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Pressure. Helping or hindering?


Words: Lara Tamsett


Are you feeling your nerves starting to mount as this year’s Gold Coast Airport Marathon approaches? Hopefully my recent racing experience can help you acknowledge any pressure you are putting on yourself and aid you to deal with it in an effective way on race weekend.

Despite having run, trained and raced for 20 years, I only recently competed in my first fun run FOR FUN. Never have I entered a race without a goal, time or placing to achieve. I didn’t go to bed early the night before like I ordinarily would, I didn’t eat my usual pre-race breakfast, I didn’t warm up and I didn’t wear a watch. I wasn’t there to be competitive and I had zero expectations on how I would go. This was a new, relaxed and novel approach to racing, something which I had normally approached with nerves and always a certain amount of expectation.

Having been injured for two years and doing minimal training, I was apprehensive about my fitness to say the least. So, it came as quite a surprise when I experienced one of my best races. When I say best, I don’t mean my fastest nor my most successful. By best I mean my most enjoyable.

The way an athlete deals with pressure is the key to using pressure situations positively and learning to respond well is an invaluable tool for a sportsperson


I savoured the race, the scenery and the support. For the first time, I smiled and waved at my cheering parents while running (I had always been way too serious to do such things) and I didn’t experience that mid-race panic when you realise you are not on target (I had no target but to simply finish and do my best). I didn’t get disillusioned when rivals streaked away (they were meant to) and I was calm and unassuming in my gradual catching of them (this was a bonus, not an expectation). I didn’t panic when I thought I had hit the wall at the halfway point (so what if I did, I could crawl home!). Surprisingly, however, I found my second wind and finished strongly despite going out harder than I should have. I surprised myself with my mental strength and the calm, rational thoughts that went through my head. In the end, I ran one of my most aggressive races of my career. Yet my fitness and training was nowhere near the level required to run as fast as I did. So how did I just do that? I asked myself this question all week following the race.

I began to think about the pressure I had undoubtedly been putting myself under as an elite runner and whether this had hindered or helped my past performances. Pressure has always been an integral part of sport and isn’t necessarily bad. It can enhance motivation, concentration and enjoyment. That feeling of stress that often accompanies a pressure situation can help keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge. However, the way an athlete deals with pressure is the key to using pressure situations positively and learning to respond well is an invaluable tool for a sportsperson.

Pressure isn’t something that happens, it is something that is manufactured by our own thinking and is simply how we perceive the situation we are in


The most important concept in dealing with pressure is to start with the realisation that there is no such thing as competition pressure, except what you make of it in your mind. Pressure isn’t something that happens, it is something that is manufactured by our own thinking and is simply how we perceive the situation we are in. Athletes need to learn this, because once they understand that pressure is something they create, then they also understand that it’s something they can control. By controlling their responses to pressure situations, athletes learn to take them in their stride and use it to their benefit.

There are numerous strategies for dealing with pressure and there is a wealth of information and tips online. Personally, however, I find pressure gets the better of me when I am too focused on the outcome. When I am completely fixated on achieving a certain goal, I don’t stay in the present and consequently tend to rush and am easily overwhelmed. I realised I combatted this in my recent fun run by focusing on enjoying the experience. Not only did I have fun, but in the process, I ran well (a double bonus!).

Studies reinforce this idea that enjoyment plays a key role in motivating and improving performance


And it seems this theory is not all in my head. One study of 261 women in aerobic dance classes found that focusing on the class itself and on developing skill and competence served to enhance interest, performance and enjoyment more than comparing oneself to others or trying to be the best[1]. A related study of 695 university students showed that emphasising the personal value of an activity or its relevance to one’s future increased motivation and drive, while a focus on “having to do” the activity or achieve a certain target decreased incentives[2].

Further studies reinforce this idea that enjoyment plays a key role in motivating and improving performance. A longitudinal study of 500 female runners over a two-year period found that those who enjoyed the activity were far more likely to continue and improve[3]. Participants indicated their preferences among three aerobic workouts and then performed each of them for 20 minutes. After their preferred training, their fatigue, psychological distress and reported difficulty were lower, while their sense of positive well-being was higher. Since the work rates were roughly equivalent for all three exercise modes, these differences are remarkable.

Emphasising the personal value of an activity or its relevance to one’s future increased motivation and drive


While it’s easy to get caught up in setting new and harder-to-achieve goals when it comes to your 2017 Gold Coast Airport Marathon race, don’t forget to take a step back every now and then and remember why you took up this great sport in the first place. Remember to savour the pure, basic beauty of running and how it improves your mind, mood and health (with or without a PB!).

References

[1] Boyd, Weinmann & Yin 2002
[2] Simons, Dewitte & Lens 2003
[3] Titze, Stronegger & Owen 2005


About Lara Tamsett

Lara is a former World Junior Mountain Running champion and a two-time Australian 10,000 champion. She is also a four-time World Country Championships representative and has represented Australia at the World Athletics Championships and World Half Marathon Championships. Lara won the 2011 ASICS Half Marathon (1:12:19) and 2013 Southern Cross University 10km Run (33:05). She is the online editor for Run For Your Life magazine, a bi-monthly, full-colour magazine containing interesting and valuable information for runners at all levels.

Visit r4yl.com.au for more information.

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