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Racing confidence

October 22, 2012

Psychology plays a key part in racing. Confidence and self-belief can make a massive difference in the time a runner can achieve. Arguably, the longer the distance, the more important the headgame becomes.

Fresh(ish) from running a surprising 82-minute half-marathon at the weekend, I was telling a colleague (who also does a lot of running) about how I hadn’t expected to run near that time since my training had been more miss than hit in the preceding weeks.

‘Well, you’ll be able to run that time for the first half of the marathon next year,’ he said.

‘Pfft, I don’t think so,’ I replied before I’d even thought about it.

‘Why not?’

Good question. Why not?

Because a year-and-a-half ago I crossed the half-way point in 1:27 minutes, only to fall apart in the second half and finish in 3:07? Because I’d spent the weeks and months afterwards fixating on running 6:52 splits, judging an effort as unsustainably fast or painfully slow based on that pace? Because this April I’d once more crossed the half-way point in around 1:26 minutes and run a nearly even split for the second half, finishing in 2:55, but felt like I couldn’t have upped the pace any further?

After a bad first attempt at the Virgin London Marathon, I’ve put my sub-3 demons thoroughly to bed with a 2:55:31 PB at London in April, and then six weeks later running 2:56 at Edinburgh. If anything, I know that I’d have been capable of taking a couple of minutes off my PB at Edinburgh had I properly rested up the day before as I would have done for an A race.

I know from last weekend’s half-marathon that my 81:53 PB is a soft target and that with consistent training and the right conditions on the day I can go sub-80.

I train hard. I set myself (albeit largely secretly) ambitious – yet, crucially, achievable – targets. I focus and plan and visualise. And yet, get me to the start line of a race, and I’ll become conservative in my expectations. Toeing the line of the Oxford Half-marathon I was seriously asking myself whether I could manage 85-minute pace; six months earlier, standing as far back in the starting pen on Blackheath as I could I was focusing on just managing 6:52s.

On the one hand, this might sound like every split I run under this low-end expectation feels like a bonus. The Virgin London Marathon saw an average split time of around 6:40. This may sound like buying an extra minute of leeway every six miles, but in reality I was fighting every mile against thinking that I was running too fast. Reverting back to lower expectations at the last minute makes you question your training experience and simply builds the self-doubt that can limit your performance.

So, it’s clear that I need to build my racing confidence before April next year. Part of me wonders whether a focus on target mile splits may – to an extent – be detrimental. Maybe I need to try to find a way of overcoming fear of failure – get to the start of a race that doesn’t hold any particular significance and really push without worrying about consequences? Perhaps even run the race without a watch so I only have how I feel to go on? It might be an interesting experiment at the very least…

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