One thing that every athlete, musician or best man has in common is that just before they; embark on their big day /step onto stage / fix a buttonhole, a strange thing happens to their head. You can call it anxiety, nerves or pressure. Bottom line is this: that ‘thing’ that happens can seriously affect our ability to deliver on the day – no matter how much hard work we’ve put in.
We’re working on the basis you know what you’re doing when it comes to the more practical side of your preparation. This article is more about the strange impact that the big day can have on the way you think and feel.
Feeling pressure before a big event, imagined or otherwise, is almost inevitable – some would argue it’s the human condition. The trick is how we manage ourselves through those feelings and still deliver in a way that leaves us feeling like we did the best we could.
Toni Minichiello and Dave Alred know a thing or two about helping people prepare to perform at their very best, so I asked them to share their advice on how you can ensure all your hard yards and best laid plans pay off.
1) Stick to Your Plan
Perhaps not surprisingly, when I speak to them, Toni and Dave cannot emphasise enough the importance of sticking to your plan. Toni has witnessed first hand how changes things at the last minute can impact on performance,
At the Olympics in Rio I saw several people doing stuff they’d never done before…Always stick to what you know.
“At the Olympics in Rio I saw several people doing stuff they’d never done before, just because sponsors were providing freebies. One athlete, who I won’t name, had a massage before their run for the first time ever. They went out to compete and ran disastrously. Always stick to what you know”.
Whether or not you’ve experienced a large event before, I can guarantee you’ll be presented with new opportunities, free or otherwise, to ‘improve’ your performance. Here’s my advice: if you’re offered anything from an energy gel you haven’t tried before to new warm up routine, accept it politely and go nowhere near it until you’re back into your next training phase (caveat – always say ‘no’ to PEDs. Not big, not clever). Hold with what you know and ignore the new.
If the fear of failure gets bigger than the desire to succeed, you’ll fail. Just stick to the pre-event routine you planned.
Dave Alred picks up the thread,
“The first and most important thing is to stick to your plan. You’ve spent months preparing yourself for a reason. Remember that. The second thing is to focus on what you need to do rather than thinking about the outcome. If the fear of failure gets bigger than the desire to succeed, you’ll fail. Just stick to the pre-event routine you planned. Forget the ‘ifs’, ‘whens’ and ‘maybes’. That’s all you need to do”.
2) Run Your Race
Gathering at the start of a major event like a marathon has an unusual effect on most of us. Unless you have a very peculiar training regime, it’s unlikely that your average run starts surrounded by thousands of strangers and onlookers. This means that you become enveloped by ‘the buzz’. It’s infectious and uplifting but potentially disastrous. Dave explains why,
Pacing in the first few miles is crucial. It’s easy to get carried away with euphoria…
“Pacing in the first few miles is crucial. It’s easy to get carried away with euphoria. After the initial shuffle past the start line and the spaces begin to free up in front of you, you’re likely to have a huge adrenaline rush and feel that you can take on the world. Ironically, running the 200 metres you’d love to have that adrenaline. For an endurance event it can still be useful but if you let it take hold and set off too quickly it can back-fire badly”.
I remember learning this lesson the hard way. I was one of a couple of thousand riders in a cycling event. It was a beautiful summer morning, hardly any breeze and I had trained like a demon. I was perfectly prepared. Then, the starter gun fired and spurred on by the rifle-like volley of thousands of cleats snapping into their pedals I shot off, head down and wearing a maniacal grin. For 4.9 kilometres I had the time of my life. For the one and only time (before or since), I was leading the entire field. I vividly remember cresting a hill and looking back to see an enormous, multicoloured peloton in hot pursuit. Suddenly the enormity and stupidity of what I had done hit not only my head but my legs. At 5 km my energy drained and within seconds I was sucked in and spat out by the hundreds of better, more experienced riders who had been tailing me. Several hours later I limped home, after enduring a crash brought on by cramps and having ground my pedals through 95 crushingly painful kilometres. Please don’t be like me.
Run your race but take it all in too. Enjoy it.
Toni knows this story and has seen it repeated many times,
“Understand the task in front of you. Be sensible. You might be able to get away with sprinting away on a 10k. Not a Marathon. In many ways the London Marathon is a tourist tour – there is loads to look at; landmarks, bands playing at the side of the street, people cheering. Run your race but take it all in too. Enjoy it.”.
3) Learn To Count
Running a Marathon is unlikely to be a breeze for anyone. By definition the distance creates challenges and it’s managing yourself through those challenges that provides the line between a great experience and a very, very tough day.
When things start getting difficult, the key is to have strategies to help deflect discomfort.
Dave Alred is a past master of helping people manage themselves through the tough times,
“When things start getting difficult, which you’ve probably experienced in some way already, the key is to have strategies to help deflect discomfort. This helps you put the running into your subconscious and keeps the flow going. That’s what it’s all about; rhythm and flow. How much can I feel I’m flowing over the ground?”.
“When you say strategies, what do you mean?”
“It’s very simple”. (which it needs to be when your cognitive powers are not at their best!) “It’s based around counting, breaking down the whole into smaller, manageable moments. Focus on counting your steps, your breath. Instead of watching the mile markers, focus on each subsequent lamppost. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the miles can go by”.
Toni picks up,
“Get into the rhythm you know you can manage. Slow down and get back on target: progressively. Step by step.”
We’re actually fairly simple creatures. The brain struggles with more than one focus point. When you practice counting you distract yourself from pain. If you lose count, don’t worry: start over. For my part I like counting in tens – looping round and round in a semi-hypnotic state. If that doesn’t work, take Toni’s advise and soak in the sights and sounds, they’ll help more than you might imagine.
4) Keep It Loose
Of course, your body is probably not used to the level of load you’ll be placing on it so it will react, potentially unkindly, to what you’re asking it to do. Dave has a closing tip,
If you hit the wall your cadence and stride length will change… Keep counting, find your pace and think your way out of discomfort.
“Discomfort often creeps into your shoulders as you tense up. To help yourself loosen up think about balancing your head on your body – to do that most effectively you’ll have to relax your shoulders. Keep your hands and fingers loose: give your fingers a little flick as your feet hit the ground.
If you hit the wall your cadence and stride length will change. That’s when you bank on your metronome. Keep counting, find your pace and think your way out of discomfort”.
I ask Toni for his closing thoughts,
“You may have done it for the challenge but at the end of the day sport, any sport, should be about enjoyment. Keep that in mind”.
Sitting here with a torn Achilles I know what Toni means. Relish the moments. Appreciate the fact that you’re able to run. Soak it all up. If you’re raising money I hope your coffers overflow. If you’re doing it for yourself that’s cool too. You’re doing an amazing thing. Enjoy it. That’s why you signed up.