“What do you think about when you’re racing?”

I get asked this question a lot. Some people might assume that elite runners let our minds wander in boredom for the many minutes or hours we’re hauling down the road or lapping the track. In easy running, daydreaming is fair game. But in racing, the personal mission takes center stage.

Racing isn’t much different from any other task where you’re trying to maximize your potential. Similar to taking the SATs, beating your top score in a video game, or creating a work of art, it’s about engaging and focusing on the job at hand. This task happens to be riding the red line of lactic destruction as closely and for as long as possible.

Being able to ride that red line for an entire race usually doesn’t just happen. The undertaking requires mental strategies for staying focused on the pace while managing a slow-growing fatigue that goes from irritating to tap-out worthy for an uncomfortably long period of time.

It took the first few years of my professional career to learn most of these things. I picked up some ideas from talking to a sports psychologist, some from observing the best in the business via training partners like Olympians Amy Rudolph and Kim Smith, some through advice from my coach, Ray Treacy, some from training partner and sports psychology consultant Roisin Mcgettigan, and some from books. (New and old suggestions in this vein: Endure, by Alex Hutchinson; The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---, by Mark Manson; Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor; and Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman).

Here are the main strategies I use. Racers of all speeds can benefit from them.

Break It Down

In most races, I break the distance down into manageable pieces (laps if on the track, miles in longer road events). This sounds simple, but so is racing. Pushing your limits hurts, and any mental tricks to manage that discomfort and keep you engaged in the moment will help you get the most out of your body that day.

I’ve found this technique useful when I’m leading in a track race, such as the 2016 Olympic Trials 10,000 meters. I didn’t feel great, and thermometers were traveling upwards from 85 degrees in the sunny mid-morning heat of Eugene in June. I was a bit panicked at talented athletes saving energy behind me, with the crowd of hundreds in the stands eager to see some kind of drama, be it failure or success on my part. I focused on hitting a specific lap split I knew I could handle but I thought might tire the others, similar to what I often did in practice, lap after lap.

Watch: Molly Huddle breaks down her 10K race at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track Trials.

preview for 2016 Olympic Trials: Women's 10K: Molly Huddle

This simple strategy was also essential before my first marathon, where the distance became overwhelming to think about. Because of the separate elite-women-only start, I found myself alone in third place at the 11-mile mark of the 2016 New York City Marathon. The lonely last 15 miles became 15 times one mile; I didn’t think of the next mile until the last one was done. Thanks to thinking this way, I was able to stay engaged and hold on to third place to the finish.

Find Your Zone

I also try to clear my mind of everything but the immediate tasks of running this mile in this time, or staying with this athlete, or grabbing this bottle, and that’s it. I don’t think about the finish, my desired place or the emotional gravity of the race. No matter how important a given race is to you, it helps to remember that it’s really just another race as far as most of the process goes.

Emotional control, checking in with my body, and an uncluttered mind are important in my zone. The experience would be almost meditative if it weren’t for the pain and adrenaline.

Movies like Miracle and Hoosiers may have us think we should be visualizing making our supporters proud or how badly we want the prize midrace. But those athletes were really executing a plan etched into their cerebellum by hours of practice and quieting any distractions elsewhere.

Emotions can be great motivators for practice and goal setting, but I find that they can get in the way of actually executing the plan, so I had to consciously try to become a cooler customer while racing. I often think of this quote by boxing coach Cus D’Amato: “Emotions are like fire... they can cook your food and keep you warm, or they can burn your house down.”

I know I was as focused as I should have been when afterward someone asks if I heard them yelling in my face or noticed something on the course, and I have no idea what they’re talking about because I was zeroed into the event.

In my worst races I was thinking ahead to the finish, which often made me panic at how bad I already felt. I would try to force a position too early with energy-wasting moves or force a pace while ignoring that my body was working too hard too early.

Frame the Situation

It can be intimidating to line up against athletes who are much better than you. Though you hope to race well, you know getting (painfully) dropped from the pack is likely. I try to frame this as a positive event and remind myself I may never glimpse my limits if these other athletes weren’t pushing or pulling me along.

Sometimes I think of the field as showing up to help one another be our best rather than trying to fight for positions. Both are true, but for me, one is motivating and one is intimidating. Also, despite my fitness level or chance of winning, I remind myself that every race is an opportunity, and some skill will be sharpened from it regardless of the outcome.

The Mantra

For me, the middle to later phases of a race are about talking to myself. Just past halfway is where discomfort can creep up and start to get overwhelming. The negative thoughts can invade, and I sometimes think about fading or even stopping.

Rather than fight these thoughts, I let them flow through my head without giving them weight. I answer myself as though I’m coaching someone else. I tell myself to maintain what I’m doing, stay strong, focus on the athlete ahead, and that I will accept what my max effort is that day, win or lose.

This is a good time to use a positive mantra. I like to pick something simple and positive (like “endure” rather than “don’t quit”). The final surge to the finish line is often shortly after this internal conversation. This is my favorite part. It’s really uncomfortable! Here I tell myself to embrace the burn, run into it not away from it, and use up what’s left of my energy.

It’s thrilling to be racing people to the line. I try to repeat a simple and constructive body cue, like “drive.” Find ones that are relevant to you, such as “knees” if you struggle with knee lift. Here is where focus narrows to a pinpoint of trying to make a fading body move faster and with more power. I have had to remind myself to be more aware and less zeroed in here because I can miss important cues on positioning or tangents.

Ultimately, I don’t think you need to be too meta about how you approach racing. Of course the research is fascinating and helpful. More often, though, when I’m racing I’m thinking about how I feel anxiously, painfully but wonderfully most myself.

Molly Huddle is a two-time Olympian who holds the American record at 10,000 meters and the half marathon. She placed fourth at the 2018 New York City Marathon in a personal best of 2:26:44.

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