The Paradox of Trying to Run Fast

We are in full swing of cross-country season and the Championship races are around the corner.

All of a sudden, the stakes are high and the results matter more than ever.

For some runners, this means improving and having breakthroughs; for others it can mean a plateau or decline in performances. Many high school cross country runners report their best races at the beginning of the season, fresh off summer training, and are perplexed when 6-8 weeks later of training they are not achieving results they expected. 

By October and November, the promise of “the best season ever” may fade, and along with it, building doubt. Was enough work done? Was too much work done? Is the fatigue too high? Is the training right or wrong?  Why am I not getting faster? Am I going to fail to achieve my goals this year? What’s wrong with me?

Since I have the pleasure of working with many high school athletes across Canada and the US, both as a personal coach and as an advisor / consultant, I have had many similar conversations in the last couple of weeks with runners who are starting to feel the internal pressure to success and with it, often, a decline in performances. 

There are many factors to consider, but one of the trends I see is that the harder the athlete tries, and the more important the results, the less satisfied the athlete is, and the worse they run.  I call this the “paradox of trying hard to run fast”.  Simply put, for motivated and results-driven runners, the recipe that worked in the beginning of season when the stakes were lower is no longer working. Ironically, the more the focus goes into the results, the more the performance continues to decline.

The reason boils down to what sports psychologist will classify as being “results-oriented” versus “process-oriented”.   In the beginning of the season, the emphasis is on having fun, getting a fitness benchmark, and running free and strong.  Many athletes thrive under these conditions and perform at their best. They are able to find “flow” and get into the “zone” which optimizes fitness and mental strength. 

As the season progresses, the emphasis changes to guarding one’s spot on the varsity team, qualifying for state, running personal bests and having top finishes at Regional and State/Provincial Championships.  Goals, even result-based goals, are important for motivation but often counter-productive for execution of good races.  Suddenly thoughts dominant the brain during races, preventing the athlete from achieving the true optimal performance zone, which is critical to performances. 

I often tell athletes that they need to “get out of their brains” and stop thinking so much.   Getting in the flow involves trusting your body that the work you have done will flourish if you let it.  Getting in the flow means turning of the analytical part of your brain which cares about splits, and counts bodies, which only serves to distract you from the only thing that matters: running fast.  Getting in the flow means focusing on the process of running fast and not the results: rhythmic breathing, relaxed shoulders and arms, quick legs, strong posture, etc.

Focusing on positive emotions, such as feeling good, feeling strong, feeling confident, will shift the focus from one that produces stress and anxiety to one that is inherently calmer and more resilient.  It is this state where mindfulness – being totally in the moment – is achieved, and therefore, where breakthrough performances occur.  Being your best requires 100% focus on the task at hand: running fast, staying relaxed, finishing strong; by over-thinking, the mind starts to under-mind the body and bring things crashing down. 

To help athletes find their right zone, I often ask them to think of a race when they felt effortless and strong and they were happy with the results. Think back to the race:

·      How did you feel during the race?

·      What did you think about during the race?

·      What emotions did you feel during the race?

·      What was your focus during the race? 

 

Think back to a more recent race, especially if it was not as good.

 

·      How did you feel during the race?

·      What did you think about during the race?

·      What emotions did you feel during the race?

·      What was your focus during the race? 

 

Compare the answers from the “great race” and the “not so great race”.  Can you identify any gaps? Did the focus shift from process-oriented goals such as having fun, feeling strong, attacking hills, staying relaxed, etc to results-oriented goals like finishing in the top 10 or being #1 runner on the team?  Did the emotions change from being happy to feeling doubtful to anxious?  Did the mind over power the body with thoughts of splits and team scores versus running strong and relaxed? 

As we go into Championship season, it is impossible to discount the importance of results.  However, the best way to achieve those results is to find the zone and flow that allows you to succeed; and more often than not, that includes simplifying the approach and focusing on positive emotions and less on actual results.  Go back to basics and run free, and hard - and remember at the end of the day that your parents still love you!

I am curious what your thoughts are: do you find you run your best when you focus on how you feel versus what you want to achieve? How do you get into the optimal race zone?