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Photo credit: RunUltra.

How to think like a winner

03-Sep-18

Last updated: 10-Sep-18

By Sarah Cooke

I have never thought of myself as a winner. I don’t regard myself to be competitive against others, only against my own standards. I thrive on a challenge, but my running has always been about doing myself justice and achieving things that I didn’t believe my body could do.

I don’t win stuff - until now.

I have recently finished as first lady in a 50 miler and a 100km, and as third lady in a 50km race. I didn’t set out to win these races, but something happened to me when I was told at checkpoints that I was winning.

I was determined not to be overtaken, so perhaps I have a competitive streak after all. I decided to do some research and find out whether I do think in a similar way to other winners, or whether my recent success is a giant fluke.

When it comes to endurance running, Kilian Jornet has to be one of the biggest winners. In a recent interview for RunUltra, he emphasised that ‘training your mind is as important as training your body’.

This is something I can relate to - injuries or medical issues need to be taken seriously, but discomfort from fatigue or sore muscles is something that I can put into the background. More importantly, I am confident in my ability to do this.

When I started running, I found it hard not to get carried away and run the first few miles at a faster pace than intended. Once I discovered trails and longer distances, this gradually shifted.

I learnt to start sensibly and trust that most of the people sprinting up the first hill would be seeing me again before the race was over. During St. Cuthbert’s Way this year, I was so far back in the early miles that I started to wonder if I was going more slowly than I thought.

A glance at my watch reassured me that, if anything, I could afford to go a little more slowly. I finished that race as first lady and third overall. If you can resist trying to keep pace with everyone else at the start, then you will overtake them later in the race. I also run on feel.

There is a time and place for disciplined speedwork, and if you have a target time, then the numbers become important. However, if you run to a prescribed pace, then you have no option to adapt to circumstances.

St. Cuthbert’s Way was seriously hot this year. By running at a pace that felt sustainable, I did not succumb to the heat and my strategy allowed me to keep running when others were dropping out with heat exhaustion. 

Running on feel also allows you to adapt to the terrain. Unless you are some sort of mountain goat (in which case you’ll have won far more stuff than I have), don’t feel self-conscious about walking up hills in an ultra - you will have the last laugh.

Ok, so you’ve trained your mind and body, and you’ve started your race sensibly, but the inevitable fatigue and self-doubt creep in – what do winners do in this situation? My article on the psychological profile of ultra success explored how successful runners view fatigue as a sign of the effort they are putting in rather than as a sign of weakness.

If you’re aiming for a win, then you are likely to be competing against other strong runners – there may be little to distinguish between you in relation to physical training and fitness. You are going to need something to give you the edge on the day, and mental strategies can provide that edge.

Afremow (2013), suggests the following ways in which you can use your brain to drive your body:

  • Have confidence in your ability
  • Keep focused when surrounded by distractions
  • Sustain your motivation levels throughout your training
  • Be prepared to conquer anxiety, frustration and disappointment
  • Step it up when needed

Do I do these things? I am not always confident, but I do believe in my ability to persevere. I am also pretty good at ignoring distractions, and being comfortable in your own company is helpful here.

In an ultra, you will probably chat to lots of people for short periods, but you will probably not be able to rely on any one person to keep you focused. If you can be comfortable inside your own head, then time passes more quickly.

This is something you can practise during training – learn to be your own coach and motivator.

I am lucky not to struggle with motivation on a regular basis. We all have off days, but my enjoyment of running makes it easy to get out the door 99% of the time.

This is why every training plan should have scope for unstructured running – this could be a social run, or it could be a run where you leave your watch at home and let it flow. If you mix a few sessions like this in with your focused training, then you are less likely to fall out of love with running.

Am I prepared to conquer anxiety, frustration and disappointment? I think so. Conditions, illness and a bit of the Law of Sod have meant some of my races didn’t go to plan. Whilst I’m not happy about this, I accept that not every race will be a success.

Although winning requires perseverance and an ability to tolerate discomfort, it is also important to know when abandoning Plan A is the right call. I’ve learned far more from the four races I’ve DNFd than I have from the ones I’ve won.

Addressing what needs to be learned from those events has undoubtedly contributed to my success in others.

Stepping it up when needed – can I do that? I often lack enthusiasm to run shorter distances because I can be lazy regarding speed. However, being told I was on track for a win made me step it up pace wise. I think the lesson here is that you are capable of so much more than you think.

Imagery is a highly effective strategy, so picture yourself winning that race or imagine that you are already winning, but someone is right on your tail – you will suddenly find energy you didn’t know you possessed. 

In summary: run your own race and don’t be distracted by the pace or beliefs of others, train your mind as well as you train your body, don’t forget the fun in your training, learn from races that don’t go to plan, and use positive imagery to step it up when it matters.

Even if you’re not out to win your next race, these strategies may help you do yourself justice.

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