Coach Will: Racing Mindset
In coaching we face two very important challenges. First, the X's and O's of training are important to make sure an athlete is getting the right workouts at the right time. Secondly, and perhaps even more challenging, is catering to the mental side of the sport. Getting an athlete to believe in themselves and breakthrough is a huge part of running success.
Most kids/even college runners and beyond, struggle in the "third quarter" of any race. For the 800 meters that’s between 400-600 meters. The mile, 800-1200m, 2 mile, 1600-2400 etc. You can even extrapolate this over 5k, 10k, etc. For the shorter races like the 800-3200, it's so crucial that they end up keeping the pressure on during the third quarter of the race. For most, it's a fear of not finishing well and getting outkicked. Problem is that if you start to check out over that third quarter, you end up losing more time off the slower pace than you can make up with a faster finish or "kick". The kick will always be there even if you're hurting. I try to tell my runners that there are 10,080 minutes in a week. You're only going to have to truly suffer for about 45 seconds in the 800m, 2 minutes in the Mile, 3-4 minutes in the 2 mile and 5-6 minutes in the 5k. Think about that, the adrenaline takes you through the first quarter of any race. Very little pain is felt here. In the next quarter of a race, if a runner slows down it is mainly due to a lack of focus. The runner can "check out" and tend to fade, but it's not usually because of fatigue. The third quarter is where fatigue is a real factor and where most people are slowing down. This is where you have a chance to move up and inflict the hurt on the runners around you. This takes guts and it's very scary. The best runners are able to conquer those fears of failure by pressing on during this "unknown" of the third quarter of a race. In the last quarter of the race you end up getting so jacked up and excited (though still in pain from fatigue) because you are hitting splits that you've never encountered before. For a miler this might mean going through 1200 meters in under 3:30 for the first time ever. Meaning that if the runner simply maintains off a 3:28 1200m split, they will break 4:40 for the first time ever. Or for the 5min mile, 3:45 is that barrier, anything under 3:45 and you are breaking 5 with an "OK" kick.
The mind is our worst enemy while racing. If we can channel our efforts and grasp the fact that we're going to suffer for a VERY BRIEF period of time, the glory will be so worth it. As soon as we cross the line, sure there is heavy breathing and fatigue but every second after that current moment it gets better and less painful. Within a few minutes you're walking around high five-ing your teammates or friends.
My advice? The last quarter of any race doesn't matter, or better yet, doesn't exist until it arrives. The third quarter (of any race distance, not just the 1600) is where all your focus needs to be in making sure that you don't all out sprint, but that you work even harder to maintain the same pace from the first two quarters. The sooner one learns this and is okay with going into that unknown third quarter of the race distance, the sooner they will find themselves on the podium and running big PRs.
I hope this helps and I know it's challenging, and I didn't master it until my senior year of high school in one of my very last races. Six years of running scared and having a bad third quarter was all washed away when I finally convinced myself to just see what happens. Even today, I still race this way in shorter distances.