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Yeah, you read that right.

You’ve probably read a hundred pieces on positive thinking and its benefits, particularly in terms of racing and training. And I’m not here to bash that at all. I’m certainly an advocate of positive self-talk, self-belief, visualization and all of the other useful and semi-useful techniques out there. But this piece is taking an alternative school of thought; the way in which we can use our negative thoughts to our advantage (whether it be in running or any other form of performance).

There’s an ancient philosophy called Stoicism, and a part of this philosophy is the ability to accept a situation for what it is – and to use this acceptance as a means to control our fear of pain and/or failure. It acknowledges that the world is highly unpredictable and reminds us that we need to be in control of that which we can control – our responses to these events.

But how on earth does this relate to running and racing?

The biggest problem that runners face in a race situation is dealing with the unexpected.  We prepare for a race with an idea in our minds of how we will feel at various points within a race.  If there is a disconnect between our expectations and how we actually feel, this (usually) leads to a sense of panic and concern.  Our minds go into overdrive.  “Have I gone out too hard?”  “Why do my legs feel so heavy?”  “I’m not fit enough for this pace”.  Sure, these concerns may be valid in many cases, but at the same time they are often an over-reaction due to our inability to process and deal with the unexpected.

This is where the art of negative visualisation may serve a purpose.  Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty, rather than in experience.  If you make yourself familiar with the things that you fear, there’s a good chance that you will be better prepared to deal with them.  The philosopher Seneca once said, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned – and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans”.

If we are able to visualize all the different ways in which things may go wrong, this takes away our fear of the unexpected and instead allows us the opportunity to plan and practice how we can respond in these adverse scenarios.  Think to yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and then use these thoughts in your preparation, rather than as a cloud of fear hanging over you.  Have plans and methods in place for how you can respond in these absolute worst case scenarios.    

Epictus once said, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”  There is certainly an element of racing that is out of our control.  How we feel on the day has a sense of randomness even if we have prepared in the best way possible.  The weather may be terrible.  Perhaps you wake up feeling sick on the day of the race.  BUT what is under our control are the decisions we make.  So it makes sense to do everything in our power to be prepared to make these decisions quickly and under pressure.  Don’t avoid the worst case scenarios in your preparation and just hope that everything goes according to plan.  Prepare yourself for any outcome and you’ll go into the race with the confidence that no matter what happens, you’re ready and able to deal with it.


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