The Mental Side: How to make a successful race plan

If you want to do well in a race (and who doesn't?), one of the most basic steps to accomplishing that is making a plan.  Coaches and sports psychology advocates love to talk about having a plan and setting goals for an upcoming race, but as you might expect, the details about how you should go about setting up this plan and what your goals should be, conceptually speaking, are debatable. 

The first real question to address is "should you have a race plan?" This might seem a silly question at first, but there is a good line of argument behind not having a plan: First, you don't have any idea what's going to unfold in a race.  It could get out fast, it could get out slow, the top runner might be out with injury, etc.   Making a plan that says "I want to be 5:10 at the mile at the state cross country meet" might be a good idea in theory, but what if the top runners are hesitant and first place at the mile is only 5:14? On the other hand, the race could get out very hard, with the back of the field being 5:06 or 5:08.  In both cases, your race plan leaves you high and dry, and undoubtedly causes you stress when you realize your race is not going according to plan anymore.  Not having a plan allows you (in theory) to react to the race as it develops.
The same event can unfold in vastly different ways.  In 2007, Rob Finnerty led a strung-out field through the mile in 4:41 at the Minnesota state cross country championships.  Two years later, eventual winner Aaron Bartnik (191) pulled away after a huge front pack came through in a relatively pedestrian 5:09 first mile. 
Too often, however, I've found that having no plan at all leaves you feeling adrift, unable to exert much control over your situation in the race.  The mental "energy cost" of making a decisive move in a race is much higher once fatigue has started to build up.  Most runners know how easy it is to put off starting your kick or let a competitor slip away in the final stages of a race, even though it's contrary to what you want to accomplish.  Making these sorts of decisions before the race, when possible, alleviates some of this decision fatigue.  Having a plan allows you to exercise some amount of control over what's going on in a race.
Deciding to have a race plan is easy.  Choosing how to construct it is a little more challenging.  Sports psychology resources will tell you that your goals and plans should be concrete—e.g. "be in 10th by halfway" instead of "run near the front."  I, however, advocate a different approach.
It might be nice to sketch out your vision for the perfect race on paper (indeed, I did this for most of my senior year of high school) but because of the aforementioned issues of uncertainty about the race, this can lead to panicking and unwarranted disappointment over factors that really are out of your control.  As Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Instead of being myopically focused on details, it is better to return to basics: What is the purpose of a race plan?
For me, the answer is simple. A race plan should keep you focused on the right concepts at the right points in the race. Paces, place, and tactics can be part of the periphery, but the core of a race plan should be a very short list of concepts, feelings, or mental states to focus on.    

Break up the race
Did a guidance counselor or teacher ever tell you to break up big projects into smaller, easier-to-manage pieces? Well, the same applies to races.  I like to divide up a race into three parts, plus the kick.  As a distance runner, I view the kick as a separate entity, since it will always be 200-600m in length whether I race a mile or a 10k.  The other three, or sometimes four parts, are usually roughly equal partitions of the race distance.  By necessity, how you partition a race in your head will dictate, to some extent at least, your conception of the distance (and also vice versa).  By this I simply mean that there is a relationship between the feelings your body undergoes at various points in a race and how you think about the race itself.
Here's an example of a race plan for an indoor 3k.  The "plan" in its entirety, as you would enter it in your running log, might be this:
"Get off the line and stay relaxed the first 1000m, trying to hit 35sec/200m.  Run smooth through 2000m.  Run strong after 2000m and kickwith 400m to go."
You may have some goals in conjunction with this plan, but goal-setting is really a topic that deserves its own article.
Choose focus words
The core of the plan is really just four words: Relax, Smooth, Strong, Kick.  Simple "focus words" like this direct your attention where it needs to be at the appropriate time during the race.  If the race gets out hard, for example, and you come through 800m in 2:16 instead of 2:20, "relax" can reign back the effort—which I would emphasize is not the same thing as pace.  Running a 2:16 800 in an aggressive or nervous manner is more taxing, physically and mentally, than running the same time for 800m while focusing on relaxation.  You could imagine how the other words likewise keep your focus in the proper place during the middle and end of the race. 
The key to avoid being overwhelmed in a race is to take things one step at a time.  To put this in a less clichéd way, your focus should be solely on the task in front of you.  Using our example above, once we've got off the line in the 3k, our job for the first 1000m is to  RELAX.  Period.  Not to worry about whether we'll be able to hang on at the end, not to obsess about the inevitable pain after we come through the mile marker, or anything else.  Likewise for each additional segment of a race. 
Good focus words are short, direct, and have a small number of syllables.  More importantly, they should focus your attention on a specific mental state that is appropriate for that particular portion of the race.  More on that in a moment.
A distance race, when properly paced, will feel comfortable for about the first half of the distance.  So the purpose of the first quarter, third, or half of your race plan should be to get you through this portion as efficiently as possible. 
Fatigue starts to set in around 800m into a mile, 1.5 miles into a 5k, and so on.  Whether you want to align this with a new segment of your race plan is up to you—I prefer not.  By stretching the second partition of your idea, or plan, for the race across this halfway point ("Smooth" in this example plan), you can maintain a high level of efficiency further into a fatigued state.  Pain and suffering, though an inevitable and necessary part of running an excellent race, are also a matter of perspective.  By choosing not to focus on the mounting fatigue, you can sustain an efficient running style (and conserve energy) for longer.
If you do choose to delineate this point with a shift in focus in your race plan, it should still be a stepping stone to the final stage of a race.  Lopping the entire race into first half/second half plus a kick doesn't adequately address the difference in fatigue you feel at, for example, 1.5mi into a 5k versus 2.5mi.
If you want to run your best, a substantial proportion of the final part of a race will need to be run with some level of strength, aggression, determination, or power.  This is something you must accept, but not obsess over.
The difficult stretch beyond halfway, lasting until you start your kick, is usually the part of a race that most runners struggle with.  It demands a tremendous amount of focus and energy to maintain or increase your pace through this stretch of the race, hence the emphasis on running "strong" in the example plan. 
However, it's important to understand that your available energy and focus in this most important part of the race is strongly dependent on your mental and physical state leading up to it.  Running hard or aggressively in the first portion of the race will sap energy from the end of a race: both the "long drive" after halfway and the kick.  Hence the importance of emphasizing efficiency, relaxation, and conservation of energy and running momentum in the first half to two-thirds of the race.
At this point, we need to address the issue of semantics.  I'm sure a few readers have already taken issue with the example plan I laid out above. "How can you be relaxed in the first third of a 3k?" you might object.  "And how can you possibly run smooth in the second thousand, that's when the pain really sets in!" The mindset and attitude evoked by a word like "Relax" is probably different for me than it is for you. 
As an exercise, let's look at a list of potential focus words.
Loose (as in "stay loose")
Toes (as in "up on your toes" i.e. sprinting)
Each of these connote a different feeling or mental attitude, and you can probably see how repeating one of them over and over in a race, like a mantra, would affect your attitude and mental outlook.  When you survey the range of feelings and attitudes evoked by these words, you can also understand how different focus words would be appropriate for different parts in a race.
There are entire college-level philosophy classes dedicated to the idea that different words or symbols evoke different feelings in different people, but the details of semiotics aren't important. The only thing that is important is that the focus words you choose, and the race plan they embody, help keep your head in the right place.  To that end, figure out what works for you!
The kick
The kick at the end of the race deserves special mention, since it should always be part of your race plan.  A lot of young runners only find themselves able to muster a kick when they have another runner trying to best them in the final stretch of a race.  Accepting that you will always, no matter the circumstances, sprint as fast as you can in the final few hundred meters of a race, is the first step towards building a versatile and reliable finish.  The details of how to develop finishing speed in distance runners really deserves its own article, so I won't go into details here.  But including the kick in your race plan helps effectively shorten the race distance: if you're running a 3k and you've decided you will kick with 400 meters to go, you've effectively shortened the rest of the race, in your mind, to 2600m.  After that, you fully commit to the sprint to the finish. 
Follow the plan
As I discuss a the companion article, "Sports psychology and an alternative philosophy of running," I do not advise obsessing over your race plan or visualizing your race a dozen times over.  Sketch out your race plan the night before the race, or better yet, the day of.  Look over it once before the race, perhaps right before you go warm up, to make sure you've got it right.  Then run the race once—in real life—and be done with it.  Regardless of whether the race goes well or goes poorly, learn something afterwards and then move on.
To summarize, there are three steps to making a race plan.  First, break up the race distance into a few pieces.  One of these will always be the kick at the end.  Second, lay out what kind of feeling and mental attitude you want during each of these pieces.  Third, choose a focus word that embodies this feeling and attitude, and assign it to each segment of the race.  During the race, direct your attention and focus only to your current focus word until you've reached the next segment of the race.
This is how I make my own race plans, and this is how I instruct the runners I coach to make their race plans too.  I don't claim it's the best or only method, but it has been a very effective one for me.  I did not consider myself a particularly tough or consistent runner, especially early on in high school, and this showed through in my wildly inconsistent races, including some spectacular bombs.  Through trial and error, I developed this method during college and after, which has brought my running up to a much more consistent level.
Lastly, understand that making and executing a race plan is only one part of having a great race.  Even with a perfect race plan, you're not going to have the best race of your life every time you lace up your racing shoes.  Your fitness, your health, the weather, how the race unfolds, and any number of other variables will affect your performance too.  A good race plan only enables you to showcase your fitness level—it's not a magic mental trick to conjure up fitness or make up for a lack of training. 

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

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