Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mental Side: Setting useful goals

The final aspect of the "mental game" I'd like to address is goal-setting.  Any sports psychologist will tell you that setting the right goals are important to getting the right mental approach, but I'm hesitant to endorse this idea wholeheartedly. 

However, I do have to be a pragmatist.  Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn't have any goals other than "do your best," but that's just not realistic.  Runners have times they want to hit, places they want to finish, and championships they want to qualify for.  Even in workouts, you probably have goals or desires—you know you're supposed to be running 33.x for these 200s, but it'd be great if you could squeeze it into the 32s for the last few, right?

Goals and desires are inevitable, and in almost all cases, they're a huge part of what motivates a competitive runner to train.  Whether it's a five-minute mile that motivates you or a spot at the USA Track and Field Championships, goals are an inevitable part of running.

Instead of the "high but achievable goals" mantra of sports psychology, I have had better success with a different approach, namely, setting two parallel goals, a "floor" goal and a "ceiling" goal.

Floor and Ceiling Goals

The floor goal is a basic marker of what you are sure you can run, even if conditions end up being less than optimal.  It should be a time (or place) that all of your workouts have indicated is definitely within your grasp.  The floor goal functions as a reminder that not every race is going to be your greatest race ever, even though you'd often like it to be.  The floor goal should be challenging enough so that it'd take an honest effort to run, but low enough such that failing to hit your floor goal indicates a significant problem in your training approach or racing strategy.

The ceiling goal is the one most runners have when they dream up a target to aim for.  The ceiling goal asks, "If everything goes near-perfect and I have a great race, what do I legitimately think I could run?"Ceiling goals are helpful because they can provide pacing guidelines.  If your ceiling goal is to run a 9:00 3200m, you definitely shouldn't come through 800m any faster than 2:15 or so.  This, along with motivation, is the function of the ceiling goal.

To walk through a simple example, let's say you're a high school sophomore just starting out your track season.  As a freshman, you ran 5:20 in the mile, and this fall, you ran 17:30 for 5k XC.  In your first track meet, an intersquad time-trial, you run 4:54 and felt like you could have gone faster.  Two weeks later, you have your first real meet.  How should you structure your floor and ceiling goals?

The Mental Side: How to make a successful race plan

If you want to do well in a race (and who doesn't?), one of the most basic steps to accomplishing that is making a plan.  Coaches and sports psychology advocates love to talk about having a plan and setting goals for an upcoming race, but as you might expect, the details about how you should go about setting up this plan and what your goals should be, conceptually speaking, are debatable. 

The first real question to address is "should you have a race plan?" This might seem a silly question at first, but there is a good line of argument behind not having a plan: First, you don't have any idea what's going to unfold in a race.  It could get out fast, it could get out slow, the top runner might be out with injury, etc.   Making a plan that says "I want to be 5:10 at the mile at the state cross country meet" might be a good idea in theory, but what if the top runners are hesitant and first place at the mile is only 5:14? On the other hand, the race could get out very hard, with the back of the field being 5:06 or 5:08.  In both cases, your race plan leaves you high and dry, and undoubtedly causes you stress when you realize your race is not going according to plan anymore.  Not having a plan allows you (in theory) to react to the race as it develops.

The same event can unfold in vastly different ways.  In 2007, Rob Finnerty led a strung-out field through the mile in 4:41 at the Minnesota state cross country championships.  Two years later, eventual winner Aaron Bartnik (191) pulled away after a huge front pack came through in a relatively pedestrian 5:09 first mile. 
Too often, however, I've found that having no plan at all leaves you feeling adrift, unable to exert much control over your situation in the race.  The mental "energy cost" of making a decisive move in a race is much higher once fatigue has started to build up.  Most runners know how easy it is to put off starting your kick or let a competitor slip away in the final stages of a race, even though it's contrary to what you want to accomplish.  Making these sorts of decisions before the race, when possible, alleviates some of this decision fatigue.  Having a plan allows you to exercise some amount of control over what's going on in a race.

Deciding to have a race plan is easy.  Choosing how to construct it is a little more challenging.  Sports psychology resources will tell you that your goals and plans should be concrete—e.g. "be in 10th by halfway" instead of "run near the front."  I, however, advocate a different approach.

It might be nice to sketch out your vision for the perfect race on paper (indeed, I did this for most of my senior year of high school) but because of the aforementioned issues of uncertainty about the race, this can lead to panicking and unwarranted disappointment over factors that really are out of your control.  As Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Instead of being myopically focused on details, it is better to return to basics: What is the purpose of a race plan?

For me, the answer is simple. A race plan should keep you focused on the right concepts at the right points in the race. Paces, place, and tactics can be part of the periphery, but the core of a race plan should be a very short list of concepts, feelings, or mental states to focus on.    

The Mental Side: Sports psychology and an alternative philosophy of running

"Be water, my friend."
I'm not a fan of most elements of  sports psychology.  Why? Because I think it usually attacks the problem of inconsistent or poor performance from the wrong angle.  In virtually every case, the main problem with a poor "mental performance" in a race is caring too much.  Athletes invest a huge amount of emotion and self-worth into their running performance, and a poor performance, understandably, hits you hard in both of these areas.  By using classical sports psychology techniques like concrete goal-setting ("I will break 4:30 in the mile"), race visualization, or listening to motivational music or self-talk CDs, you magnify the emotional investment that a runner puts into his or her race performances. 

A gymnastics balance beam is four inches wide.  Walking along a four-inch-wide line just above floor height is simple for anyone, but elevate that beam up four feet off the ground, and most people will find it much more difficult.  Raised thirty feet off the ground, all but the bravest of adrenaline junkies would refuse to walk it, even with a safety rope.  Using this as an analogy, we can see how elevating the value of a race in a runner's mind is akin to raising the balance beam ever higher in an attempt to motivate them to cross it.  If you set concrete and ambitious goals, visualize your race ten times over, listen to a self-talk CD and your pump-up mix before a big race, but don't run your best, what happens to your mental state?

Thus is my opposition to most sports psychology strategies.  If an athlete is performing well in workouts but not on race day, the first issue to address (other than poor pacing—most often going out too fast—which is frequently the true culprit for "not being tough" at the end of a race) is the level of emotional investment and expectations in races.  I believe that, physically speaking, races should be approached exactly the same way as a workout, down to the specifics of the warm-up.  If your training approach is sound and you are a reasonably experienced racer, you should not have a problem putting out solid performances on race day.  This doesn't mean every race is going to be a slam dunk—just like every workout isn't a slam dunk either.

To be sure, there is value in being prepared for a race.  Having a plan, having some conceptual goals, and having themes or concepts to focus on at different points in the race can all be very helpful.  "Hah!" you say.  "So you do use sports psychology!" Well, to some extent.  But it's one thing to make a race plan, and something else to make a good one.  A good race plan is one that does not invest your self-worth in your performance and keeps you focused on the task at hand—essentially, one that allows you to run as if you're doing an extremely hard workout.  You can read more about how to make a successful race plan in the companion article to this one, conveniently titled "How to make an effective race plan."