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Taming the 5k road race: Playing mind games on Race Day


We were in the final stages of the Olympic marathon. For nearly 26 miles, I had dueled the runner from Kenya, alternately seizing and relinquishing the lead. Now, with the Olympic stadium looming ahead, I could faintly hear the cheers from the spectators massed inside. We entered a tunnel that cut under the stands, the rhythmic slap-slap of our running shoes echoing against the cold, damp concrete walls. As we emerged onto the track, a thunderous roar erupted from the crowd. Like a jolt of electricity, it brought my body to life. I dashed furiously for the finish line, just edging out the exhausted Kenyan. The gold medal was mine.

Then I returned to reality. The track and Olympic stadium were replaced by a woodland trail; the crowd became a flock of boisterous crows. And I was running at full tilt, as though I really were going for the gold.

Distance running is 50 percent body, 50 percent mind. Unless both have been trained to work together, you’re in for trouble. A physically superior runner, not mentally prepared for the race, will surely fail. The recreational jogger, not adequately “psyched” before a training run, may likewise falter. What can we do to get our minds in shape for Race Day? Here are some ideas:

1. MAKE-BELIEVE: While jogging, pretend that you’re an elite runner competing in a major event like the Boston Marathon. Imagine the cheering crowd, the TV cameras and commentators, the excitement. Now throw in a world-class athlete going head-to-head with you. And slowly but surely, you’re pulling away. Sounds silly, but you’d be amazed how easily you can engage your mind in such a fantasy – especially during a long training run. And the technique works. Your body automatically responds to the “race,” and you run harder. You’ve also fostered a nice mind-body link. It feels great to be an Olympic champion.

2. VISUALIZATION: This commonly-used mental technique is similar to “make-believe,” except that it’s geared to a real situation. Jog over the actual course you’ll be running in a race. At critical times, like on an uphill stretch of near the finish line, imagine you’re battling it out with an opponent and you have the upper hand. Your body responds to the mental challenge as your mind visualizes success. You create a positive mind-set that instills confidence during actual race conditions.

3. IMPRINT: This is a conditioned response that results from doing something over and over until it becomes automatic. Every one of my training runs is terminated by a hard finish no matter how relaxed the run was supposed to be or how tired I may feel. My mind and body are geared to pick up the pace as soon as the finish line appears in sight. Result? I usually finish strong in road races. Try imprinting on hills. Whenever you approach an uphill stretch, dig in and work hard. Eventually, you’ll be conditioned to aggressively tackle any hill you encounter in a race.

4. PLAYING TO THE HOME CROWD: Whether it be a major sports team competing before the home crowd or an individual athlete performing under the admiring eye of someone special, we all tend to shine before an appreciative audience. Face it, when it comes to sports, most of us tend to “play the crowd.” I’ve always run my best when family of friends were waiting at the finish line. On Race Day, invite friends, family, boyfriend or girlfriend to cheer you on. Their presence, even though you cannot see them during most of the race, will serve as an inspiration to keep you going. And after you’ve crossed the finish line, those congratulatory hugs will be your greatest reward.

5. MIND MUSIC: Last week, we nixed the idea of wearing headphones during a run. Still, there’s no denying the motivational power of music. If you absolutely must get a “fix” from the “Rocky” theme, a rousing rock tune, or a Beethoven symphony, get “pumped up” by listening to your iPod as you warm up prior to a run. Then you can glide over street or trail, the refrains from your psych music still playing in your mind.

6. CONFIDENCE: This is a frame of mind that comes from a combination of physical and mental conditioning. I suspect that you’re far more confident about your running right now than you were six weeks ago at the onset of this program. And you’ll be even more confident on Race Day. Run long distances until you’re confident you can run five kilometers nonstop. Work hard on hills until you’re confident they won’t dramatically slow you down. Concentrate on maintaining a hard, steady pace until you’re confident you can do the same in a race. And remember, confidence is gained only through steady work. Keep up with your workouts.

Groton Road Race

Training Schedule

Goal for the Week: A five-mile nonstop run

Sunday, April 4: Start the week with a 12-minute “out and back” run. Run for 12 minutes at a brisk pace. At the 12-minute mark, turn and retrace your path home. Try to arrive back faster than your original 12 minutes.

Monday, April 5: 12- to 15-minute relaxed jog.

Tuesday, April 6: Three-mile run. Concentrate on running a brisk, steady pace. The 5K race is slightly longer than this distance.

Wednesday, April 7: Rest Day. If the weather is nice, take a long, brisk walk.

Thursday, April 8: 15- to 20-minute relaxed jog.

Friday, April 9: Five-mile nonstop jog. Another milestone run – five miles. Did you ever think you could run this far when you began jogging six weeks ago? Your total mileage this week comes to about 14 – nice going.

Saturday, April 10: Rest Day.

Next Week: A look at the Groton Road Race 5K course.

Join Friends and Neighbors Wednesday’s at the G-D Middle School Track at 6 p.m. for a fun training workout (all abilities welcome). Can e-mail for more questions.