Podium Mindset Camp: Answering Athletes' Questions on Race Day Mental Prep

I had a blast at the first Podium Mindset Camp of the summer. If you missed it, sign-up for Camp 2: July 28-29th. My favorite part about camp is reading and answering all of the athletes’ questions at the conclusion of Day 1.  I have athletes write out any questions they have and hand them in at the end of the first day.  It presents not only an opportunity for me and my team to share knowledge with young athletes, but also a chance for me to stay up to date with the questions and concerns of young runners.

A lot of the questions that campers asked were related to race strategy and dealing with pain. I shared one strategy with them that I learned over the course of my career. I put it to good use the day that I ran 9:35 in the steeplechase and hit the qualifying mark for the Olympic games. Prior to the race, I had a handful of very disappointing performances. I needed to tweak my mental preparation: what I was doing the previous season wasn’t working this season (probably because everything is amped up in an Olympic year!). I remember three specific things I focused on this day:

1.     I have the tendency to mistake fitness for guaranteed results. Even though I was fit and capable or running my goal time, I needed to remind myself that it was still going to be very, very hard. Fitness does not make races easy, it helps you prepare for when races get hard. A good training block allows you to face the pain and continue to push. For this particular race, I prepared to embrace the pain. It was around the time that the song, “Baby, this is what you came for” was hitting the top of the charts. To the same tune, I would repeat, “This is what I trained for”—accepting and embracing the pain when it hit.

2.     It was obvious that the pressure to make the Olympics was getting to me mid race. Everyone was asking, “Oh, so like, you’re going to the Olympics this year, right?” I would try and keep my response light hearted and say, “Yea, I put my name on the sign-up sheet, so I should be going.” Explaining the ins-and-outs of an Olympic qualifying procedure for athletics is hard for many non-athletes to understand. Continually getting asked this question was making me tense. I could feel my brain pounding inside my skull during warmups earlier in the season. I started telling myself, “Relax your brain” and that helped me a lot. I envisioned the worries floating away as I let me brain relax.

3.     The last thing I did, and I still do this today, is repeat “Right here, right now” (also to the beat of the song!). I catch my thoughts drifting ahead to what might happen next in the race and this phrase helps me focus on staying strong in the present moment. Focusing on the present helps me get through the race one lap at a time, and I know that if I can make it close to the end, I can unleash a powerful last lap.

Whenever I was diligent about remembering the mindset that helped me approach a race, I performed better. However, there are so many temptations to get away from this and focus on hitting big PBs or beating certain people. Getting sucked into that trap wasn’t good for me. It takes discipline to create a routine and stick with it. It also takes self-awareness to understand when you may have outgrown your approach to competition: as we grow as athletes, our pre-performance routine may need to grow, too.