Self-control is rated as one of the most important skills when it comes to training and racing at your best, say the experts.

Words: Evie Serventi

“Always remember, you are more important than the race.” These words have echoed in my mind for 10 years, since the day my running coach Tony yelled them out at the start of a race I had set my sights on. I had trained hard for that race, for months. I use the phrase as a mantra when I run.

Tony was an old-school coach who was more fixated with my training diary and heart rate training, than talking about new watches or new kit. He also believed “self-control” was a vital skill for any athlete, to train effectively and achieve targets on race day. Tony was right.

Currently, I’m not at peak fitness and I enter events to build my confidence and to use as a training run while I return from injury. This mantra keeps me focused on what’s important, and for me that is building a consistent running routine and enjoying the event. My mantra stops me from wasting energy worrying about how fast and fit other runners look, and it helps me think only of the things I can control.

Elite UK Masters athletes Mike Vassiliou and Nina Anderson agree. Both international track runners have many years of experience and maintain effective self-control strategies. “If you are a competitive athlete, you’ll more than likely have a fire in your belly to win, whether you are training or racing. And there’s often a little rivalry between you and your training partners – it’s natural, as you crave that feel-good factor of going fast, running a PB even in training. But you have to be very careful, as you can sabotage your goals by messing up your training,” warns Mike. “The critical factor in terms of your training, whether you are just starting out or a seasoned athlete, is to train optimally at the right level and pace. You have to be selective with the intensity you require, and this means not getting swept up by faster runners who happen to be doing the same session,” Mike adds.

Plan Your Goals

Research shows that those who train with faster or more experienced runners improve more than they would if they run on their own, but it’s a gradual, natural process and one that you can’t push, says Mike, otherwise you head towards injury. And this is where good self-control is key.

“Another reason it’s not wise to try to keep up with fitter or faster runners in your group during a speed session is that you can set yourself up for accumulative fatigue, and out of the blue, you’ve got a calf injury,” says Mike, who is also a sports-specific osteopath.

Thinking regularly about your goals and your weekly mileage and schedule (before bed, while commuting, whenever you can) will also help you develop self-control. To help her clients focus on their goal race and stick with their training schedules, coach Nina encourages clients to differentiate between what they can and can’t control which she says involves a deep level of commitment and understanding.

“When you are not in shape, or coming back from injury, or are just a long way from where you want to be, it’s really important that clients focus on understanding the process they need to follow to get to the next stage. “It’s like a stepping stone journey to achieving your outcome goals, and it comes from an understanding of what you need to do from a physiological perspective. The more knowledge my clients have about their physicality, or about their injury and how their body adapts and rehabilitates, the more logic they can apply to their training.

They stay motivated and focused, and by doing this, they are nurturing their self-control,” explains Nina. Nina spent years learning how to develop self-control by observing those around her. “I was at a championship race years ago and it was severely delayed. I just sat and watched the athletes react. Some spent so much energy looking at their fellow competitors, or expressing their frustration over the delayed start. But one athlete, sat back and looked very relaxed, with her eyes closed, focusing. She practiced incredible self-control which kept her calm and ready for when the race did start. Other athletes had lost their racing edge – for them, the race was over before it began.”

Learning Self-Control

Developing self-control is a learnt skill, concedes Nina, and you have to practice consistently to improve. So, take a few minutes at your next group run or at running club to observe those around you, or when you watch events, and talk to someone with experience to find out what they do to develop their self-control, says Mike.

“You have to remember you are the only one that matters during a training session or a race,” says Mike: “I’ve had to physically detach myself at training. When a training partner says ‘run with me’ I’ve learnt to say to say ‘no, you go first’. When he gets 50/100m ahead then I can focus on my rep, and on my pace. I know my weaknesses and I know my strengths: good self-control and the discipline to do what it takes to train optimally.”


First published in Running Magazine, April 2016.