Helping your competitor helps you

— By Emilie Whitson

The title of this article is a little click-baity, but you’re reading!  How many times has something small (or maybe something big!) gone wrong in a race, and you find yourself in a negative self-talk spiral into oblivion? Speaking from personal experience, sometimes mental game is our own worst enemy when racing.

By now, many of you may have read the recent articles and research showing that smiling while undergoing a hard physical task can actually lower our perception of effort. When we are racing, we are dealing with two factors: physiological and psychological. There is solid scientific evidence showing that periodic genuine smiling can improve both physiological and psychological performance while running. During the study, runners were 2.8% more economical to be exact. Runners who frowned actually became LESS economical!

So what does this have to do with helping our competitor? Just as smiling while undergoing an intense painful effort is actually a strategy to distract ourselves from the pain, encouraging or altruistic actions during a race can have the same effect.

We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of athletes putting their own race on hold to help another competitor, who end up winning a race. For instance at the 2018 Boston Marathon, winner Des Linden stayed back to pull struggling favourite Shalene Flanagan back to the lead pack and ended up winning the day. So, what is it about trying to save someone else’s race that can be so valuable to our own?

Theories suggest that perceiving and thinking about emotion involve perceptual, somatovisceral and motoric embodiment in oneself (Niedenthal). In plain English? Listening to yourself encouraging someone else can take you out of your own negativity and end up inspiring both of you.

How can you put this science into practice at your next tough MultiSport Canada race? My strategy — when I’m struggling, I pick out another athlete who looks like they are struggling too. If they’re walking, I’ll say “let’s run together!” or if we are on the bike, a few words of encouragement to each person you are near, can break you out of the dark cycle of thinking how terrible your own race is going.

Try it at your next race!