4 Tips to Find Your Race Week Zen

what you think you becomeWhen race week finally arrives, it’s impossible to avoid the jolt of excitement and anticipation as I make my final preparations to achieve the goals that have kept me moving through weeks on top of months of long, hard training days. It is possible, however, to prevent these race week sensations from overtaking my emotions in a way that hurts the execution of my race plan.

As athletes, we should expect and welcome some emotional arousal. But, we need to be on guard against feelings of emotional overload, in the form of anxiety, over-stimulation, panic, or fear.

Trust me – I’ve tried it both ways. The latter approach sucks donkey butts.

I prefer to work on a Zen state of mindfulness during race week, which includes an eagerness to experience new adventures, a sense of the present moment with a focus on the task at hand, a control over thoughts and movement to ensure efficiency, and a calm awareness that permits execution of the race plan.

It has taken quite a few years to learn how to cultivate a sense of effective mindfulness in training and racing. And, I am still a work in progress! Focusing and calming the mind in our ever-more-hectic lifestyles is a process – not an endpoint.

When I first started racing, the week or two leading into race day was a psychotic mix of emotions and actions, vacillating between a chicken with it’s head cut off, a zombie on the attack, or a fearful turtle climbing inside its shell to avoid danger. I remember almost paralyzing anxiety at times, brought on by questioning and re-questioning all of the moments that lead up to race day.

In short, I was NOT the kind of person you wanted to be around before the start of a race.

In 2012, I hit a transition point, when I had worked myself into such a frenzy that I literally made myself sick throughout the duration of Ironman Mont Tremblant. I was in such a non-Zenlike state, that John, my husband, walked away from me before the start of the swim because he didn’t want my anxiety. He left me crying on the shores of the lake – all because I was so anxious about where I should start the swim.

Really. That bad.

When I reflected on that race in the days following, I KNEW I had to get my pre-race responses under control, or I would sabotage my long-term goals.

Since that time, I have been as aggressive in my mental fitness training as I’ve been with my physical training. Part of this training process is my race week routine that helps me to nuture a Zen-like mindfulness that is crucial to achieving my race day goals.

As I am about a day out from racing the 2016 Vermont 100, I am deep in to the race week process. I figured I would share some of my tips with the hope that I might help you achieve your race week Zen.

Race Week Zen Tip 1: I can only control what I can control

I imagine myself running carefree like my girl Pace. This is a snap of her and I on River Road in Lake Placid a few weeks ago.

After that fateful 2012 Ironman Mont Tremblant, I came to the realization that I can only control what I can control. No marshalling of mental might will help me change the weather, the competition, the terrain, or a seemingly unending list of unforeseen circumstances.

So, why was I spending so much energy worrying about those things?

There is no good answer to that question. So, I’ve learned (and re-learned) to focus my energy only on those things that I can control. I work on my mental fitness training all year long so I stop worrying about the myriad of negative possibilities, and start visualizing my efficient and appropriate response to those things. I can’t control most things in a race situation – but I can ALWAYS control my response to them.

When I check the weather during race week, it is only so I know what type of gear I have to pack. I can’t control rain, but I can control whether or not I have the proper gear for it.

When I research the terrain, it is months in advance of the race, so I can be certain to gear my training to the details of the race. I don’t fret over it – I prepare for it.

For me, this focus only on what I can control has been a liberating realization, and it continues to be an empowering practice.

Race Week Zen Tip 2: I trained for this

If I’ve done the training, then race day is the same as all of the other days of training that I’ve piled end on end, each to each. Most of us (myself included) want to give race day this mystical, magical importance that makes it seem like it’s a totally new or different experience.

But, it’s not.

We will swim. We will bike. We will run. We will execute on race day what we have practiced hundreds and thousands of times in training. In many ways, race day is mentally easier than training because we’ve slogged through so many more mentally challenging workouts on our own.

As my former coach Vince used to say to me, “Push play and go do what you do.” It really is that simple. Just. Push. (and) Play.

John and I during our Zion trip back in April. We climbed about 10,000 feet in 45 miles, preparing me for 15,000 feet across the 100 miles of Vermont 100.

Race Week Zen Tip 3: Race energy is intoxicating

Race day — either on the day of the race or in the days preceding it – produces energy. It is our choice to accept and expend that energy as fear and anxiety, or as excitement and positive anticipation.

I am frequently asked by the athletes I coach if I’m nervous before I race. Yes, I experience a heightened state of arousal, but I am not nervous. Those semantics make a big difference. If I say I’m “nervous”, then I’m gearing my thoughts toward the negative, the agitated, the uncontrolled emotional state. Nerves suggest that I am flinging myself into the unknown without the preparation or ability to respond to that uncertainty.

And, that’s just not true. Circle back to Race Week Zen Tips #1 and #2. Race day brings with it the unknown, but I can control my response to that, and I am trained to deal with it.

If I accept that I am in a heightened state of arousal, but resist putting negative labels on it, I can entertain more positive thoughts and emotions. I can eagerly anticipate the race day adventures to come. During the race, I can apply this positive energy to the present moment and the task at hand – whether that is to swim, to bike or to run.

I work to keep my mind focused on the moment I’m in, and this mindfulness allows me to have the best day possible–much more so than if I am focusing on outcomes, such as time or placement. While I always have outcome-goals, focusing on them too much during the race produces too much negative energy.

Conversely, focusing on the moment keeps me engaged, positive and happy.

When I did my first Ironman, a fellow athlete gave the advice to let the day unfold. It took me years to understand what he meant by that. After years of trying, I can move through the execution of my plan and let each moment unwrap itself, like a present.

Race Week Zen Tip 4: Routines

An important component of fostering zen is my race week routine, which includes various processes that prepare and calm me. In the past I’ve written about some of the specific things I do going into an Ironman, but this list is more holistic, reflects my experience since that 2012 post, and applies to any race I do.

  • I de-forest my eyebrows with at-home wax strips. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with race day or race performance, other than the fact that I finally have the 15 minutes to get the job done because I’m not training for hours and hours. It’s become a part of the race week ritual, and since I’m a little superstitious, this has to be done at some point during race week. Shaving my legs also happens.
  • I create a series of excel spreadsheets and lists, which include my race plan, race week schedule, gear/packing list, crew directions (when applicable), and pacing sheets (when applicable, for ultras). The process of making these lists is the ultimate relaxation for my mind.
VT100 pacing sheets for myself, John, and our pacer/crew.
  • I engage in a methodical packing process that involves the use of my gear/packing list. I lay everything out on my bed. I put a check mark next to the item on the list when I place it on the bed. Then, I pack each thing one-by-one. As the item goes into my bag, I cross it off the list. Every item must have a check mark and a line through it. With each check mark and each crossed line, I feel my race power growing.
  • I print the necessary race materials, including directions, registration confirmation, and the athlete guide. I proceed to read and re-read said materials to make certain there aren’t any details I’m missing. I know tales of people whose race day was derailed because they didn’t know the event schedule. That’s the kind of stuff that can throw you into a unnecessary (and preventable) panic.
  • I spend time reflecting on race day, visualizing (as I’ve done repeatedly in training already) the various scenarios that can unfold and how I will respond. I imagine the execution of my race plan in several ways, with a few scenarios including obstacles, challenges and problems. I end visualization sessions with a positive scenario to keep my thoughts upbeat and centered.
  • I write a pre-race blog of some sort. Sometimes this is about the race, and sometimes it’s not. Mostly, these are reflections in some way – kind of like this post. 😉
  • I eat pancakes the morning before the race. Pancakes, along with some eggs, have been my go-to carb loading meal for years now. And, I much prefer to eat this meal as breakfast the day before the race, rather than dinner. This timing allows my body to fully digest the meal, and I don’t go to bed with a full stomach, which messes with my sleep.

It’s worth mentioning that the point isn’t to adopt my routines, but rather to find those routines that both prepare and calm you for the race to come.

When race morning comes, I remind myself that I am blessed to have a body that allows me to pursue these adventures, to push my limits, and to have these experiences that have taught me so much about myself, community, and what it means to live this life. With a little over 24 hours to go, I feel at peace with the journey of 100 miles, and I am excited for what the day (and night) will bring.

Some of my favorite zen moments in racing.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    Thanks for a very mind easing post. Years ago before my second IM Louisville I listened to a podcast by a coach whose race day philosophy I still try to follow. In brief he stressed that race day is about execution not fitness and to put yourself in a box thereby controlling only what you can control. The months of training have prepared the body not let your mind takeover and enjoy the moment. Good luck at your race.

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