In 1988, Nike advertisers coined the phrase “Just Do It”. This slogan captured Nike's desire to associate their clothing and shoe company using professional athletes and motivational slogans emphasizing sportsmanship and health to drive success. Customers flocked to stores to purchase “Just Do It” apparel, which catapulted Nike sales for the next decade and making the “Just Do It” slogan one of the top two taglines of the 20th century.
Nike’s advertising campaign was in a word, brilliant. Those 3 simple words inspired the American public to get off the couch and attempt challenges they once thought impossible. Many people began to realize that completing a 5K, a marathon, a century (100 mile) bike ride, or even a full Ironman triathlon were not events merely for the elite to race. The goal of completing an event did not have to be winning, but rather taking on the challenge and finishing.
While watching one of Nike’s motivational commercials might motivate some to lace up their shoes and sprint out the door, the reality is, sometimes it is not always that easy. We all have excuses –obvious ones like work conflicts, children, time constraints and fatigue that make exercise and athletic goal setting take a backseat to more pressing matters. There can be deeper excuses as well, ones we are not quite so ready to admit, such as anxiety and fear.
Fear can take shape as that little voice in your head, the one that says you can’t do it. You will fail so why bother trying. You are weak compared to the rest of the field. You are out of shape, you are too old or too young, too large or too small. That fear can debilitate a person and prevent them from even attempting to set a goal like running a race. Fear can send a person into a panic at the start line of a race. While anxiety and fear can protect you from danger, it triggers the release of hormones such as adrenalin. Adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster to carry blood where it's most needed. You breathe faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy. You sweat to prevent overheating. Your mouth may feel dry as your digestive system slows down to allow more blood to be sent to your muscles. Your senses become heightened and your brain becomes more alert.
These changes make your body able to take action and protect you in a dangerous situation either by running away or fighting. It is known as the 'fight or flight' reflex. Once the danger has passed, other hormones are released, which help your muscles start to relax and breathing to become regulated again.
Clearly, running a race is not a life or death situation and a bit of adrenaline can help motivate a person to become race ready, but our limbic system (the portion of the brain that reacts to instinctual behavior and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response) doesn’t know how to differentiate. When the starting gun goes off, the instinctual brain either makes a person take off and “run for her life” (usually you see this individual bent over on the side of the road less than a mile into the race, gasping for breath) or shut down completely. Basic survival thoughts flood the mind, like “I am not going to make it,” or “turn around and go back home NOW.” This part of the brain is also the one that talks a person out of setting a goal or signing up for a race, filling the head with thoughts like “you are too fat to wear running shorts and spandex” or “everyone will laugh at you if you finish last.”
Fortunately, our brains have evolved over the past 1,000+ years and we now have a logical brain that can help us get past the initial panic at the start line and the days leading up to the race. The key into having a successful goal, whether it be in racing or in life, is learning how to calm the fear and anxiety thoughts. Here are a couple techniques that may help calm the negative inner self talk and lead you to a successful race:
- Prepare for what you can, accept and deal with what you can’t. Physically preparing for a race is important. Following a training plan, eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, and knowing ahead of time what to expect on race day (how to get to the race, where to park, where water stops are located on course, dressing for the conditions) will help boost confidence on race day. Remind yourself there will be things on race day that you can’t control and accept that. You can’t control the weather, the competition, the terrain, or how you have done at previous events (learn from past experiences, but leave them in the past- focus on the race in the here and now.
- Quieting the negative talk with logic. Spend a couple minutes writing down all the negative thoughts that fly through your mind leading up to a race and during the initial minutes just after the gun goes off. After you have written them down, evaluate them and write a logical comeback for each. For example: the negative thought “everyone will laugh at you if you finish last” can be refuted with, “finishing last is still finishing, which is way braver and cause for celebration than not even trying to begin with.”
- Dangle the carrot, or focus on the prize. We all have our reasons for why we set a goal, whether it be a sparkly oversized finishers medal, running for a personal best performance, or merely living with the satisfaction of achieving a goal you once thought impossible. Focus your thoughts on that goal in the days leading up to the race, visualizing yourself running strong and confidently toward the finish line to claim your prize. The more you practice visualizing that, the easier it will be to draw on that image when negative thoughts creep into your mind or your body starts to fatigue during the race.
- Develop a mantra. If you are racing a triathlon and swimming is your fear or weakness, you might use a mantra like “smooth and strong” as you pull through the water. For running, repeating words such as “fast, quick, free” can help calm the mind and focus on achieving the goal. Write your mantra on a note card and carry it with you or write it on your arm before a race.
- Breathe! When the body is placed under stress, this is the first element that is forgotten. Deep, controlled breathing helps relax the body and reduces some of the tightness and stresses placed on it. Not only that, muscles need oxygen to function and ultimately, make you move!
Remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, this is supposed to be FUN! Okay, the reality is, running and racing is tough, it can be painful and physically challenging. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The experience, the completion of a goal, and the memories that can be replayed over and over for years to come is what makes setting that goal and accomplishing it worth the temporary discomfort.