Positive Perspectives: Mentally Preparing for Race Day

October 23, 2013

I’ve recently come to an embarrassing and upsetting realization about myself. I’m a hypocrite. *Gasp!*

While I’m very good at helping other runners and athletes focus on having a positive outlook, trusting in their training and in themselves and finding mental strength to truly believe anything is possible, my glass tends to be half empty when it comes to my own personal outlook on what I’m truly capable of.

Building mental strength is at the core of successful performance. It’s not enough to be physically prepared for a race. We must also be in the right state of mind to accomplish our goals and achieve our dreams.

Earlier this year, I had a life-changing experience when I ran the Hood to Coast Relay with Nuun. I met a fellow runner – Tere Zacher – who really helped me flip my perspective on what I’m capable of. She has been reminding me every day since August that I have to conquer my mind before I can conquer my body and that I have more in me than I often give myself credit for.

Training your brain for race day

As a sports psychologist, coach and 2:40 marathoner, I asked Tere to share with us how we can create positive perspectives to prepare us for a race and strengthen our mind as diligently as we train our bodies. As I prepare for my own race in just 3 short days, I’m continuing to focus as much on my mind as I am on all the other factors that make a race successful. Without further ado, meet Tere and learn some extremely helpful tips on mental training for runners …

Positive Perspectives

By Tere Zacher

Most of us spend so much of our lives plagued by our insecurities, failures, negative behaviors and addictions. If all we focus on is the negative, it will be hard to accomplish everything we are meant to do in this world. If we spent half our energy focusing on what’s good within us instead of what’s wrong, we would see a much more realistic picture of ourselves enabling us to conquer so much more.

The key to living closer to your potential – both in your performance domain and outside of it – lies in developing your ability to carry a positive perspective and to view things in a constructive way.

Whenever an important performance or event is about to occur in your life, thoughts run through your head about probable consequences of the event. You say certain things to yourself or believe certain things about what might happen and how that will make you feel. These thoughts make you worry or free you from worry. They make you feel confident or shatter your confidence.

The one thing over which you have absolute control is your own thoughts. It is this that puts you in a position to control your own destiny.

What triggers your emotional reaction to an event is the way you perceive the event, or what you say to yourself in relation to it, rather than the event itself. I raced in Utah (a half marathon) 4 weeks ago. Before I left Phoenix, I was telling myself how I was going to race fast since I finally had my body back (I had been injured most of the year and now I am finally pain-free). I was thinking that now my mind was going to be able to focus on pushing through discomfort instead of having to work hard trying to block the pain from injury away. I had a good race despite starting way too fast. Fast forward 4 weeks and I had a 5-mile race last Saturday. Before the race started, I was thinking how I haven’t done any track or tempo workouts where I have run at my desired race pace. I started the race and I saw my pace was 5:50 for the first mile. Right away, I thought about how I haven’t run like that in my workouts and I felt threatened about not being able to hold the pace … so I slowed down. My last mile was really slow in comparison to the first one and I ended up running slower than I had planned. What happened? I’ve been training consistently for 4 weeks and am physically better prepared now than when I raced in Utah; however my mind was thinking very differently. In Utah, I was eager to race and to focus on getting out of my comfort zone. Here, I was worried about not being able to keep the pace.

A simple change in your perspective about the meaning of a particular event, or in your belief about your capacity to approach it or to cope with it positively, can change your current emotional reality and the outcome. Nothing changes except the way you perceive yourself or the event, and yet that simple positive change can give you inner strength and confidence, release you from stress and free you to live or perform more joyfully.

In order to approach your event physically ready and mentally focused, here are some steps that can help you:

1. Trust your training.
You have done the work, and whether it could have been done better or not, race day is not the time to question it. Focus on what you did well, and leave what you could have improved for after the race is over. Set realistic performance goals (goals you can control, like your breathing, focusing on a mantra or holding back on your first mile), and leave your outcome goals at home (e.g. the overall time or place you want to get).

2. Change perspectives.
Question your own thoughts – the ones that upset you, that is. The next time you feel anxious, stop and ask yourself: Why am I anxious? What am I thinking or saying about the event/race, about myself, about my performance or about people’s reactions that is making me anxious? Do I have to see it this way? Do I have to get upset over this? Is it really worth continuing to worry about this?

Go back to your goal – set a personal goal to think less in ways that are likely to worry you and more in ways that will uplift you and others. Remind yourself of your strengths and of positive events in your past. You are fully capable of achieving your goals and changing your perspective if you constantly remind yourself to think and act in more positive ways.

3. Anticipate.
Visualize yourself before your race on race day. Imagine yourself starting to get anxious or worried about how it will go and then see yourself being assertive and reacting in a positive way to this anxiety. I generally carry with me a “coping card.” It’s a simple note card where I write down positive reminders for when I start thinking in a negative way. Before I race, I pull my card out and I read it to myself as a way to remember why I run and to put things in perspective. My card has the following statements on it, but you can write some that have meaning for you: “I run because it’s fun.” “My family loves me regardless of how I perform.” “I have run 70 miles per week for several weeks, I woke up when I was tired and went running regardless. I can do this.” “My mind controls my body and my mind is unlimited.” “This is a fantastic opportunity to see how fast I can go.”

4. Be aware.
I watch my thoughts all the time. That’s the only way to be aware of what you are telling yourself. We are always thinking, and we have the ability to choose what we think and to change what we are focusing on. Be aware of self-imposed obstacles such as things you say to yourself that block your own progress.

5. Reinterpret.
Sometimes reinterpreting your physical sensations is enough to put you back in control. Let’s say you get a knot in your stomach or your heart starts to thump hard just before a performance begins. You could say to yourself, “Oh man, I am nervous … I don’t know what I am going to do … I’ll probably blow it,” or you could interpret these physical signs in a totally positive manner and say: “The feeling in my stomach is the result of the secretion of adrenaline, which acts as a stimulant; what is actually happening is that my body is telling me that I am ready. Let’s go!”

6. Control the controllables.
Many important elements of your life, such as your performance and your perspective, are potentially within your control. Once you realize that you can effect positive change in these areas, you will – precisely because they are within your control. However, other important things in life are beyond your control. You cannot control things that are impossible to control, no matter how hard you try or how much responsibility you assume for doing so. You cannot control the past, you cannot control the actions, reactions of other people, you cannot control the weather or the way a race is set (unless you are the race director). You cannot control your place in the race and sometimes not even your finishing time. You cannot control what you could have done. You and your goals are best served when you focus on things within your potential control.

7. Try positive self-suggestions.
These positive self-suggestions can help you in your balanced pursuit of personal excellence:

  • I am in control of my own thinking, my own focus, my own life.
  • I control my own thoughts and emotions and direct the whole pattern of my performance, health and life.
  • I am fully capable of achieving the goals that I set for myself today. They are within my control
  • I control the step in front of me.
  • I learn from setbacks, and through them I see room for improvement and opportunities for personal growth.
  • I embrace the lessons from my experiences.
  • My powerful mind and body are one. I free them to excel.
  • Every day in some way I am better, wiser, more adaptable, more focused, more in control.
  • I choose to excel.

And remember, virtually every performer you have ever seen or competed against, including all the best athletes in the world, experience this rush of excitement before an important event. It shows that you care and want to do well. You can make it work for you by recognizing its positive elements and by channeling your focus into your performance.

Mental training for runners
Photo source: Tere Zacher’s Facebook Page

Tere Zacher is a professional runner and former professional swimmer who won the world championship in the 50-meter freestyle in 1998, representing her birth country, Mexico. More than 8 years ago, Tere moved to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in Sports Psychology. A friend invited her to join him during his long weekend runs. After a couple of weekends, Tere realized how much fun running was and how much she was falling in love with it. Since that time, Tere has become a world class runner, and she is pursuing her dream to compete in the 2016 Olympics in the marathon. She lives in Arizona with her husband Kevin and daughter Kori and helps other athletes strengthen the mental part of training and racing at TereZacher.com. You can also find Tere on Twitter: @TereZacher

What speaks to you the most about Tere’s advice about mental training for runners and athletes? How do you work on the mental part of your training and racing?


Jojo @ RunFastEatLots

I am running my first marathon this Sunday, and I know that it will be as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Although I have my doubts and fears, I am trying to trust my training and convince myself that I am so ready for this!


Good luck at your marathon this weekend! I’m so excited for you! Your first marathon will always be special. Please keep me posted on your experience and how it goes. Sending you a virtual high five!

Larissa @ Running with the Dragonflies

This is so perfect. Thanks so much for posting this. After an injury that has sucked my love from running from me, this is exactly what I need. I’m running my first real 5-k (small steps) in a couple of weeks and I am nervous. I will keep this post in my pocket for now! 🙂


This is perfect for me. I am really bad at the negative self talk especially before a race and during (I will never make it, this is too hard, I am not fast and will never be a good runner). This is an area I really need to work on. I am forever chasing a sub 2 half and I am pretty sure it is more mental than physical that I haven’t reached that goal yet.


I definitely used some of these during my marathon on Sunday! Great reminders about the mental side of training/racing as well as the physical!


Thank you for this! I definitely have struggled with mental issues during races and have self-sabotaged! I never struggled with it in the past but it really built up as I was training to qualify for Boston. I will seriously be book marking this to read again !


Than you for a great post! I think everyone has struggled with negative thoughts whether it’s about a race or life in general. When I start with the negative self talk I usually ask myself three questions Can I change it? If the answer is Yes then change it. If the answer is No then can I influence it? Yes then do it if the answer is No then I know I have to let it go and stop dwelling on it. It’s helped me. I’ve bookmarked this post to re-read, again thank you for sharing.

Lacy @ Running Limit-less

Thank you so much Jesica! I use to be the worst negative talker to myself. I have gotten better though as I realize my potential. When I embark on something new that negativity creeps back in until I can start accomplishing goals. I will for sure be keeping all this in mind to get me through all that self sabotage as one commenter mentioned above!

Laura @losingrace

Love all of this, thank you so much for sharing. I think the ‘control the controllable” is biggest for me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in things that I can’t do anything about and that stresses me more than anything. I’ve really been trying to work on the “trust the training” thing too. You are going to do awesome this weekend, kick butt! Can’t wait to read all about it!

Sarah @RunFarGirl

so wish I had read this before my race. live and learn. on to better and bigger things with these truths tucked in my back pocket! thanks Tere and Jesica!

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[…] strength and believing in your abilities is just as important as your physical preparedness. Try these techniques to sharpen your mind as much as your focus on strengthening your legs and […]