The psychology of performance

The motivation to perform is a curious thing.
Lorne Daniel's 10K trail race

Lorne Daniel’s 10K trail race

Last week, as I prepared for a weekend run, it struck me how strongly artificial motivators were driving my attitude and even my metabolism.

As the Saturday run date approached, my heart beat a little faster. I mentally checked and rechecked what gear I would wear in what weather conditions. I monitored my eating more closely and listened more attentively to my stomach. Every few moments for days before, my mind jumped back to some aspect of the run scenario.

Why? I wouldn’t be this obsessive about a typical weekend run.

But I was registered in a 10 K trail race.   Now, in my recent training regime, a 10K trail run is no big deal. Yet I had succeeded in making this a big deal. How? Simply because it was called a “race” and not a “run.”

The race route is a reasonably challenging one, with loose gravel at the start, 10K of gravel / dirt trails through the woods, and a series of steep hills near the end. In previous years, I have been unhappy with my race times – clocking 53 minutes and change, about 5 minutes slower than my 10K time for a flat, asphalt course.

I wanted to run the route in the low 50’s – something around 51 minutes. As training, I had been running trails and significant hills in recent weeks, but it’s hard to get a bead on how training will translate into performance until you actually perform.

Still: shouldn’t it be the same if, instead of registering in this race, I just went out and ran the route on on my own?

No, I knew it wouldn’t be the same. A race is a race. Yet I can’t help wondering where, exactly, the push to perform comes from.

The pressure is still, for the most part, internal. If you’re a runner, you recognize that my goal times are not the stuff of elite competitive runners. Hence, no one at this race would have expectations of me. As a slightly better than middle-of-the-pack runner, my cheering squad would consist of my wife.

At the finish line, no one else would care whether or not I hit that 51 minute mark.

Yet I came into race day with, I suspect, the same level of adrenalin and performance anxiety as those elite athletes must carry. What if I didn’t hit my time? What was the exact right amount of pre-race food, given that this run was starting mid-morning and not early morning like most?

With the starter’s signal, we all fired off and the first kilometre was like all races – that sense of fun, excitement, adrenalin – and a quick fear that all that energy was pushing me to run faster than I should. I tried to keep the pace sustainable but there’s no question that I wouldn’t kick off a 10K recreational run like this.

Through the middle kilometres, I kept running a little beyond the edge of comfort. That, of course, is a key difference with a race. Pushing the limits just a tad. It was tempting to let the pace fall off further but it’s here that the presence of other runners provides the motivation. Hearing someone coming up on your heals, or trying to keep a measured two paces behind the guy in front, is itself a curious motivator.

If this were a one person race, how would I respond during these middle stretches? There’s not only the practical challenge of keeping one’s pace but that big issue of competition – it’s startling how strong the urge to out-perform another can drive you forward.

On this day, I was hitting all my targets. At each kilometre marker, my time was a handful of seconds better than I had expected or hoped. Ahead of me, a string of other runners wove up and down through the woods.

As we hit the steep hills, with a couple km to go, I fixed on one runner just ahead of me and determined I wouldn’t lose him in this final challenging stretch. He was strong on the uphills, often pulling a few metres ahead of me, and then I would make up the difference with my long legs on the downhills.

We came out of the hills together and spotting the finish line gave a final kick, hitting the chute shoulder-to-shoulder.  On the race results, we show identical times of 49:46, with me listed in 41st place and him in 42nd.

Wow! When I looked at my watch, bent over, hands on knees, heaving heavy breaths, I wondered how I had not only hit my goal of 51 minutes but clocked in below 50.

Would I ever be able to do that, I wondered, running on my own? After all, the motivators were essentially all in my head – I was simply using the externals (watch, competitors, etc.) as measures for my own performance.

Some day, it would be fun to set up my own, one person “race” over a measured course to see if I could replicate race conditions – and performance. Could I push myself, using just internal images of other other runners in my virtual race, to perform at the same levels as in a real race?

The first challenge, of course, would be in actually committing to my virtual race – setting a date, distance, course, goals.  It’s so much easier to simply register for an existing race, isn’t it?

Yes, all our motivators are essentially internal. But it sure seems easier to “import” some of those motivators from external sources.


  1. Anonymous says:

    The subject of training and performing is one that has made the most frequent visits to my brainbox over the years – These days my mind is much on increasing performance excellence through the increase of practice efficiency. So the subject of your blog today is of great interest to me.
    You introduce an intriguing questioning into my mind-can we replicate the reality and bring ourselves to the point where, internalized, it becomes as good as the real thing?
    Whether it is a matter of “run”-“race”
    or “practice”-“performance”
    I believe holding the question in mind and acting a response, will pay dividends.

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