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How to deal with the fear monsters before that big race?

One of our athletes at Running Hot Coaching asked me a question a couple of days ago saying he's got a marathon coming up in two or three weeks and was starting to get really anxious and was experiencing some trepidation that he wasn't ready for it. and have we got any advice?

Here my answer...

I know that you're feeling a little bit underdone and that you've missed a couple of your long runs. And that is totally normal, par for the course and don't feel like if you didn't get every single run in that was on your plan that it's all going to be a total disaster.

Because, really, it doesn't really work like that. The body has reached a level of fitness anyway. The long runs are key of course in marathon training, key however by missing out on a couple of them, it's really not going to make that much difference.

So the biggest thing that you can do now is:

1. please do not try to catch up on those sessions that you missed. That will blow you to pieces and that will cause real problems.

So make sure that over the next two to three weeks you're not trying to play catch-up.

What you do need to do is to work on your psychology. You're entering the taper phase, which for a marathon is about three weeks and you're reducing your mileage, you'll see that in your plan (approximately 30% less per week). You're still running, you're still doing your training, but you're reducing it and giving your body time to catch up while still keeping it ticking over

Now, your strength training should reduce quite dramatically in this phase. You don't want to be breaking down your muscles in order to rebuild them stronger at this point in time because you've got a race coming up. I just made a rookie mistake today, just to share with you.

Yesterday I did a really high intensity strength session. And today I did a long run and the combination isn't great. You've got really tired legs and you're sluggish and feeilng blaah. But ok it happens.

In the last couple of weeks before you go into your marathon, you can pull back on your strength training. So you also do not want to be doing any speed work really.

What you should be doing a little bit more of is mobility work, so that you're really starting to recover all those muscles. You have had them working really hard to prepare for this marathon. Psychologically you've put yourself under quite a lot of stress to get to this point. And all of that needs to be now consolidated and you need to give your body time to recover from all that stress so that you can then be fresh and ready on the start line of that race.

So psychologically you're going to go through a number of things, feeling like you're getting un-fitter, that is just your mind playing guilt trips on you.

You are not going to get un-fitter in the last two to three weeks. You can however easily overtrain at this stage, and that is what many people end up doing. They start overtraining in that last two to three weeks to try and catch up. And that means that they will be overcooked on the start line and their performance will probably not be as good as it otherwise could be.

It is always better to go into the race slightly undercooked.

Slightly feeling like, "Aw, I should have done a little bit more." And that's okay. Your body will cope with it on the day the amount of adrenaline and the excitement of the events means you will pull out far more from yourself than you ever thought possible in a training run.

Now, what is really important and what you can spend a lot more time on, because you're not going to be doing the amount of mileage that you normally would, would be to spend more time in the mental preparation side of things.

I want to give you an example. When I did that ultra-race in the Himalayas, which was a 222 k race of the two highest passes in the world. Massive altitude, massive temperature changes. Everything had gone wrong in the buildup and I actually ripped the ligaments off my left ankle and I was unable to run for seven out of the 10 weeks leading up to this. And I thought this was going to be an absolute disaster. But what actually happened was that I'd finally given my body time to recover a little bit and get over some of the accumulated fatigue that builds up over long periods of time of training hard out.

And it's this accumulated fatigue that can actually, have a negative impact.

So by having to have that forced time off running, I was still doing other training, cross-training in the pool and things like that and on the bike, but I could not run. Actually, my performance during the race was fantastic, it was probably one the best performances of my career. It was an extremely tough race and took everything out of me. But I got there and the fact that I hadn't been able to run for seven weeks actually didn't make any difference as far as the fitness went.

You do not lose it that quickly so stop feeling like over the next couple of weeks you're going to lose it all, you're going to gain weight, you're going to get un-fitter and all these sort of thoughts that tend to mull around in your head.

Just know that that's normal stressed out behaviour and it's just part of the freakout. What you have to do then is just try and stop the fear from taking over. So I want you to do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation every time these sorts of, oh, my God, the marathon's coming up and, oh, my God, how am I going to do it?

And we all have these times So stop, take three really deep diaphragmatic breaths. Go and have a look on our blogs on deep breathing and why this is beneficial. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps calm the body down so that you can get a hold of your own emotions. If you're feeling real fear and anxiety, give your brain a logical puzzle to solve.

Counting back from a hundred and, you know, minus seven each time. Something difficult that will make you start to think logically. Because then you stop the amygdala, which is like the primitive part of your brain, the emotional seat, from overreacting and causing this spiralling of fear and anxiety, okay?

So that's a really good trick. I'm actually going to put that in my podcast this week about how to stop these fear and anxiety thoughts by having a logical problem to solve. Because when you turn on that logical part of the brain, the emotional part of the brain gets turned off. It's a really good trick. and it works for when you're too angry or when you're depressed and you're down, or you're scared. All of these things can be helped by logical problem solving which helps stop that sort of thinking.

So, in this period also make sure that your hydration is absolutely spot on. Make sure that your electrolytes are spot on. Make sure the nutrition is top notch.

So all of these pieces of the puzzle are right. You're getting enough sleep, recovery, all of those sort of things. And then just know that on the day your body will pull out things that you never, ever thought possible. And you cannot replicate them in a training run. Training, you will never be able to pull out what you will on race day.

A lot of the races that I've done that were over 200 and 250 kilometres and that type of distance, I never could go out and actually train for a 250k because you'd be overtraining constantly.

If you were trying to run 150k long run on the weekend, well obviously you're going to smash yourself. So you can't prepare for that distance really. What you can do is prepare your mind for it. So understanding the phases that you're going to go in through in the race. Having your pacing strategy sussed out and down pat.

What time are you hoping to do it in? And if this is your very first marathon, make that a conservative time. It's all about getting to the finish line on that first one.

If you've done a couple already then don't expect that in every race you'll get better all the time. That doesn't always happen. But have your goal and then work back from your goal time as to what kilometer pace you should be running at. And stick to that so that each time you've got it written on your hand or somewhere. That you know at kilometer 10 I should have gone through in such and such a time, okay?

So there's are a few little tips for you. What else? So, yeah, increase your mobility work. Make sure that you're foam rolling, make sure that you're doing your stretching. Don't pull anything though. Nothing extreme in this time so don't go and change. Your regular training time should still be held. They should be just shorter and smaller distances. You should be doing the same sort of routines. Nothing out of the ordinary. Same with your diet, nutrition, all that sort of stuff. Make sure it's good stuff. Good amount of sleep, good amount of hydration, good amount of nutrition and you'll get to the end.

And just know that the fear that you're feeling, every single one of us is feeling that. And we don't all admit it, but I will admit it for you. We're absolutely terrified when we're going and taking on a massive goal. What you can do now is disassociate yourself from the consequences of that, okay? So stop thinking about, "Well, if I don't make it I'm going to be so down." And, you know, if I don't make it this is going to happen or that's going to happen or I've wasted all this time or I've wasted ... None of those ever, if you can disassociate yourself from the consequences and just take the actions.

You know the Nike slogan that says don't think, just do, or just do it? That's a really good piece of advice. Don't overthink things except in the positive, except that you're visualizing. Set some time aside to do some deep breathing, a little bit of meditation and visualization. So visualize yourself having a successful day at the marathon. Picture yourself on the start line feeling all pumped up and excited about it. Picture yourself at the halfway point really looking strong and feeling in control. Picture the people around you, picture the smells, what it's going to look like at this place that you're going to be.

Have all that sort of feeling. When you tap into the imaginary world, the brain doesn't know whether it's a real situation or an imaginary one. And these visualization techniques really can help you. And I've got blogs on the website, I'm sure, on visualization. I certainly have in my Mindset Academy but I think there's one on the website as well. These visualization techniques in the buildup to this event, see yourself successfully completing this run over and over and over again. Picture the night before, picture your breakfast, picture what you'll be getting dressed into. And all the people that are going to be around you. Your smiling family watching you come across the finish line. All of these things that will motivate you.

Also spend some time in reflection about what is your why. Why are you doing this? What is it that drives you to want to be able to complete this marathon? Why you're doing it and what is the result that you want? And concentrating on the positive, okay? Concentrating on what it is that you're trying to achieve. Because when you understand your motivation, then you can pull out the reserves when you need it.

When that question starts to come at you at the 35km mark in a marathon or the 130km of a 100 miler of "why the hell am I doing this? This is horrifically hard and I'm in pain. And, oh my God, I've got another seven kilometres to go and how am I going to get there? And I feel like vomiting and I feel like passing out and I'm going to have to slow down."

All of these things are very, very common during a race. Just know that you can get through those and that they will pass, understanding that those times will come and go.

And if you have a question going around in your head, why the hell am I doing it, you have to have the answer for it. So you have to have spent the time and preparation before the event as to why the hell you're doing this marathon or ultra, what is it that you want to achieve with it and where are you going with it?

Because if you understand your motivation, whether it's to prove to some prick who told you couldn't do it or whether it's because you want to make your children proud of you, or whether it's because you've had this on your bucket list for the last 20 years or your colleagues challenged you to this, whatever your why is, understand that motivation and use that motivation when you're in the deep, dark moments during the race when it's getting tough. Call on those emotional triggers to get you further on.

Now, when you're in the race and you're having difficulties, try and go off to your happy place. When I'm pain, when I'm in agony, when it's really, really tough, by concentrating on those thoughts doesn't help. So I go off and I try to day dream for example I am off renovating the house, I'm writing the book, I'm doing my business plan in my head. Or something that will take me away from wherever I am. I'm swimming with the whales in the beautiful blue lagoon off an island, whatever it is where you are happy and occupied.

It's going to your happy place. It's going somewhere else so that your mind is taken off the job at hand. And break it down into little bite-size pieces. If the whole race is starting to overwhelm you and, you know, I know this one really well with the distances that I've done. You know, like running through New Zealand, at the start line of that I had 2,250 kilometers ahead of me and I was like, "Holy heck." You know, it was just like an elephant sitting on you and you're thinking like, "Oh, how am I going to do this?"