Mental Notes: Relax!

Photo by jessebezz

When you think of relaxing you might think about reading a good book in a comfy chair, a warm bubble bath or laying on the beach. You might not think that relaxation is critical to your race performances, but it is.ย  Think about it. When we are tense our muscles tighten and our minds race. When we are relaxed our muscles are fluid and our minds are at ease. Does it sound better to race tense or relaxed?

I discovered how detrimental to race performance tension can be a few years ago. After months of picture-perfect training I lined up for my third marathon. Even though I knew I was reeeeeeeeeally nervous for the two weeks leading up to the race I did nothing about it and stood there waiting for the gun to go off more or less petrified. I felt stiff and out of control from go. Nevertheless, I made it close to on-pace through 17 miles. Mile 18 had a hill and my split was 20 seconds slower than my goal pace and I started beating myself up about it and panicking. By mile 19 I had a stitch so bad I could hardly breathe. I had to walk much of the last 7 miles as I cursed and cried. I still ran a big p.r.ย  If I would have gone with the flow and been relaxed who knows what I could have run that day.

You see, what happens when we are too tense is that the rational parts of our brains more or less shut off and our limbic system takes over. The limbic system is the part of the brain that handles primitive survival instincts. It’s what handles that old fight or flight state of being. When the limbic system is overstimulated by stress we forget our mantras, are unable to stop the negative thoughts flooding our brains and are unable to relax no matter how loudly we yell at ourselves to do so. We end up in a spiral of tension, negative thoughts and well, less than ideal performances.

It’s easy to see now how I ended up freaking out over a slow split and then freaked out over freaking out and then ended up with a stitch that left me totally freaking out some more. Classic case of limbic system overdrive. After some time mulling that third marathon performance and other disappointing performances over I’ve come to realize that a real weak point for me is my mind. Up until this past year I spent zero time training my brain and unless I just happened to have a good mental moment, my mind got in the way of my best performances almost every time. Of course, some of us are blessed with the natural ability to relax under pressure. Not me!

But there is hope for me and others like me. We can teach ourselves to achieve relaxation even in inherently stressful situations like key races. To get there, we must first learn how to relax on command. We must start learning to relax outside of our time running. Below is a key relaxation exercise. This exercise will be the base for many other mental training exercises and I will point you back here often.


Perform this exercise during a quiet time at home, but not when you’re half asleep.

  • Sit in a comfy chair in a quiet room.
  • Fold your hands and gently rest them on your lap.
  • Now inhale very deeply using your diaphragm and hold it for 3 seconds.
  • Exhale completely.
  • Wait 2 seconds and inhale again.

Repeat this breathing exercise 10 times and notice how relaxed and clear headed you feel. If you are particularly stressed out it may take more than 10 repetitions to slow your mind and achieve a fully relaxed state. Experiment with it and see what works best for you. Relax!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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