By Christopher Cudworth
Insecurity is not the friend of any endurance athlete. When we’re fit we worry that we’re not fit enough. When we’re unfit we worry if we can get fit in time for the next big events. When we’re somewhere in between we worry that the events in which we’ve chosen to participate are a bit too challenging. Our goals make us worry. Expectations too.
All those worries, and for what? Pretty much all we can actually do is take the fitness we have and apply it the best we can. That’s true in running, cycling or triathlon. You can’t worry your way to wonderful performances.
I learned that lesson years ago during the runup to the Prairie State Games, a quasi-Olympic event held in the state of Illinois.
I’d qualified easily in the 5000 meters event by winning the regional competition at 15:30 on a hot day on the York High School track.
Our team coaches Joe Newton of York High School and Al Carius of North Central College both had already sealed their reputations as two of the leading distance coaches in the nation. Newton’s cross country teams have won dozens of state titles and Carius was literally named Coach of the Century by the NCAA.
But coaching a team confabbed from random qualifiers is not exactly easy. There were no team practices by which to advise the distance runners on their training or racing strategies. You just showed up downstate at the University of Illinois and did your thing.
And that did not go so well in my case. I was extremely fit. That wasn’t the problem. I ran the first two miles of the 5000 meter competition in 9:28. Then things went south with a sidestitch and heat prostration in the 85 degree heat and 80% humidity. Between the bad temps and drinking too many Cokes in the days leading up to the race the ability to finish was just wiped out.
But worry was a problem too. I’d done too much perambulating about my chances for a medal, or even winning the race.
Standing next to me on the line was a University of Illinois athlete named Ty Wolf. His best time was down around 14:00. My best was 14:47. On the other side of me stood a guy named Paul Snyder (if I recall his name correctly.) He wore a University of Chicago Track Club shirt. We’d talked a bit during warmups and I was struck by how nice a guy he really was. His best time was around 14:30. But I still wanted to beat him.
Wolf swung into a 20-second lead by two miles and Snyder had snagged second, looking comfortable. I was running well in third until that sidestitch hit. It felt as if a hot knife were dragging from my ribs to my waist. I ran half a lap bent over and then got pulled out of the competition by the medics. They sat me in a wheelbarrow full of ice. Within minutes I felt fine if a bit morose. I wanted a medal at the inaugural Prairie State Games. That was not going to happen now.
What really caused the meltdown was worry. I was worried that I might not win. It’s true. Frankly I overshot my true abilities with those aims. The tension caused by unrealistic (surrealistic?) goals added up to nervous behavior leading up to the competition and a race strategy that was more frantic than calculated.
It was a good lesson to learn. If you’re truly going to achieve beyond your abilities it is relaxation and intelligent preparation that will make it happen. Not worry. Fortunately I lived to tell those tales on other days. I actually learned from the worrisome experience of the Prairie State Games.
Of course I’m not the only athlete who’s had to learn the worry lesson the hard way. Dozens of world class athletes with world records under their belts have gone to the Olympics and fallen short of their dreams. I’m willing to bet that worry played a part in every one of those downfalls.
Because whether you’re an Olympian or a quasi-Olympian, it doesn’t pay to worry yourself into a fit.
Strip away the worry and what do you find underneath? The naked truth about your fitness and what to do with it.
As you prepare for your next competition, here’s how to strip away the worry and get to the naked truth about your ambitions:
1. Review your training and identify ways it has prepared you for success
2. Break down your overall goal into achievable parts such as splits and pace
3. Think beyond the event to give yourself perspective: life will go on
4. Discuss your goals and pace with a coach or trusted friend to gain confidence
5. Forgive yourself any shortcomings and compliment yourself for hard work.
It’s as simple as that. Getting rid of worry is all about focusing on the positives and the real work you’ve done to prepare.
Go out and compete. It’s the best you can do. Worrying about it won’t help one bit.