Looking Good

by Warren Finke
I was at the 23 mile mark in the U.S. masters marathon championship. This is about the time in a marathon where you really feel sorry for yourself. One of my friends was watching me as I negotiated a gentle hill up the bike path nearing the outskirts of town and ultimately the finish. As I reached him he said: "Your stride is really choppy. Why don't you try lengthening it out and speeding up". At the time this seemed impossible. Epithets came to mind to hurl back at this person standing comfortably on the sidelines., but for some reason I tried it, and it worked. This was my first experience at just how powerful the mind/body connection can be.

In the 1985 Portland Marathon I was attempting to win the masters championship. At that time, the course was out and back along Willamette Boulevard on the east side of town. Masters had a different set of race numbers from other runners so you could scope out the competition at the turn around near the 17 mile mark. One of my old cross country coaches taught us that in this situation, no matter how bad you are hurting, if you are in the lead you should try to run with a little more spring and look as if you felt great when the competition went by. The theory was that this would totally demoralize them and they wouldn't try to catch you. I did this and it worked. But an interesting thing happened. Not only did I apparently demoralize the competition, I felt better myself and continued to run well all the way to the finish, winning the race and setting a new course record for masters.

As competitors, we have probably all had similar experiences. Why they happen and how to harness them is a topic of great interest to us all, especially those of us who are coaches.


In the early 1980's one of the secrets of the successful Soviet sports program was its use of psychological training. This resulted in a big push by western countries into the science of sports psychology. Now there are almost as many psychologists in Colorado Springs at the Olympic training center as coaches. A fundamental principle, which makes psychology valuable in sports, is the inability of the conscious mind to differentiate between real experiences and good visualizations. It is possible to motivate and enhance performance through visualization or suggestion. Visualization and suggestion can be used during all phases of training and competition. The reason that my performances were enhanced by trying or pretending to feel and look good was because I had convinced myself that I was much better off than I actually had previously perceived. Therefore I was able to perform better.


There are many excellent books on sports psychology and I recommend reading some of them. But real benefits will only come if you practice and experience things yourself. Here's are some things you can do on your training runs.
  • Get in touch. Leave your walkman and friends behind once in a while and run by yourself. Note the positive and negative thoughts that you have while you are running and what their effects are. See "The Dark Side" below for coping strategies for dealing with negative thoughts.
  • Remember yourself in a similar situation that turned out to be a positive experience. For example, if you are going up a hill, recall a run where you were just floating effortlessly up a hill. If you do this right you should experience a surge in energy.
  • When you pass a group of people on the street or runners coming the other way, try to "look good". You should find yourself feeling better and running better.
  • When things are REALLY bad - (e.g. caught in a driving rainstorm on your bike with no fenders miles from home), raise one fist in the air and shout "I love it!"

The Dark Side

Note that just as positive thoughts can enhance performance, negative thoughts or visualizations can destroy performance. It is important to find out what negative thoughts are floating around in your head and learn strategies for dealing with them. I categorize negative thoughts in these ways and make these suggestions for dealing with them:
  • Dumb - These are the random things that pop up that I compare to some of the dreams you have that make no sense. These can be dismissed as "dumb".
  • Can't do anything about - Interestingly enough, these are the things people are usually fretting over at the starting line. They include the weather, terrain, their state of training etc. If you can't do anything about it don't worry about it.
  • Unknown - Many negative thoughts are generated by imagining what could come out of the unknown. Try to eliminate unknowns and surprises. Be familiar with courses you race. Practice running in similar conditions. Avoid trying new things on race day. If an unknown pops up, remember that there is probably at least as good a chance that it will turn into something positive as something negative. Consider it an opportunity.
  • Challenges - These can't be dismissed as easily. They can either be viewed as barriers or challenges. Work on making them challenges.

Warren is a coach and co-founder of Team Oregon and the Portland Marathon Clinic.

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