I often think about a statement that one of my college cross-country teammates used frequently. He would always say, “The good runner is always prepared”. While I knew this to hold certain truths, little did I know it would mean so much to me as a Sport Psychologist.  In all aspects of running, a plan of action is needed. Training, racing, traveling, eating all require some planning if you are to perform your best.

Few things go as we originally plan they will.  In training we may not be able to run a hard workout because we have not yet recovered from our last hard workout. We can’t get in that long run because we have to be at some appointment which limits our training time, or maybe we feel a minor injury which requires changing our training plan. Things like this happen no matter how well a training program is planned.

Racing presents still more obstacles to well laid plans.  Have you ever gone out too fast in a race due to the excitement of the moment? What about feeling real tired early in a race?  How about having to decide whether to stick with a competitor or hope they come back to you later in the race? Do these situations call for an alteration in race plan?

We do indeed have to change plans and strategies at precarious moments. Seldom, if ever will a plan go exactly right. It’s how we react to these changes which often determine how much stress we feel or what the actual outcome will be. If we can take steps to minimize the effects of changes in our plan before things get totally out of hand we are more likely to perform better and be less anxious and stressed in the process.

By waiting until any situation gets out of control and panic sets in, we may limit our ability to actually come up with effective solutions to the problem. So instead of having just one plan, which may lead to panic if it doesn’t work, try to come up with what I call an “arsenal of plans”. You may call it having a plan B, C, etc. The key with any plan which helps us deal with the unexpected is the ability to refocus our attention in an effective manner and not focus on the unexpected event.

When setting up a plan which helps us refocus, we must be sure to try and foresee what expected and unexpected circumstances may present themselves. Think about what has happened to you in races in the past. The side stitch, missed water stop, blister, or even just feeling rotten. Make a best guess estimate of things, of anything, which could possibly happen. You know the old, “what can go wrong, will go wrong” type of thing. Once the list has been developed then it’s time to get the plan in order.

Your plan should be include many possible scenarios. “If something happens I will do this, if this fails to work I will then do something else, such as…….”.  Practice your plan during training and time trials. Get in the habit of not letting unexpected things upset you.  Learn to switch plans and refocus your attention toward your next plan.

By having many plans we can better cope with unexpected events in our running. The next time something happens which leads to distracting thoughts and anxiety, just remind yourself to shift plans and refocus. Practice this refocusing and get in the habit of doing it. Focus on the task at hand and not the unexpected event which has just occurred. The unexpected event is in the past and there is nothing you now do about it now.

All of us do better when we can focus on things which are under our control. None of us can control the weather, competitors, or even the conditions of the course we run. However, we certainly can control how we think and how we deal with the unexpected. Remember that you are your own person and you should focus on YOUR plans, strategies and performance.

By having many different plans and anticipating the unexpected you will feel more confident. Dr. Rick McGuire, the Head Track Coach and Sport Psychologist at the University of Missouri was one of the coaches for the 1992 Olympic Track and Field Team. He would always remind his athletes to, “expect the unexpected”. Now that’s good advice indeed for any runner. So always remember that should something go wrong, don’t panic. You’re prepared to deal with the anything!

Dr. Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness and Sports Science Department at Averett University and is an AASP Certified Sport Psychology Consultant.  He may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


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