The Mental Game

Losing the Mental Game

Lately I’ve been feeling like my running is more of a mental than physical game. After last weekend’s 5k, I was pretty disappointed. There are two kinds of thoughts that I’ve been going back and forth on in the past week or so.

The first: “Come on, Jenny. Give yourself a break! It was hot and humid and a tough day to all-out race a 5k. You almost PR’d and you’re still so early in this training cycle!”.

The second: “No excuses. You weren’t mentally prepared. You weren’t even nervous or excited about the possibility of running a PR.”

To be fair, both of these thoughts are legitimate, but running and all of the emotions that go along with it aren never black and white. I’m too stubborn to accept the first thought (so stubborn, I suppose, that I feel like I can conquer anything weather throws at me.) And I’m too scared to accept the second thought as true because this is the one that I have control over.

The truth is that there are things that I can do in the future to make sure that I’m mentally prepared for a race that is supposed to be uncomfortable.

When I started running regularly I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into or how addicting that feeling of crossing the finish line with a PR would be. Lemme tell ya, we all want to get back to that feeling as soon as humanly possible once it happens. And that’s probably why training and racing long distances is so tough. The payoff doesn’t come until months and months down the road. It’s really easy to get greedy.

I wanted that instantaneous hit of “I did it! I PR’d a race I wasn’t really that prepared for!” and I didn’t get it.

I don’t think I internalized my goal last weekend. My legs forgot what it felt like to run consistent 6:30s and I crossed the finish line feeling like they were going to fall off. I let myself get distracted enough to not care about the time on the clock. And that’s a sad thought.

It wasn’t my body that failed me, it was my brain. And that thought still hurts.

I’m planning on slotting another 5k into my training before Grand Rapids to see if redemption is possible. Even if I don’t PR the next one, my goal is to arrive at the start line with a “quiet confidence” that I can push myself for +/- 20 minutes because that’s what my head, my heart, and body are capable of.

Training, Lately:

I started consistently training again at the end of May, with a 21-week plan to the Grand Rapids Marathon from Coach. Between mid-April and early June, I was really lazy. I was all too happy to accept that and I’m so glad that I allowed myself the time off. I’ve never been the type of runner to jump into another training cycle immediately following a race. And like most people, the mental and physical rest was necessary after Boston.

I just finished up Week 5 of the 21-week cycle. Back to base-building and a slow progression to speed and stamina workouts:

Week 1: 30 miles

Happy to run 5 x per week again & surprised to find I hadn’t lost much fitness in sloth-mode!

Week 2: 33 miles

Highlights included consistent 400 m splits under 1:30 and two tempo miles faster than I expected

Week 3: 34 miles

11 miles through the “wilderness”

Week 4: 32 miles

Highlights included tough 800s into a massive headwind, beer run, and 5k race

Week 5: 34 miles 

First strength training class at my gym in months, some heat training, and a weekend of anniversary celebration

There’s no reason to be unhappy with my training so far this cycle. I remember when I used to dream of running the paces I run on a consistent basis now. I just have to be patient and work hard.

What do you do to get mentally prepared for a race? Have you ever “raced greedy” before?

– J



19 thoughts on “The Mental Game

  1. Hillary says:

    My general pre-race, night-before, mental prep involves panic, so maybe not the best example to follow. Post-warm up, I usually try to visualize how great the finish chute will feel, or I’ll try and build excitement in the first quarter-to-half mile, telling myself, “You’re actually *doing this*! You’re *racing*, girl!”

    All else fails, I chase the women wearing BumpIts. 🙂

  2. hyedi says:

    Atlas Genius!!! Nice 🙂

    I definitely need to work on my mental game. From race to race I vary between being so unprepared that I don’t know the race start location until the night before to laying my race clothes out a week ahead of time (and then switching pieces out each day depending on the weather forecast). In general, I’m pretty much a ball of anxiety until I start running!

    • Jenny says:

      I think that was definitely part of my problem at the Chi Women’s 5k- didn’t check the location or plan transit until 9 pm the night before. 🙂 I hope I can build some excitement into my routine for the next one!

  3. ErinAMG says:

    such good stuff here, as usual! I think I also went in my last 5k race greedy (coincidence!) and felt the same slew of emotions afterward as you. It is super easy and tempting for me to get ahead of myself in training/racing, so I try to remind myself to just run the mile I’m in, the only thing I have control over this instant. Otherwise, I mentally prepare for a race like I would for a test; I study! and get nervous and excited…and eventually very, very mellow. I also try for the quiet confidence ideal as well 🙂

  4. phampants says:

    I’m retraining myself in the mental game. I’m not worried about the physical (though I am having issues) just yet. It’s the mind that I need to relearn how to relax and enjoy.

  5. Lucas says:

    I am probably the weird one that doesn’t get nervous before races. No butterflies or anything. I LOVE the start line, sizing people up and then getting after it in a race and seeing how much you can leave out on the course. Racing is different for everyone though. You have to hold on to the part that keeps you coming back for more and use that as your fuel to get through those rough patches. And, sometimes it’s just not there no matter what but keep fighting and know the next one is yours!

    • Jenny says:

      So YOU’RE that guy! Haha, to be fair, I’m jealous. I feel like I’m getting my race mojo back now and I’m excited about my races through the fall. Learning to race in the moment and have fun 🙂

      • Lucas says:

        I definitely had a rough year last year where I’d go out at the pace I wanted to run but my fitness was really much lower than I hoped. I call it my down year now but it showed that racing was what I loved to do. And for the record, I haven’t PR’d since 2010 so keep fighting! 🙂

  6. Dominick S. says:

    Great analysis…most likely this is how you look at life as well. It’s good to give yourself a little bit of a break considering there were factors against you but at the same time its good that you expect more out of yourself. Your answer is in the middle although the reality is, under different conditions, you probably would have gone sub 20, it doesn’t hurt to feel disappointed and examine your motivation and/or attitude.

    I don’t race that often but when I do, I get into all the head games, especially when I know how much time I have invested in training. It is usually pretty negative but that also makes it very difficult for me to give into the part that wants to stop/give up/slow down. I think you’ll be just fine come the next 5k.

  7. chanthana says:

    Where have I been??? Your blog is beautiful! I love the layout 🙂 I let my brain get the best of me way too much. We have to stop letting self-defeating thoughts in us. I think you are amazing and I can’t wait to see you & Hill this weekend.

  8. Kristen L says:

    The mental game can be so tricky. Definitely something I think a lot of us have to work on. I get a little nervous before most races. I try to practice visualization for a few days before and staying strong even when it gets difficult.

  9. Kristy Hill (@KristyH5) says:

    even though your head might have gotten the best of you at this race, it hasn’t every race. We have ALL been there…and we can’t PR every race. You’re right, we do get greedy. When it’s PR time it will happen…. after coming off of a crappy 2012, trust me, it happens with patience, positivity and hard work. You have plenty PLENTY of PR’s to come in your future! And right, you are only 5 weeks into your training… that would have been like if I PR’d at the Pig – I was 5 mins off of PR.

    You will be much tougher next time. Live and learn. You won’t want to feel this way again.

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