire, and that he likes to teach athletes that when the moment gets big, they actually need to think small.
5. Bring it back to the exhale
According to Austin-based coach and long-time endurance athlete Carrie Barrett, staying present can boil down to this basic: breathing. “Much like in meditation, when I’m in the middle of a long run, I’ll focus on an audible exhale. The inhale happens automatically, but I’ve found that focusing on the exhale keeps me centered and in the moment. It also relaxes me, since I know I’m not holding my breath or working too hard. I almost treat those moments like yoga. When I find myself struggling or working too hard, I bring it back to the exhale.”
6. Say it to make it so
Barrett also relies on a tried-and-true mantra to go the distance—for her, the words power, alignment, love, and energy. She says the words bring her strength and focus, and also provide physical and emotional cues. “The word love especially can sometimes bring me out of a funk if I’m in a dark space during a race,” she explains. “I have love for the sport, for my body, for those who are cheering, and by testing my limits as an athlete, I’m creating a loving and open space.”
7. Let go of what you can’t control
Likewise, Greene says that our race attitude—particularly the way we react to uncontrollable factors—can impact whether we get derailed or stay on track. “If we could control the results, everyone would finish a race in the time they desire,” he says. Since that’s obviously not the case, Greene’s advice is to break down a long race like a marathon or half marathon into sub-goals (those aspects of the race that have actionable steps we can take directly). “Typically, people think of physical goals when I talk to them about small sub-goals (maintaining a certain heart rate, for example). There’s nothing wrong with those types of goals, but I think just as important—if not more important—are our mental goals, which can help us keep our heads in the race,” says Greene. “Part of the mental goal should include the idea that things will not go our way and some key ideas, words, and statements to keep from expending too much energy being pissed off, disappointed, or upset.”
8. Practice radical acceptance
Petruzelli suggests that athletes train to use radical acceptance, which requires us to consciously acknowledge that we have done all we could to change, control, or manage a situation, and at this moment there is nothing more than could be done but accept the moment as it is. She says this allows us to accept the reality of what is, not what could be, should be, or ought to be.
9. Channel your alter ego
At times, however, a bit of fantasizing can serve us well. Barrett’s tricks include tapping into her alter ego for inspiration—to get outside of herself a little bit and become someone else. “If you’re struggling, create a character who isn’t. For me, the image of Deena Kastor in the 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon has always stayed with me, so I channel my inner Deena. During the Athens marathon, she started off slow and remained patient and determined throughout. She kept her white hat low and eventually ran her way from mid-pack to the Bronze medal. I use that image during races as a reminder to remain patient, stay within myself, and avoid getting caught up in what everyone else is doing.”
10. Weather your emotions
Petruzelli stresses that a variety of factors can clamor for our focus, and it’s important to understand and react accordingly. “If feelings are pulling you out of the moment, remind yourself that feelings are not facts. Feelings and emotions are temporary, especially in a long race, so don’t let your race plan change because of emotions. Emotions are like the weather—you adapt to them until they pass. During a long race, remind yourself that emotions are a part of the process The ups and downs are a part of why we do these races.”
11. Separate fact from fiction
“If thoughts are pulling you out of the moment,” Petruzelli continues, “ask yourself, are they based in fact or fiction? Our thoughts are one or the other—i.e. I’m slowing off my goal pace (fact), or I’m blowing up and won’t be able to recover (fiction). Fictional thoughts can’t be proven in the moment and often take the form of judgments, assumptions, or catastrophic conclusions. Fictional thought patterns can trick an athlete into believing that they’re factual, because they typically pull in strong emotions.”
12. Create a new moment
Finally, says Petruzelli, distraction can actually serve an in-the-moment purpose. “If physical sensations pull you out of the moment, distract yourself by repeating a mantra, singing a song in your head, high fiving volunteers or other competitors, or focusing on running to that next aid station or mile marker. Basically, do anything distracting to take your focus off the pain or sensation.” Bottom line, if the moment you’re in is painful, craft a new one.