The Psychology of Racing Alone

Time trials and virtual races present unique challenges and require new psychological tactics. Here's how to mentally master them.

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One of my all time favorite etymologies comes from the Latin root for the word compete, translating to “be in rivalry with” or more favorably, “to strive in common; strive after something in company with or together.” This mindset shift of striving together changes the entire concept of competition. Competing is not necessarily connected to winning or losing, especially for the vast majority of those who participate in endurance events, rather it’s about pushing each other to achieve our own individual goals.

Given the unprecedented present-day circumstances, with our global gears grinding to a complete halt—including most, if not all, endurance-race related events being postponed or canceled—we collectively find ourselves seeking new meaningful opportunities in our athletic pursuits. Virtual race series have popped up to help fill the void (even the Boston Marathon is going virtual this year) providing us the continued opportunity to strive together—while separate. Yet, virtual racing not only makes us keenly miss the “alongside” aspect of racing, it also presents a set of newfound challenges.

A personal time trial is going to differ psychologically from an in-vivo race experience. After all, chasing down your own personal glory through your neighborhood is going to feel much different than charging through a major metropolitan area with tens of thousands of your closest running friends in an organized event. How you prepare mentally may be the key determining factor between a virtual race day PR or a time trial flop.

Shifting Subjectives

An aptly-timed study was recently published on the perception of effort running a 10K time trial in an organized race versus a solo time trial. While the study is not without limitations—it included a total of only 14 runners, all of whom were male—it was revealing. The study found that runners were an average of 58 seconds faster when racing head to head with physical competition compared to their time trial efforts alone. Of interest was that the perception of exertion was largely the same for both races but, when running alone, the subjective feelings were judged as far more negative as the race pushed on. This is a key finding that bears repeating; the perception of effort feels nearly identical in both scenarios, but we interpret the effort to be more unpleasant when it occurs outside of a race day context.

A virtual race is going to change how you focus, what you focus on, and how you judge the experience (three key ingredients in the psychology of sport). The changing psychology occurs because an individual time trial effort is you versus you; you’re locked into your mind with few external cues. A solo venture is going to lead to a heightened awareness of the physical sensations you are experiencing merely because there is little else to focus your attention. Without a race’s pomp and circumstance to externally draw your attention, the physical sensations of mounting discomfort, fatigue, and exhaustion are subsequently much more likely going to be appraised negatively than when they occur on a race course.

Suffering Alone

When these mounting feelings of discomfort encroach at the end of a in-vivo race, we tend to find a deep well of internal motivators to keep going, as a traditional race offers more interplay between you and the race day environment. Most significantly, other athletes on course provide head-to-head comparison. Keeping pace with competitors we know both distracts us from internal signals of distress and lets us know that we’re running an appropriate pace regardless of how it feels. Plus, we can reference our distress against others: “I’m hurting, but they are hurting more” is a powerful incentive to keep pushing down on the gas pedal and dig a bit deeper into the well.

Besides chasing down fellow athletes, a race offers a variety of focal points to shift our attention (getting to the next mile marker or aid station, or anticipating a mood boost in seeing family or friends waiting around the corner, etc.). Simply the fact of having a bib tacked to our front provides a context in which we expect increasing physical discomfort.

We tend to have a higher likelihood of positive judgement on our bodily feedback within an organized event, given the changes in motivational factors and ascribed meaning we’ve given to the race performance itself. A race provides a context where it is accepted, even expected, that you suffer in public. When it’s just you versus you, the entire experience can feel fundamentally differently and be internally appraised toward the negative.

Mentally Preparing to Race Virtually

The first step in psychologically preparing for a virtual race is to decide in advance what it is you are pursuing. If the goal is participation, there may be little else required to mentally prepare, and you can expect to go out and have fun knowing your run is connected in spirit with others.

If your goal is to pursue a race day effort, you’re going to need a little extra work. That starts by being 100% clear and focused internally about your intentions. Setting your self-determination before you begin includes reminding yourself why this virtual race has personal meaning and how you plan to attack it. This is going to become a much needed self-reference point when it starts to get uncomfortable. We are far more likely to hold ourselves accountable when we’ve settled the question of whether suffering for this goal is worth it long before we’re facing the cost in the throes of the race. Being clear about why this effort is important to you will help you dig deep during tough stretches.

The Power of Self-Talk

The biggest takeaway of the 10K study showed the powerful influence of negativity on performance. Knowing that negative judgment is a performance robber allows you to prepare your self-talk in advance so you can guard against the tendency to appraise how you’re feeling as “bad” and therefore a reason to slow down or stop. Have a few positive or neutral affirmations to tell yourself when those moments occur. Normalizing the uncomfortable experience with expressions like, “This is supposed to hurt, it’s a race” or “This means you’re doing it right, keep pushing” will go a long way.

Beware Watch Checking

One of the age-old debates in endurance performance psychology is distinguishing between the mental approaches of “going harder” or “going faster.” The latter almost always puts us into a heightened focus on metrics and watch watching. When we try to run fast, we are often basing that effort by the paces we see on our watch or our split times. This can work, but it can backfire too, if it builds unnecessary anxiety or pressure.

We each develop a personal narrative about our numbers which provides greater psychological power than the numbers themselves. If we are trying to perform at our peak, we may get caught into the trap of overly checking our watch metrics and tapping into our bias on what numbers indicate rather than tapping into how our effort feels. We almost always perform better when we’re connected to maintaining a high level of effort by staying locked in to going harder compared to being overly focused on running faster.

Without the traditional race-day atmosphere to round out what we focus on, it’s even easier to fall prey to the trap of becoming overly focused on self-referencing via watch checking. During an organized race we can align ourselves with other athletes running similar effort levels and fall into that familiar pattern matching stride and cadence, providing a sense of relief that although we may be struggling we are ultimately striving together.

When running hard alone, we have no external reference but the watch. Repeatedly checking it, however, can kick into negative appraisals and the need for more affirmation—a potentially damaging cascade. Entering a virtual race by committing to emphasizing effort over paces may help you keep your mind in a positive frame of reference.

It All Comes Down To….

Perception. Perception. Perception. Our perception significantly impacts our decision making, and our ability to maintain pace, speed up, or slow down is largely based on how we evaluate effort. And this perception is going to be exploited and slanted toward more negative appraisals when pushing hard alone.

Being prepared for a virtual race requires alignment with personal meaning and specific self-talk. Remember that a virtual race is a great opportunity to test yourself on the ability to maintain a high effort level rather than over-focusing on hitting specific time splits. This will lead to a more satisfying performance and overall increased enjoyment. And perhaps most importantly, it can lead to psychological skill development that you can carry with you into your next in-person race.

Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, Colorado, specializing in human performance. He is an 11-time marathoner, with 6 BQs and a personal best of 2:57. His newly launched course, Unlock Your Athletic Potential is a masterclass aimed at building fundamental psychological skills for sport.

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