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Ultrarunner Adam Campbell’s tips to master your mid-race mindset

"Focus on the process of executing the best race you can on a given day," says Campbell

Adam Campbell 2022 Photo by: Michael Overbeck

If you’ve ever found yourself nailing your goals in a race, you may have also experienced some panic or fear, and wondered how exactly to continue. Canadian ultrarunner and mountaineer Adam Campbell addressed this on social media recently, sharing: “The first time you move from dreaming about something to actually being in a position to see it through can be scary. It takes a mind shift to not panic, to keep executing the way you have been, and keep flowing the way you were that got you there in the first place.”

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Finding success in a race can be thrilling, but also frightening, and it can derail even the most skilled athlete. We caught up to Squamish-based Campbell to hear his tips on staying on track when you suddenly find yourself performing in a way you’ve only dreamed of.

Think ahead–imagine your emotional state in various outcomes

Campbell notes it’s amazing how quickly we can lose sight of our original race plans, attitude and mind frame when we find ourselves in a position to succeed. He suggests thinking these situations through ahead of time.

“We often visualize a process, i.e., getting nutrition, what our pace should be, or how we want to handle certain sections of a course, but we don’t think about the emotional state we want to be in when we are achieving our desired outcome,” he explains.

Adam Campbell_1 2022
Photo: Michael Overbeck

Instead of rising to the occasion, when we find ourselves nailing our goal, we’re often flooded with “don’t screw up” thoughts, he says. These are draining–and Campbell suggests the more emotional steadiness we can maintain in a race, the more our energy can be channelled toward moving fast.

“Try to think about how it might feel being on pace or just ahead of it [in a race] while training,” Campbell says.”Think about what happens and what you’re going to tell yourself when you are nailing your game plan, so that when you suddenly find yourself there, it’s not a surprise, and you aren’t as nervous.”

adam campbell 2022 Squamish_2
Photo: Michael Overbeck

Recognize the stress you’re feeling, and disarm it

Campbell notes that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we aim for certain times or positions in a race. While this pressure can be positive, getting us training and propelling effort into pushing our limits, the same pressure can backfire and end up causing a blow-up in a race.

“To some degree, it’s a stress response, a form of self-protection from a perceived threat, in this case, self-imposed pressure,” says Campbell. Recognizing the stress and acknowledging why it is appearing can help disarm it.

Photo: Michael Overbeck

“I have even heard of people giving a name to the stress, like ‘John’ and when those ‘don’t mess up’ thoughts show up, you can thank John for appearing and trying to protect you, but also tell him that you don’t need his help right now and politely ask him to leave,” Campbell shares.

If that seems too abstract, Campbell suggests giving yourself specific tasks to focus on, from keeping your form dialled in or focusing on nutrition in long races, to help you stay present and negate some of that potential anxiety.

Practise emotional self-regulation in training

Campbell emphasizes self-talk and practising emotional regulation as essential components of training.

“I create stories and narratives for myself, visualizing different race scenarios during training sessions,” he adds. “This kinesthetic imagery, or visualization, can be used to help you establish positive responses to negative situations that may arise in races.”

Adam Campbell 2022
Photo: Michael Overbeck

Avoid self-sabotage–look at your patterns

“If you consistently find yourself making decisions mid-race, or even making decisions going into races, that self-sabotage your desired results, do an honest debrief about everything you did going into and during the race,” suggests Campbell.

“Analyze your behavior and recognize your patterns–name them. When you start to find yourself second-guessing what you are doing, have a conversation with the doubter in you and ask them to kindly move on.”

Adam Campbell Squamish_1
Photo: Michael Overbeck

Campbell points out that in a long race, if you find yourself in an extended bad patch or low point, slowing down to eat and reframe your mental state can make a world of difference. “It is amazing how much our emotional state can vary, just because we are underfuelled in those long efforts,” he says.

Revisit your goals

Campbell says we often don’t talk about the very important need to revisit our goals: “Are the factors you are focusing on something you can actually control or are they external factors?” He suggests keeping your focus on the process of executing the best race you can on the given day.

Adam Campbell_4 2022
Photo: Michael Overbeck

“If you have externalized your desired outcome, or have a comparison to others as a metric, you may have narrowed your definition of success so much that it is much harder to actually achieve the outcome you desire,” adds Campbell.

Stay tuned in to the things you have some direct control over (like your emotional state and using positive self-talk) and Campbell suggests you’ll be far more likely to finish proud of your race, regardless of the outcome.

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