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How to prepare for your next competition

Lance Smith explains how to prepare for and compete in your next race.

This piece was written with road and cross country running in mind, but many of the points are relevant to all running disciplines.

Races are run with the feet but often won with the head. With two runners of equal ability, it is the one who uses his or her head - who focuses, concentrates and thinks best - who comes out on top. And this starts well before the gun goes off.


It can start days or weeks before when coach and athlete discuss and work out race tactics. It even pays to write down the tactics, formulating a race plan for each section of the race and the strategies used to achieve it. The race plan should cover strengths and weaknesses, the way to run each section of the race and alternative plans to deal with unexpected changes. Races rarely go to plan, well, not your plan anyway. There are as many race plans as there are competitors, so you cannot expect it all to go the way coach or athlete wants. Having an alternative strategy allows a quick decision to be made without ground lost as the athlete thinks about what to do next.

Visualisation is also part of the "thinking running" process. If the athlete is familiar with a particular course, have them go over it in their mind in the days before. They imagine their way through the race, picturing the entire course, working out what they might do and feel at various stages. They might also imagine various scenarios, mentally preparing themselves for all eventualities.

Lorraine Moller, New Zealand's last Olympic running medallist, visualised her Barcelona Olympic marathon. She inspected the course exactly 12 months before the race, then over the next year ran the race over and over in her mind. The course, the weather, the hills, the stadium layout all held no surprises. She knew what to expect when to expect it and what her reaction would be. Her visualisation even included picturing herself standing on the medal dais.

Monitoring the course

The warm-up is time to get the body ready to race - it is also time to get the mind switched on. This is the time final plans should be made; tactics decided and in cross country and road races, course familiarisation. If possible, the warm-up should include a jog over the course or as much of it that can be covered. Most harrier events have a map of the course. Encourage your athletes to familiarise themselves with it.

Have them take note of the best places to run as they go around on the warm-up. For example, it may be better to take a corner wide where the distance may be further, but they can run faster or not be caught up in heavy traffic. Note the best ways to approach an obstacle, such as a jump or bank. Check where the ground is firm and where the soft muddy patches are. Sometimes going through a puddle gives firmer underfoot conditions than going around it - so get them to check it out before the race. And have them imagine the course with other runners on it. The shortest way could also be the most congested. You do not want them held up by a bottleneck at a jump or narrow track where passing is impossible.

Course knowledge helps set tactics. Knowing there is a downhill coming might allow a runner to surge then get their breath back on the slope. Or a strong uphill runner could put a surge in before a hill, confident of the ability to maintain the pace while the climb wipes out other runners who also surged.

A runner must need to know where they are concerning the finish. How far to go? How far gone? What lap in a track race? In a harrier event, what landmarks are there to indicate the distance to the finish? For instance, the athlete wants to increase the pace over the last 400m then start an all-out sprint with 100m to go. But it is no good if they do not know where the 400m mark is or the finish line is unsighted around a corner or obscured by the crowd.

Work out these aspects with your athletes while they are getting ready to race. Have them do their thinking and planning before the gun goes off, including possible options should things change. Once the race has started the mind should be on the race - on tactics, the opposition, holding form - not on wondering where they are, which is the best way to go or what is around the corner.

Monitoring oneself

An athlete needs to focus on how he or she is running. Good running style and efficiency go together. Is the runner relaxed? Is there a good technique? Are they wasting energy? Is tension or bad habits creeping in? If athletes think about how they are running, they will run better - if the mind wanders, they will start running inefficiently, particularly when fatigue sets in. It is a good idea to teach a 'good form checklist'. The checklist goes head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs. Have athletes ask themselves a series of questions as they run: is my head straight, is my neck relaxed, are my shoulders loose and low, are my elbows at a comfortable, efficient angle, are my hands loose, etc.? If the answer is "yes" go to the next question. If "no" correct it and then go to the next question. The athlete should have: -

  • Head looking straight ahead, not up or down
  • Jaw not clenched. Watch top runners when there is TV coverage of athletics or cross country, especially when there is a front-on shot. Notice the jaw flops up and down as the athlete runs
  • Neck muscles tension-free
  • Shoulders low, not hunched or tense
  • Elbows at 90° or greater, not tight
  • Arms relaxed and hands swinging through hip height
  • Wrists and hands relaxed
  • Hips forward, running tall with hips over the centre of gravity
  • Strides relaxed without overstriding. Overstriding is when the foot lands ahead of the centre of gravity which slows the runner down by creating a braking action
  • No bouncing in the running action
  • Arm action that swings from the shoulder (not from the elbow) in as close to a straight line forward and back as possible. Avoid having the shoulders going side to side and the hands crossing past the mid-point of the chest
  • Even if a runner has a good running style, it's surprising how it goes when tired. Hence the need to keep thinking about style and running form, and employing the checklist as they run

Get runners into the habit of thinking about how they are feeling. Are they pacing themselves well? Can they go faster? Should they go slower? Have them monitor their breathing as it is the best indication of effort.

Athletes also need to think about developments. Are they prepared should a rival speed up? If someone did, should your athlete go with them, let them go or catch up gradually? Should they surge to isolate someone else? How can they stay with a group or get onto another group? (Running in a group is a lot easier than running by yourself). Do they risk leaving one group and trying to get onto one further ahead and be pulled through to a faster time? We have all seen races where someone loses concentration for a moment and finds themselves 100m or so behind the people they were running with. And at the end of the race are still 100m behind, so they ran the bulk of the race at the same pace as the others but were beaten by 100m. By being aware and staying focused, that gap would not have occurred.

Monitoring the opposition

Thinking must also include opponents in a race. How do opponents react to pace increases? How is their breathing? Have you or your athlete seen any of them before so know their tactics? The difference between winning and not winning could come down to knowing how opponents feel, focus, to being switched on. So many things to think about and so many reasons why one cannot afford to let the mind wander. The athlete is the one running the race; he or she is the one who must make the decisions. The coaching process must, therefore, include training to think.

So how do you train the mind? The same way you train the body - practice. The ideal time to practice concentration is during time trials and rep sessions where there is a need to maintain a specified pace and run efficiently yet not have tactics and opponents to worry about. Low key, preseason or club races are ideal for training the mind, for thinking about tactics and other race requirements, as well as trying different tactics.

On a training run the mind can wander, thoughts thought, scenery enjoyed, and conversations carried on. Not so when racing. That is the time to be a thinking runner.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SMITH, L. (2006) How to prepare for your next competition. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 33/ June), p. 1-3

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SMITH, L. (2006) How to prepare for your next competition [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in harriers, track events and jumps.