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The Marathon Mindset #3: Race

Whether you’re racing against an elite field, the clock, or just to finish, you won’t get your goal without a winning mentality. This is how pro marathoners get their minds ready to race.


Editor’s note: We know that, for good reason, many races are not going ahead as planned right now. But we wanted to share this advice anyway. We hope it serves as motivation to go keep testing yourself and put in great workouts. To push harder in the race against yourself. Because eventually, there will be other races. And we want you to be ready. 


You’ve focused on your goals, you’ve endured the ups and downs of training, and it all comes down to this. Race day. Showtime. Time to cash in the runner benefits you’ve banked over the past few months. As long as you’ve made it to the line in good shape, there’s now only one thing you need to make sure you’re unstoppable: a winner’s mindset. And we’re here to help you raise your mental game for race day. 


Regardless of level, every runner is competing to chase down something. For the pro On ZAP Endurance runners we spoke with to learn about competitive mindset, it’s about winning the race. You don’t have to be aiming for a podium place to benefit from their advice, however. It’s valid whatever your goal, whether you have a target race time in mind or to complete a certain distance for the first time.


“Racing Hurts”

First up, it’s important to note that the focus and resilience we talked about in the previous articles of this athlete mindset series are not distinct from the racing mindset or each other. They all feed each other (so we recommend checking those tips out as well). As such, finding your competitive instinct starts long before the gun goes off. Just ask the On ZAP Endurance team’s 02:18 marathoner Matt McClintock. 


“I believe that there are two parts to the athlete mindset,” Matt told us. “The first is being able to inspire yourself to get out the door on days that you don't want to. 


Everyone’s motivation is different. Everyone, from people training for their first marathon to people training to win Olympic gold have days they don't want to get out of bed. It’s the ones that do get out there that set themselves apart. 


“Second, is the ability to put themselves into uncomfortable situations on race day. One of my favorite quotes is from (US track legend) Bob Kennedy. He said ‘racing hurts, you need to accept that from the beginning or you aren't going anywhere’. Being able to channel, accept and even relish the parts of the race that aren't fun is quintessentially important to going from good to great."



No Pressure

Race day can be a pressure cooker. You’ve invested a tonne of time and energy into preparing for this one moment. Your family is waiting for you and you want to make them proud. You know your Strava friends are silently watching and you want their kudos. Before you know it, your legs are shaking not from effort but expectation. And that means your precious glycogen stores are being sapped by nervous energy. Stop. Breathe. There’s a better way to channel that energy. 


A big part of honing the competitor mindset is balancing self-motivation and the ability to push through pain while taking the pressure off. This is important  because racing comes with so many variables. From the weather to logistics to the hundreds or even thousands of other runners all focused on achieving their own goals, there are so many things you cannot control no matter how good your preparation has been. 


According to Joanna Thompson, who finished 11th at the 2018 Boston Marathon, it’s about “being able to balance confidence with expectation.”


My best training and races come when I know, to my core, that I’m going to perform well, but I don’t put an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to do so. 


“It’s a tricky balance to strike. But when I’m able to access this state, racing becomes the most beautiful and rewarding thing on the planet.”


On ZAP Endurance Coach Pete Rea also believes in the importance of mental relaxation. 


“I actually try to keep the mood light in the days before a big race. Athletes know when a race is important. They don't need me hyping them up more and making it out to be the Super Bowl and the World Cup all in one. I like to joke with them a bit and then remind them of the race plan we have put forth. 


“I tend to be more nervous on race day than many of the runners I coach, but I don't like to show it.” Coach Rea admits.  “I remind myself of the cues I want to project to the team on the race course (or track) and then I get pumped up by looking at all the great training we have done. 


“I advise them to believe in themselves and to remind themselves of all the work they have done. ‘Review your log’ I will often say and that alone will give you confidence.”



Plan for Success

While it’s important to stay flexible and relaxed on race day, that doesn’t mean going into the race without a plan. Sure, we might need to tear it up depending on how things pan out, but having a plan, or even several, helps us keep our mental focus on execution when it really matters. 


“Since I obviously can’t plan for every possibility, I try to have a primary, secondary, and tertiary strategy mapped out, each with some built-in wiggle room”, Joanne explained. 


“Usually, (Coach) Pete and I base the main strategy on some combination of my fitness, the weather, and the course itself. Plan ‘B’ takes race tactics into consideration, and plan ‘C’ might depend on how I’m feeling on that given day”.


Equally important for giving your mind what it needs to focus on racing is pre-race preparation. Here we don’t mean training, but logistics: what you’ll pack if you’re traveling, what you’ll wear on the day itself, from warming up to the cool down, and of course nutrition. 



Andrew Colley, who ran a 2:12:13 to take second at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, US, in 2019, has his race day all mapped out. 


“Oh yeah, I love race day,” Andrew said with conviction. “I usually wake up about four hours before the race and grab a quick bite within 30 minutes or so. Next, I get all of my favorite apparel pieces together for my warm up. No less than three layers because you gotta keep warm. 


“I usually like to keep it light and fun, joking around with my teammates. Then just throw on some good tunes and get on with it. I have to get a text or call from my family telling me they believe in me as well, that’s essential.”


Matt McClintock also has his race day routine locked down, particularly when it comes to kit. 


"Im very superstitious, for lack of a better word. On race day, I have a particular set of socks, shorts and a singlet that I never wear for any other purpose.     


"I race in the Cloudrush, black Low Socks, Race Shorts and a Tank-T.  I warm up in the Cloudstratus, Tights Long, (or the Running Pants if it's particularly cold), a Performance-T and/or Performance Long-T and the Weather Jacket. I never put my singlet on until after I finish warm ups and am going to the line.     


“Post race it depends a lot on the weather. If it’s cold, I'll throw on most of the stuff I warmed up in, if it's warmer I'll usually just throw a t-shirt over my singlet and change from the Cloudrush back into the Cloudstratus. My biggest pet peeve (and I really don't know why) is cooking down in a visible singlet, especially if the bib is still attached.”


Having a post-race plan can also be a big help when the lactate rises, giving you the chance to know that the suffering will all be over and that there’s a big reward waiting at the end. That’s certainly 2:13:19 marathoner Joe Stilin’s advice: 


“Lately I’ve planned a vacation immediately after running a marathon, for example a canoe trip in Canada or a weekend in Monterey Bay (California, US) and the Aquarium there. It’s nice to relax away from training and soak in the success of the race with people you love. That way you can return to training refreshed and hungry for more.”


The Cloudflow
On ZAP Endurance athlete Johnny Crain’s go-to marathon shoe: “It's still snappy while providing something a little softer on my foot.”
Find your race day flow with the Cloudflow
The Cloudrush
An On ZAP Endurance favorite come race day. Joe Stilin: “I wear Cloudrush for marathons and faster workouts because I can feel them give me a boost down the road.”
Crush rivals in comfort with the Cloudrush


Visualize Victory

Tyler Pennel, who ran a 2:12:34 to finish 11th at the 2020 Team USA Marathon Trials is a big believer in mentally preparing for a big performance by familiarizing yourself with the course beforehand and running it in your mind. 


“One of the most important ways to train for a race is to visualize what race will be like,” Tyler said.


“For most of my marathons, including the 2020 Trials in Atlanta, we took a trip to run along the course. That way, you can gain confidence and have a base to begin your visualizations. 


“While visualization implies sight, it includes so much more. For example, while visualizing the sights of the race, know how you want to feel at that moment in the race is just as important. In fall 2019 when I ran the TCS NYC Marathon, I really focused on the bridges as points to anchor my visualizations. 


“At 16 miles you come off the Queensboro Bridge on to First Ave. I would imagine the sights but also the sounds of the crowd and how I would have to react, especially as there is a risk you run way too fast because of the crowds. Focusing on specific details can help create a more vivid visualization and benefit you on race day.”


As the On ZAP Endurance team’s mantra goes, “the mind is the athlete.” This is never truer than on race day. While the importance physical preparation can’t be overstated, mental preparation is often underestimated. And according to Coach Rea, it’s the key to achieving your goal:


Nothing is more important than mindset. If you don't believe you will run well you won't. It is indeed that simple.



Your 4 Key Takeaways: The Marathon Mindset #3 Compete


1. Plan your race

A training plan is common among runners of all levels, but failing to have a proper race day plan can undo all that hard work. Map out everything from before to during and after the race. Know exactly what you need to pack and where and what you’ll eat well before – and test it all in the build up to avoid stomach surprises.  Know exactly what kit and shoes you’re racing in and test them at race tempo in the weeks prior to the race.


2. Take the pressure off

Prevent nerves sapping your precious energy stores by taking the pressure off the race. If this race doesn’t go to plan, there will be other races. And you’ll always learn and become a better runner by racing. There are so many variables on race day. Know that you will plan all you can and the rest you will leave to fate. Be ready to be flexible and adjust if things don’t play out as expected, whether that’s the weather or somehow missing an aid station. That’s part of racing. Accept it, adapt and keep going. 


3. Run the race in your mind

Visualization is a powerful tool for increasing performance. Help your visualization by running segements of the course before the race if you can. If that’s not an option because you’re traveling to a race, try and find a video on line. Not possible? You can look at photos, get the elevation profile and speak to other runners that have run the course before. Collect as many cues as you can to eliminate surprises by visualizing the race and, importantly, crossing that finish line. 


4. Remind yourself you’re ready

We train hard so we can race easier. We forge ourselves in the hot fire of tough sessions, then we taper ready to unleash our true potential on raceday. It should be a celebration of the runner training has turned you into. Build that confidence before the race by reviewing your training logs or Strava profile. See how far you’ve come, literally. Revisit the great workouts you remember. Tell yourself that you’re ready.   

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