Running a marathon feels like a “big moment.” But what exactly contributes to the feeling of a “big moment” when it comes to performance? Our cognitive perception determines our own subjective interpretation, personal meaning-making, and subsequent emotions about race weekend and the marathon itself.
There are typically three psychological frameworks in which we see events that make them feel extraordinary. It’s these outlooks, or combination of mindsets, that give the occasion significance. As we prepare for a major event like a marathon, each of the following perceptions are usually present in some form, with one usually being the dominating factor. Understanding how you see the big event—and more importantly, what you do with these perceptions—goes a long way to ensure proper emotional management to get you to the starting line ready to crush your big race.
Any competition comes with a challenge: It could be the course, the distance, or the opportunity to set a PR. We seek these personal challenges for psychological growth and because we love to push our limits. We run far and fast because of the inherent challenge involved in marathon running, not despite of it.
Marathons embody a challenge framework in two ways: First, the requirement to earn a qualifying time (or being selected for a charity team, which is equally, if not more competitive than qualifying in its own right), and then in running the race itself. And the course is no walk in the park, as we all know. Think about the challenge of the distance, the course, and the potential conditions of the day.
What to Do: Embrace It and Connect to Excitement
In large part, the challenge is what makes the race special. Embrace everything there is about the experience and connect to the excitement you feel about the race. Experience the thrill of running with fellow athletes and realise they may be experiencing the same feelings as you. Remember, you’re here because you earned your spot, and you’ve successfully overcome numerous trials along the way. Being able to focus on excitement rather than anxiety, is an important sports psychology skill as we consider the second perceptual outlook: the potential for threat.
Essentially, there are two types of threat we experience as humans. The first is actual threat to your physical well-being, safety, or health. Something in the moment that may cause you real bodily harm or injury. This type of physical threat leads to fear.
The second type of threat, the perception that something may be potentially harmful (either physically or psychologically) without the actual presence of danger, is experienced by the body in much the same way as we process physical threat. But this type of threat is experienced as anxiety. Anxiety almost always starts in the mind with two tiny little words that, together, pack a major punch: What if?
What if the weather sucks? What if I didn’t train enough? What if I don’t accomplish my goals? What if I don’t re-qualify for next year’s race? What if I disappoint my family, friends, community, charity team, etc.?
Remember that threat is only a threat if it’s connected to something of value. If the experience or outcome weren’t valued, we wouldn’t care if it were being potentially threatened or possibly taken away.
Pressure is a variant of threat, and it occurs in the context of a meaningful event that has a tangible outcome susceptible to judgment, appraisal, or scrutiny from ourselves and/or others. We have a tendency to load personal worth with outcomes, which can make your finishing time at the most prestigious marathon feel so important. Uncertainty takes this to a new level, as we begin to contemplate the day’s conditions and obsessively check the weather each day, or fret if we are properly trained to handle the course. When we start to see threats—not only to our performance and goals on race day, but also to our own self-worth—we are likely to find anxiety right behind.
Think of it this way, if not performing well is taken as a sign of not having value as a person, the threat is going to loom larger than if it not performing well were just a matter of disappointment, not devastation. Differentiating this level of self-judgment is key in analyzing the depth of threat that you may be experiencing.
What to Do: Question It and Connect to Trust
First, question what is actually on the line. What is the worst possible outcome should you not reach your desired level of success on race day? Sure, it will be disappointing to fall short of your goals. It may sting and hurt for a while. But does it need to lead to devastated self-worth?
Second, connect to trust. Trust is the greatest antidote to anxiety we have. We often hear, “trust your training” from friends, family and fellow athletes as we prepare for a meaningful race. Although a solid sentiment, this is too generic and too much of a cliche to actually prove helpful.
Rather, chose what you’re going to trust about how you showed up during training. Did you push yourself when the miles or pace became difficult? Did you tackle long runs on challenging terrain? Can you trust your willingness and desire to continue when you fatigue? Given the weather conditions and your current fitness, can you trust that you will make the best decisions in your pursuit of high performance? The more specific the degree of trust, the better your ability to counter-weight the threat.
Opportunities come in windows. Sure, you can run the course of bucket list marathons if you happen to live nearby, but it’s not the same without a bib and 25,000 friends cheering you on. Opportunity windows give you one chance to put your training to the test. And there is no guarantee that the weather will cooperate, or you’ve been granted enough alignment of training, rest, preparation, mental fortitude, and luck (yes, I said luck) to realise the goals you have in mind for the day. Much like challenge, this singular opportunity is what makes marathons great, makes it special, and for some, a once-in-a-lifetime race.
What to Do: Soak It In and Seize the Moment
As you wander through the expo, stop for a moment and feel the energy of your fellow competitors. Take a deep breath (mindfulness and deep breathing have been shown to reduce both feelings and physiological experiences of anxiety). And if you’re looking for a little extra help dialling in focus, listen to my pre-race, six-minute guided meditation.
Race day is your chance to the seize the moment and decide how you’re going to show up. When I ran Boston for the first time in 2017, the weather was quite a bit warmer than I would have liked. I knew when I started overheating by the 5K mark that a peak performance wasn’t in the cards. Rather than forge ahead with a PR attempt, I decided to back off the pace and soak in the experience of running from Hopkinton to Bolyston Street. This was a purposeful and deliberate decision, and one I don’t regret.
Make good decisions on race day. If you came to push your limits, open it up, and let it rip. If you came to enjoy the experience, take in all the sights, sounds, and experiences along the way. Whatever you choose, seize the moment by making a deliberate choice, then don’t hold back.
A version of this article was originally published on Runner’s World
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